Unfortunately there wasn’t even the whirlpool of disorienting space with its far away depth urging me with its sneering insincerity to let go and fall, to flail my arms pointlessly, to plummet through my own terror until either my heart’s beat failed to keep pace with my brain’s needs or to come a poor second in the battle of the fragility of blood, skin and bone versus the permanently unyielding might of granite, sandstone and the daggers of storm hewn trunks and branches.
I looked up, down, left and right………in the language of the indigenous Sotho……… ‘Rilithithithi’……. ‘less than nothing‘…….. ‘darker than darkness’……. a suddenly impenetrable mass of rain filled, cold strangling cloud.
All I could feel was the icy impact of searing rain, all I could touch was the numbing poultice of wet mud and rocks, and all I could hope for was that the next step, the next ledge, the next painful wrench of another yard would yield somewhere, anywhere to give me a moment’s respite from deluge, wind and my hopelessly inbred dread of height.
It was October 7th 2009, and I was clinging to the vertical surface of a creviced mountainside approximately 3000 feet nearer to God’s realm than man in the normal course of events really should be. I was more than clinging, I was attempting to become a chameleon of the rock, not just in appearance but in substance, hugging physically and mentally to the surface, the texture and the contours; but I knew that I couldn’t stay where I was; I couldn’t bear even the thought never mind an attempt at a descent. So outrageous as it may seem (and believe me even I argued with myself and the screamed at the storm gods against the suggestion), I had only one option – I had to go onwards and upwards; I had to complete the next 300 feet or so to scale the height of this mountain, a partner to the more famous Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town, and once again face up to the curse of acrophobia laid on me by some prince of darkness.
On the climb this far I had heard the voice of fear and doubt whispering in my ear, “look down, look down, see how high it is, you feel dizzy, you might fall, you will fall, give up!”. By now the fear had approached a shivering, immobilising, barely controlled panic, and the voice was a gale spiralling and buffeting round the crags of both doubt’s choosing and even worse, fear’s name.
But fear and doubt were the least of my concerns for this was “Devil’s Peak” and in the depths of my stomach my senses wrestled to find a gap in the assault of that fallen angel’s elements upon my determination.
And then as so often when despair shouted hopelessness, my adrenalin took over, my endorphins kicked in and somewhere someone smiled, winked and whispered ‘go on’.
I squiggled my feet secure in the rock holds and placed my right hand firmly in the grip of the sandstone and granite. My left arm stretched, my body trembling but this time through effort and with the cold, soaking and bone aching fatigue of someone who has just taken on about three hundred per-cent more than he should have and now faced the final insult. But that final insult at least wouldn’t be succumbing to the siren voice of fear; it would simply be the failure of having to accept that nature with even the merest of inconsequential whims was stronger than the ego and puny strength of any man’s arrogance.
I knew SHE was going to win (It’s always a SHE and SHE always does in the end); but my stubbornness hadn’t been totally drained and so I knew that SHE was going to have to make an effort to wi. There would be no resigned capitulation before I had exhausted whatever reserves of energy still existed. I just had to balance them across the priorities of keeping my life support systems working, breathing and moving on inch by painful inch.
I turned my face away from the tearing elements, took a deep breath and with my left hand in its new hold, I heaved my body upwards. My grip was solid…..for a moment….and then I felt a sudden sinking and wetness as the niche turned from sandstone to mud. The wind blew a final victorious blast, laughed in my face and mocked me.
The dyke above my head burst and the wetness turned to a sudden rush of a dam’s release showering me with rocks, mud, and enough water to solve the drought in the Kalahari. I tried to press myself against the side of the rocks but my hands, feet and possibly my will all gave way at the same time and I flew backwards spluttering and swallowing the cataract, plunging into the mountain’s halo of mist and mystery towards……..somewhere!
Many decades earlier.
The wind howled like a siren tempting another lost ship onto the rocks of doom. The rain intermingling with bursts of hail strafing the windows, tried its violent utmost to breach the steel and glass lattice that protected the single bedroom of the five year old fast asleep in the safety of his pillow and dreams. Basically it was a typical, fresh, wee sma’ hours of a Coatbridge January; sadly all too typical, and ever more disturbing for the other four occupants of the room standing around the boy and where he lay.
