Saturday, 3 September 2011

Zorba the climber

When I was young the books I read went to my head like a drug, throwing my life off course like a sparrow tossed in a hurricane.

On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Slate: A Climber’s Guide all had a profound, although not always long-lasting, effect on my malleable juvenile mind.

I remember reading Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and throwing all my possessions into a suitcase in the middle of the night. I don’t know where I was planning on going, but my girlfriend waylaid me and I ended up in a mad flight from the Czech Republic a couple of months later after receiving my last wages in cash, before I could be fined for vomiting down a concrete tower block and after the agency found Dave’s cannabis plants which I think is all something Jack would have approved of.

The funny thing is, Kerouac seems almost unreadable to me now. My literary tastes have become as staid and sedentary as my lifestyle, perhaps as a defensive mechanism to avoid that kind of madness.

But one book I read then has been coming back to haunt me recently, and that’s Zorba the Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis’ great creation didn’t particularly throw me off track back when I read it, but it was one of those books that was passed around my climbing set at the time and well regarded. Perhaps that’s because Zorba’s style fits what climbers aspire to, living life hard and in the moment, with full commitment to whatever task is in hand.

The eponymous hero is getting a bit long in tooth, and although he has accumulated nothing materially he is rich in experiences and retains all his vigour and lust for life. Maybe Zorba is Kerouac for the more mature gentleman, because I recall a friend gave his dad a copy and then worried that it seemed to have brought on a mid-life crisis.

I think I’m due to read Zorba again, because the other weekend at Limekilns I pottered about like an old codger, doing routes too far within my limits. I hadn’t climbed for a while so a warm up through the grades was excusable, but once it was evident I was on form and the venue suited me, it was time to pull out the stops and get on something that scared me. Instead, I opted for the rock climbing equivalent of a drive in the countryside with a stop at the National Trust tearooms.

After I cruised the excellent Elgin Crack, E2 5c, I should really have manned up and got on an E4, but instead I hedged my bets on the appropriately named Going Through the Motions, tough but safe at E3 6a. I didn’t regret doing it at the time because it was a tremendously enjoyable lead, but neither did I walk back into the office on Monday feeling 12 feet tall, with a buzz inside that could carry my soul through the duller parts of the day and fuel the build up of passion that might have spurred me onto greater things the following weekend.

Instead, it was a slightly cautious business journalist within me that decided it was best to top rope Duncrankin at Roslin, and to be fair, he had a good argument. Looking at the 15 feet of vertical wall that made up the meat of the route, it was obviously going to be tricky for E4 6a, no gear was visible, and who knew if a few crucial holds weren’t hidden under the lichen.

As I popped for the finger-edge to nail the crux, I was convinced I’d made the right decision. The gear would have been below my feet, the fall would have involved bouncing off a big sloping ledge, and the move had felt like 6b. But the victory was hollow. Here was a grotty little crag of filthy sandstone, which we’d hacked through near vertical mud and undergrowth to get to, and through the miracle of British trad it had offered an experience on a par with the finest cliffs in Europe. On lead, committing to that slap would have marked itself indelibly into my being, whether I hung the hold or not. As it was, I didn’t even fancy the headpoint.

Of course, it can be quite an art to pick something that’s hard enough to be a real challenge without ending up looking like the kind of idiot who gets on a route he lacks the ability to climb. Chances are if I’d tried to lead Duncrankin I would have gone up and down from the gear like a yo-yo before finally lowering off. Chances are it’s the mother of all sandbags and well worth E5. That’s why it’s so hard to be Zorba, and most of us end up being one of those new men the lad-lit set write about who cry over their mortgage payments and think having a kid is an adventure.


  1. Zorba is a very important book for me. But You killed me with your last comment " think having a kid is an adventure." This is so like me today...

    1. On reflection, I think a child is probably a cracking, committing, very long, full on adventure.
      And I daren't even re-read this post because I know my life is very much "Diary of a Nobody" at the moment.
      Thanks for reading and posting, by the way. Dom