The Climber

The climber pressed back against the cliff wall and closed his eyes. His breath came in ragged gasps. He twisted his head against the rough stone and sat perfectly still, as if carved from the basalt, stranded on a narrow ledge half way up the face of Erin Mor. Far below him the sea boiled against the base of the gigantic upthrust of volcanic rock. Toward the horizon storm clouds piled ominously, darkening the white-capped waves. A cold wind remorselessly swept the bare cliff.

Above the sound of his frantically beating heart he could hear the surf, a low booming background to the cries of the seabirds. Occasionally the hoarse bark of seals rose faintly from the rocks below. He kept his eyes tightly closed, fighting vertigo, shutting out the heart-wrenching sight of the sheer drop to the rocks below.

The narrow ledge gave scant security from the terrifying reaches of empty space that pressed in around him. He fought panic that threatened to pitch him headlong from his tenuous perch, the same panic that had overwhelmed him with nerve shattering suddenness in mid-climb, freezing him against the rock face, breathless with fear. For what seemed like hours he clung to the bare stretch of cliff, sobbing, his fingers clawing into tiny crevices. The tighter he clung the more he seemed to push himself away from the face and out into space.

Through the maelstrom of fear he remembered seeing the ledge, a small indentation above him and to the right. It took an effort of supreme willpower to inch his way, limpet-like, across the fearful space. Now he perched on the sloping ledge, pressing back against the unyielding rock, trying to merge with the cliff. The freshening wind whipped and pulled at his clothes with increasing force.

A flutter of wings in the turbulent air close to his face forced him to open his eyes. A gray and white seabird hovered above his head, wings beating furiously, screeching at him with fury. A bristling flight of rage and indignation, it hung suspended in the air before slipping away in a falling glide. The climber watched its stiff-winged flight, puzzled at the bird’s attack. Then he saw the nest further along the ledge, a new pile of pasted mud and twigs among the debris of previous years’ derelict mounds. It contained a single brown speckled egg.

The seabird rose effortlessly, soaring on trembling outstretched wings to within reach of the climber. Again it shrieked at the intruder, venting outrage at this trespass on what had being an inviolable sanctuary.

“Get out of here,” he yelled, waving his arm. “Go on, get away!”

The bird dipped one wing and fell once more, plummeting downward, picking up speed in closed-wing flight before swooping away from the cliff to rise out over the sea, demonstrating mastery of the air.

Vertigo again slammed the climber back against the cliff as his eyes followed the bird’s graceful flight. He felt himself slipping into the void as the world dissolved into a kaleidoscope of sea, sky and fear. He cried out, pressing against the wall, trying to block the sensation that threatened to plunge him into space.

He almost passed out; sudden death seemed only an instant away.

He had first seen the cliff on his honeymoon, many years before. The small grey stone hotel provided a fine view from its terraced garden of the spectacular line of cliffs for which this region was famous. One angular projection in particular dominated the landscape, the towering mass of Erin Mor. A cliff of gigantic proportions, rising sheer from the sea, it was justly infamous for the difficulty of its climbing face. More than a few climbers had plunged from its treacherous heights to the rocks below, a fall that invariably proved fatal. It had been conquered by teams of climbers roped together, but never by an individual.

Standing in the civilized garden, he responded to the almost palpable challenge it represented. He set about organising an assault. The local climbing club was accustomed to accommodating visitor’s requests and before long he was deep in negotiations with experienced climbers who all maintained it could be done but advised against a single attempt.

Perhaps he should have more involved Susan, his wife of barely two weeks, in his plans, but she had never been enthusiastic about his passion for climbing. However, he was unprepared for her angry reaction when he eventually broached the subject.

They were in the sitting room during afternoon tea when he produced a series of photographs of the cliff face. On learning of his plans, she began to berate him loudly, ignoring the other guests. To his astonishment, she delivered an ultimatum; either he gave up his notion of climbing the cliff or she was taking the first train back to the city. She had put up with his reckless behaviour long enough but now he was a married man he should stop being so selfish. The tirade changed to weepy pleadings, in which all the other embarrassed occupants of the room were involved. Finally she ran sobbing from the room.

