Common Ground

By Niall Grimes. Niall is from Derry and now lives in Sheffield he works as the Guidebook Co-ordinator for the BMC (British Mountaineering Council).

One day I got to know someone I’ve never met.

This quarry’s too dark. I call goodbye to my busy friends and scramble out onto the moor above. The flat wide world opened warmly all around me and I felt the vibrant elements blur my edges. Escape. I saw some boulders in the windy distance; ancient and forgotten, like a little clump of toppled Greek columns, and decided to explore. I got there and it looked promising so changed into my boots, and made for the first obvious problem. A lovely problem it was, a slopey bulge, slightly dynamic, it really only called for touching the holds rather than pulling. I enjoyed that. I was a little surprised to find that the holds I used had some chalk already on them, for I didn’t think people came here much. Scramblimg down, I saw a little arete which cried out to be moved over. Beautiful, and again, chalky hands had been there before me. I spent a while, wandering from one problem to the next one that caught my eye, and almost always, found chalk on holds. Not much, I suspected it was only one person, but mainly in the same spots as mine; heavy at the starts of problems or on the cruxes, then on the easier bits reduced to a pale outline or to none at all.

The tallest piece of rock on the crag was a twenty foot arete above a bit of a drop, which I went to examine. Chalked, of course. It was climbed by delicate barny laybacking on its right hand side. Half way up I had to start groping round left, to where I knew there was a crack, but couldn’t latch it. Down a bit, up and try again. And again, never seeming to reach anything. I eventually skedaddled back to the ground to have a look. I saw by my chalk dabs that I was still a good few inches shy of the crack. I tried again, but still felt no closer. I felt commitment lacking, but some days it doesn’t seem so important. Back on the ground I had one last look to see if I had missed something. No, there was nothing, but I did notice something which cheered me greatly. The chalkmarks I had been following, heavy on the lower section, had stopped. There were none any further than I had been. I chuckled to think of him earlier groping around the arete, wishing like I had done, that a nice solid sidepull would come to hand. I imagined him scurrying up and down a few times, eventually moving on. There’s probably a greater bonding in a shared failure than a shared success.

I started to get a sense of communion with my predecessor. Where he had gone, I had gone, not because I had followed his trails, but because something in me had led me in the same directions. We would both be attracted by the same features, find the hard bits in the same places. I was about to give up on one problem as too hard until I saw chalk marks over the top. They came as welcome encouragement and told me I could, and so next time I did. Thanks mate.

I sat on the top and got to thinking about the sense of communion I had just had with this stranger. From what I had found, he seemed to have the same strengths and weaknesses as me, the same taste. I imagined him also being down in the quarry, bored of all the belaying, then escaping to these insignificant little rocks. I tried to picture him, wonder what he would be like to talk to. I wondered if we would have the same taste in TV or music or in girls, then caught myself making assumptions, that maybe it was a girl all along, and wondered if we would fancy each other.

A yell broke my reverie. I looked up. My friends were at the top of the crag now, and beckoned me back to them. I waved in recognition. At the spot where I changed back to my shoes, I took a last look round at the problems I had spent the last while on. At the comingling of chalks, a union of efforts and success. Maybe I can’t really say I got to know someone, maybe it was more like peeking at someone through a window. But as I tied my laces and headed back towards my companions, I knew the happiness inside me was the one that came from sharing.