I’ve been questioning my choices. Can I justify the risks I take? Can I be so selfish? There are times when the choices I make are not choices to be taken lightly.
Life is a short experience. Far too short for some. The ones who shouldn’t die young often do.
It feels as if the bottom of my stomach has dropped and has hit the floor. My heart is beating so hard and so fast I can hear it, as if it has burst through my chest. I’m only driving – slowly at that – not ready to climb yet, not even sure if today was the day. My body feels like I’m on the run-out already and not in the security of my car. Driving slowly down Langdale with the tourists. They stop to take pictures of the view and the wooley little Herdwick sheep.
I’d been in this position before. Same feeling. No stomach, heart beating like a birds. Quick, fluttering. Wez, my partner, and I first kissed at a party. My heart pounded in my chest but from desire and not just fear.
She was always full of smiles people wrote. They offered condolences to her husband and family, always the same message, a message of love and smiles.
Wez and I had gone up before with the intention that today was the day. Set a top rope up and both pulled on once. Both knew that it was too cold, too windy. The crimps felt smaller than before. Hands turned blue. A day spent psyching up only to be thwarted by the cold and the high winds.
There had been something more, the headspace wasn’t right. I was grateful for the excuse of the cold. We went home and talked about the future. I cried a lot that night. From fear and from hope and frustration.
“We’ve either got to commit or bail” Wez said.
Appreciate life; what you have and who you have, because the future can take it all away from you anytime. It was the last thing she ever posted.
Wez and I had been friends a long time but grew close last year. The turning point came when I fell off a hard route at Reecastle and he caught me after the gear ripped through. From that point on I admitted I was smitten. It took many months before we committed. Months of driving out to meet up and climb. With my stomach dropping away and heart beating hard.
Jen and I met when we were both living Kendal, part of a large collective of bikers, climbers and runners. Jen and I bouldered, went to the comedy festival and rode bikes together. Rolling down country lanes on our road bikes, laughing and joking in the sunshine.
The route in Langdale has become to mean a lot to Wez and I, a barometer of our relationship. Neither of us can try it without the other. It has to be a team ascent or not at all. We commit together or bail together.
I stand on the ledge. Hands on my neck, trying to warm my fingers. The wind has picked up again. I’ve just belayed Wez on his first lead attempt. He fell on a hard press to a weird crimpy pocket. The lower pegs held him and it has given me some confidence. We pull the ropes.
The last time I saw Jen we walked our dogs together. It was sunny and beautiful and we met by the castle in Kendal. It was a year ago this month. Jen and her partner Matt had bought a house together and she was telling me how far they had come making it into their home. The cancer, she said, was in remission. She told me she hoped to get five years.
The route follows another for five or so meters and then follows a grove up a slab, through a steepening wall and then blasts through a roof. The crag stands proudly in the valley and the route we are trying can be seen from afar. The crag is above a pub and we are watched by people from there. Chatter floats up from the drinkers and from the other climbers on the crag. It seemed weird to be trying something so serious with people all around you who had no idea what you are doing. They continue with their day, be it refreshing with a pit stop after their walks, or trying the climbs around us. Even friends who are working, leading their clients around safely, wave up to us on our ledge.
The route, protected mostly by pegs, has one less this day. Our friend Sam pulled one out of the hollow block earlier this year. The route has a checkered history. Dave Birkett, the first ascensionist, put a bolt in, something not done on Lakes Rock. It’s chopped now but the remnant is still there. He told Wez on the phone one night he placed it using PVA glue so it probably wouldn’t have held a fall, and was more a teenage two fingered salute to the climbers who went before Dave and treated him with contempt, than a meaningful attempt to protect the route.
There were two pegs which protected the crux, one now gone because of Sam. Dave placed those 20 years before. The first went it well he says, the second made the block crack, move and become hollow sounding. Dave trusted neither, especially not the second peg. We do not know which one has ripped.
Matt isn’t racing his mountain bike anymore. He’s with Jen as much as he can be as many hospital appointments he can make. He proposed on a trip to London. They marry soon after, in December. It snows overnight and they marry in a village surrounded by fells and with the snow on the ground. The pictures of Jen show her smiling, as always, but broader than ever before.
I wait for a ‘second’ to finish the HVS we start up. I hug Wez goodbye. He holds me very tight and when we part his eyes are heavy. He wishes me fun but there is no fun in his voice.
I stumble across the ‘easy’ part of the route. I clip the rope into the gear and take a minute to breathe and relax. Each time before, I would pull into the groove climbing it differently. This time is no different, but it’s with more confidence. I know my feet won’t pop. I try. Very hard. I’m not normally confident or brave. It often takes a huge amount of effort for me to do things out of my comfort zone. But here, on this stage and on the hardest most dangerous route I’ve lead, I find a depth and a bravery I haven’t ever found before. My heart has slowed. I’ve regained my stomach from the floor. I know, having pulled into the grove I’ve committed. I cannot bail now.
The posts from Jen on Facebook are account of her struggles. The fluid on her lungs, the trips to hospital and the need to manage and control her pain levels. Each post has a humour and a grace which is a stark contrast of the serious situation but is a clear measure of Jen’s guts and guile. She is too sick for us to meet up now. We keep in touch through messages and virtual hugs. Every day I admire her bravery.
I power scream through the move to the pocket, the move I watched Wez fall from. I stab my right foot up on a hold by my hand, and find myself holding the jug on the hollow block before the crux. My fingers are so cold the tips are numb. I rest on the jug, alternating warming my fingers and shaking out. I clip the peg. My beta leads me away from the next piece of gear. Falling now, as I pull over the roof, would pull the gear out from the hollow block. I’d fall to Wez on the ledge at least, if not further. I fight like I’ve not fought before.
At the top I scream with joy. It’s a guttural and animalistic scream. A friend who’s been guiding a client up a nearby HVS congratulates me, I hear genuine joy and respect in his voice.
As I lower down to Wez other couples from the crag yell their congratulations. I blush, embarrassed by the scene I’ve created. The route means a lot to me. There is a picture of Dave on the route during his first ascent on the cover of my guide book. Years of wanting to be good enough finally I am. I’ve never wanted to climb a route as much as I wanted that one.
Wez and I pull the ropes again. His lead goes smoothly and without fault. Back on the ledge we hug again. The twinkle is back in his eye. We’ve done it as a team.
There has been silence from Jen for a few weeks and I have a feeling that something is not right. A friend encourages me to email mutual friends, instead I google her name. The local paper says she died on the 5th of June, peacefully in a hospice. I send condolences to Matt. He and Jen were meant to be, they had strength and were bound by love. He writes on her Facebook a few days later that she couldn’t fight any longer.
People reply with messages of love.
A few days later, a year after he caught me, Wez and I are back at Reecastle. We have a new project to try as a team. It’s physically hard and brutal to climb but beautiful.
It’s called Remission