Perplexed by her anguish he abandoned the attempt on Erin Mor.

That was five years ago and the intervening years proved their marriage was a mistake. Their life together degenerated into a continuous round of fighting and argument. It reached a conclusion in a long and acrimonious divorce battle where they publicly squabbled in court over the remains of their marriage. As soon as the case was finished he left the city, driving aimlessly to escape the bitterness that had poisoned his whole life. Without conscious intent he returned to the resort on the coast, pursued by the possibility that he would never recover from the wounds inflicted by his marriage. When he saw the cliff again he knew why he had returned. Erin Mor represented a crossroads, a turning point where his life had started to go wrong.

He had to make the climb … only this time he meant to climb alone.

Gradually the fear began to drain from him and he cautiously relaxed against the cliff. He opened his eyes, staring out into space, breathing deeply. The pounding of his heart abated and he became aware he was not alone on the windswept ledge. He turned his head and stared into the bright-eyed, piercing gaze of the seabird standing on the narrow crumbling shelf. It regarded him with quick, jerky movements of its head, first from one side then the other, its glassy stare revealing neither hostility, sympathy nor recognition. He raised his arm, shooing it. It spread it wings and screeched at him but didn’t move from the ledge.

“Go to hell,” he muttered, turning away in disgust.

He stared out to sea at the gathering storm clouds, wondering at the certainty with which he knew that if he ventured out on the cliff face again he would fall to his death. The first drops of rain came in the freshening wind. The rain, when it came would make a desperate situation even more dangerous. Once the cliff became wet the remainder of the climb would be just that more perilous.

Looking up, he scanned the cliff face above, noting the foot and handholds that would be sufficient if he could hammer some pins and sling a rope. Leaning out he surveyed the way he had come, a hard slogging climb to reach the ledge, halfway up the cliff. Nothing had changed, neither the cliff nor the climb. What had changed was the man. The climb had brought on a crisis of nerve and he knew that unless he resolved it any attempt to resume the climb, either up or down, would be tantamount to suicide.

The seabird screamed at him with renewed fury, now dancing with rage, its feathers raised in defiance.

He felt weak and exhausted, stripped of layers of personality and reserve. From an obscure source he was confronted by demands never acknowledged before. The cavern of his unconscious had opened with imperious force and was demanding the whole of his life.

The wind gusted stronger, flinging a scatter of rain against his face. Below, the waves piled higher, the sea an ominous grey under the menace of the scudding black clouds. A line of surf ermined the base of the cliff, startling white against the dark angry sea. The approaching stormed charged the air with electric tension.

Again the seabird screamed, as if impatient of his imminent departure and death. It advanced threateningly along the ledge, wings half open, neck curved in anger. With fierce disdain it screeched at his motionless figure. He stared back at it without emotion. The orange irises surrounding the blackness of its eye seemed to flare at his delay in sacrificing himself. He recognised no sign of intelligence in the beady eyes.

Suddenly he lunged at the bird, twisting his body on the narrow ledge, his hands clawing at the winged plumage, seeking a grip on the flapping wings. The bird was instantly transformed into a tumult of frenzied insanity, slashing desperately with its beak and claws at his hand. The climber beat at it furiously, attempting to pinion its wings, fighting to keep his precarious balance.

The bird’s screeching pierced the air with outrage as they battled. The climber tried to protect his face from the tearing claws. He fought blindly, groping with his free hand through the turmoil of feathered savagery to grip the neck of the straining bird. The bird redoubled its frantic efforts to escape, its huge wings bludgeoning the man’s arms and head.

With a sudden twist of his hand the climber killed, swiftly and deadly, snapping the neck of the bird with one savage movement.

The body jerked for a while with convulsive movements but it was dead. Finally it hung limp in his hands, its wings bloodied and torn. He stared at it mutely, uncomprehendingly, holding it at arm’s length. With a sense of utter finality he flung the carcass from him and watched it tumble through the void to the rocks below.

The storm seemed as if it would clear, after all. The rain had stopped and sunlight broke through the cloud ridges out to sea. He wiped some of the blood from his hands and prepared to resume the climb.

Back to The Climber homepage