His father, mother and elder sisters watched, while as if in a fit of uncontrolled muscle spasms, the boy tossed, turned, shadow boxed and kicked out at unseen ghouls, screaming and shouting in a desperate attempt to exorcise his demons.
They were resigned by now if not accustomed to the interrupted nights and disconnected days which followed. They had only once tried to waken him from whatever world he was in, but the almost catatonic reaction from the youngster had removed that as an option. After an hour or so the outrage being enacted on the single bed eased and the screaming softened to an occasional moderated plea and a whimper, eventually steadying to an uneven breath and moan.
Only his dad remained, sitting now in the little bed-side chair, having urged the girls to return to their room and ‘mammy’ to go and ease the weight of the advanced bump soon to produce another daughter and sister for the family.
The boy didn’t know the agonies that everyone else was going through but he did know that something was far wrong. The atmosphere the day after one of those nights was never the best, not bad, just not the normal liveliness of a child’s interaction with his family. Everyone else seemed so tired and the whole world seemed on edge.
Sometimes nothing would happen for months, sometimes only days but it would never disappear completely and another five years later, a brother on the way this time and the ‘terrors’ as he later found out they were called continued, irregularly perhaps, but unabated in impact and ferocity.
They were never really discussed; how can you legislate for a nightmare? After all this was the West of Scotland, the land where men didn’t have feelings, emotions or tears, and in the unlikely event that they even admitted it to themselves, the possibility was immediately condemned and mocked as a passing phase.
The boy wouldn’t have told them anyway. After all it wasn’t just the dreams; it was the reality of an imagination that had him falling from great heights, bellowing strangled screams, sharpened tree stumps getting ever closer, shifting position to prevent his pointless manoeuvres to evade their pointed intent, then just as the inevitable fate pierced his eyes the whole mad movie would start over again, this time a thousand moving stalagmites beckoning him ever closer.
The following day would be even worse as the fallout hit his life. ‘Good mornings’ sounded like accusations, simple questions like interrogations, every breath like a gasp for life, every sound, every movement and every touch like a threat, an attack or an assault.
He learned quickly to control it. He knew the dreams were the trigger; but then outside the mirage of sleep it started! Heights would bring it on, not just standing somewhere high, but seeing it either in reality or even in a film or on television. The world would become a bad place to be. Year after year it continued, and so as anyone who suffered from the affliction of acrophobia, NOT vertigo, but terrifying acrophobia, he took what he considered the only sensible action.
He took up parachute jumping, scaled the outside of multi-story flats, attempted (fruitless due to gendarme intervention) a mission to ascend the outside of the Eiffel Tower, walked over the struts and cantilevers of bridges spanning many of the world’s great rivers, gorges and valleys, bungee jumped from mountains towards rivers flowing hundreds of feet below, and in one particular episode at a place called Port Samson on the West Coast of Australia he found himself on a crumbling path no more than a foot from the edge of a 200 feet sheer drop onto the rocks and swirling foam of the ocean below.
He didn’t know how he had got there but the cuts and scars from the barbed grass and lethal flint shards stung as a clue; worse, he didn’t know how he was going to get down.
As he got to his feet the wind changed direction and with a few more knots to its power, that return journey would have been solved for him. But there were compensations. The view and vista of sea roar, wind song, and the sudden enveloping silence of mankind for just a few moments made it the only place on earth where he wanted to be and with a will and foolhardiness that he didn’t know even he had, he stood on that foot wide ledge, stared first out to the distant blue horizon and then at the breakers below, stretched out his arms inviting the up draught to do its worst, closed his eyes and felt what it was like to be truly free!
The height did not faze him!
The height did not faze me!
Now though I hope that the above adds a wee bit of foliage to the wasteland of simply admitting to ‘acrophobia’, it also begs the question that if I no longer had the phobia, the challenge to be overcome, the fiend in my mind’s ear, why was I mucking around with extremophile plants and creatures with the added advantage of wings, at altitudes where re-entry from space rather than descent would have been more appropriate to return to ground zero?
Well, I suppose that there always remains the ex-smoker’s nagging doubt that a relapse is possible but on that day the real reason why I was half way up Devil’s Peak has to be put down to Bill Mitchell.
Everyone needs a Bill Mitchell.
We met in the car park of the Rhodes monument as I stared up at the peak disappearing into the wispy low clouds of an intermittently sunny day. He introduced himself in the friendly manner that on my travels I had become accustomed to.
“That looks like a Celtic shirt. Thank god you’re not one of them” he smiled!
He then introduced himself as Bill Mitchell, Cape Town born and bred, but of solid Orkney stock who had recently found himself at the top of Ben Nevis, admittedly by cable-car.
He looked at me and sensing what I was about to try, he told me straight.
“The wind we normally get here is a warm south easterly and that is where our magic climate comes from. Tomorrow and for the next few days it is turning to a northerly blast that not only brings colder and wetter weather, but also the low dark cloud that foretells disaster for the idiotic who still try and climb the Devil’s Peak.”
The mountain loomed over the initially gentle rise that took those ‘idiots’ of Bill’s warning, up towards the cloud enshrouded summit that seemed to call a raucous ‘come on and get me’ as it overlooked the city.
The car park attendant, his name ‘Moses’ as I was later to discover wandered over, the rain just starting to pepper the air, ground and conversation.
“You wanta climb up there? Ok man, but not today. Try tomorrow and follow the winding trail. Take you a while maybe two hours but when you get there man, what a view of Kaap Tu,”. That’s Cape Town in the vernacular.
Bill Mitchell, pulled me aside and simply said, “if you can’t see the top, don’t even bother starting out.”
Oddly for me, I listened and followed the advice.
As the following day dawned I stood in the car park again and looked up dolefully at the shroud that swaddled the hidden peaks of the mountains. The sky was broken and at the level I was at there was a fair amount of sunshine, deceptively encouraging me to ignore the warnings and go for it. It wasn’t the height this time, but the cloud and the warnings that loomed as large as the peak itself.
I had been warned of all sorts of dangers in Johannesburg, Durban and now Cape Town, and had ignored them as the usual ravings of locals who were too familiar with and focussed on their problems not to see just how infrequently incidents actually occurred.
Unfortunately it was my judgement that had gone awry and skin of the teeth brushes with a couple of cocked rifles had stemmed my forays into the night life of the City centres. So this time I decided to heed the advice and turned back towards the car park exit.
Who should suddenly emerge from his little soldier hut than Moses.
“Hey Mr, you came back to do the climb today?”
I voiced my concern; well Bill’s concern.
“Stick to the trail man, and you’ll be fine.”
At first I remembered Bill’s advice and refused to buckle, but then I remembered it again. It was just too sensible and it wasn’t the peak that became the challenge, it was the warning not to go for it!
Mind you Moses’ smiling confidence definitely helped. (Never trust a smiling assassin!)
So once again I started towards the ascending rough terrain.
Moses called after me, sounding faintly like a final goodnight and goodbye……. “May your God go with you”!
He might as well have cackled and rubbed his hands with devious glee! Nuances and intuition never were my strong point..
Moses’ had been quite clear, “take the rough path over two walkways and then take a left at the third walkway and follow it all the way round and round and round to the summit”.
I reached the third walkway and since I had already ignored Bill’s guidance I decided that I may as well ignore Moses’ advice and head through the low shrub and rain soaked mud coated basalt towards the hand over fist, foot over sense climb up the perpendicular face of the Devil’s peak.
I mean who in their right mind wants to simply walk up a winding trail to a vantage point, no matter how beautiful. The scenic route may very well have been aesthetically delightful, but the weather was coming in faster than a rip tide and the hike would take about 2 hours, whereas the summit lay a tantalising five-hundred feet from where I stood; surely no more than an hour and a half of exhilarating exertion.
It had been a good if challenging foray so far, the wind changing direction, rain then dry, sun then cloud, cold followed by a life affirming gust of warm air. My moods had alternated with the elements. Confidence, pleasure, pain, enthusiasm, doubt and ultimate certainty.
But now I was in the final straight. Each three steps forwards were followed by a slip backwards, each three yards of clear gentle gradient led to two yards of lacerating vertical shrubbery.
Memories of Ben Lomond came back! But then, foolhardy and without any sense of what I was taking on, I had strayed from the signposted rising trail to the mountaineers’ ascent where ropes, clothing and years of experience were the basis of not only success but survival. I had been wearing a Celtic training jacket, Celtic trainers, Celtic track suit bottoms and carrying a mobile phone….. with a flat battery.
I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
This time the battery was fully charged….. Sadly there was no signal!
But old Devil’s Peak wasn’t as high as a Munro was it? Well it was and is. At almost exactly 1000m it passes the 3000 ft qualifying height by nearly 300 ft.
The wildlife, flying, crawling, scampering or just salivating, camouflaged themselves and with each chirp, whistle, growl or threatening silence they sniggered at my prospects. The previously beautiful multi-coloured songsters became brooding mocking vultures.
“Here’s another one” they cackled “Look at him. He’s finished. He should feed us for a year. Ha ha hah!!!”
The doubts over my conquest of acrophobia came back with a ripping vengeance. The wind started shouting at me, the rustle of the bushes came at me from all directions whip-lashing my neck as I searched for the unseen and probably non-existent threat that lurked in my mind.
But what was as real as the rain was the mud on my hands, the numbness in my fingers, the pain in my knees and ankles, the tiredness in my spirit and the sudden prospect of the darkness of the cold cloud descending as I ascended and the inevitable conjunction of sightless eyes with impenetrable greyness.
I looked back down past my aches and pains to the incomprehensible sight of Cape Town spotlighted in a sun break in the far away clouds and then it was gone, the route back was gone, and all that was left was silence, cold, the return of fear and the ingrained memory of how I had never given in to it before.
A chimney through the rock appeared in front of me and as I clambered knees and back wedged in its narrowness to its exit, a wind cleared the clouds for a second and the sharp deliverance of trunks, branches and stalagmites called to me from the valley below. The cloud cover came back and I looked heavenwards.
I could make out some hand and foot grabs; I looked back down and could make out nothing. Up I went and found myself in a place that I had never known before; a place that I couldn’t stay and one that I couldn’t go back down from.
This was fear; a contemptuous fear. It mocked my past, it scorned my present and sneered at my future ……..or lack of it……
You know the rest.
“Rilithithithi, who gives a f***” ………………………………and then the deluge broke from the last hand grab and ‘I flew backwards spluttering and swallowing the cataract, plunging into the mountain’s halo of mist and mystery towards……..somewhere!’
I probably fell no more than thirty feet wedging in the chimney in V formation, jammed by my back pack of camera and Celtic towel, my knees level with my face. I knew it was only another thirty feet to the bottom of the chimney and with a heave of my calves I freed my upper body and made the next stop with bloodied hands, face and pride where the final straight had started. I checked that my camera was ok.
I knew I was going no further up, and as I looked around at first dispiritedly, I cheered up when I realised that the fear had gone again, blown up with the clouds as the sun shone through another gap on the downward trail. I looked up but the mist above clung still to the summit and the rain from its midst fell unrelenting, turning the mountainside into one huge cascade of water and rubble.
I followed it (or it washed me) downwards, tumbling, sliding and as the water cleansed away blood and mud, the birds and creatures of the undergrowth reappeared and made themselves heard, this time cheerfully welcoming my return and applauding my survival.
Mind you they still thought I was an erse!
The car park approached like an oasis and there was Moses. He was still grinning.
“Your God was looking after you” he said “you didn’t stick to the trail did you man?” it wasn’t really a question.
“Feck off, you never beat me, you’re just a fallen angel, a wee feart fallen angel condemned to your own hell of misery. I found you and I beat you”.
Moses seemed to know what I was talking about.
I made my way back into town and pondered ‘Bill Mitchell was right after all. I’ll check the weather before my next attempt at scaling Devil’s Peak.”
“One day” I thought “I might even write – the idiot’s guide to mountain climbing”.
So I did and this is it!