Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rock climbing for idiots

I promised Paula that after I came back from drinks with my fiends I would tell her about something dangerous and stupid that I once did. So I came back, well tanked up, and wrote about 5000 words, none of them in the least bit amusing, and managed to scare myself silly in the process by remembering this dangerous and stupid experience far too well. It is one I would really rather forget. I have edited it down a bit. There is no way to make this funny, I'm afraid. It is merely stupid.

I was in NZ for two weeks, staying with my brother. His house is on a sort of headland. He has sea views on three sides, and there is a short but steep walk down to a very small bay with a very small beach. The nearest store is a 25 minute walk away by a winding road, and I asked him whether walking back along the coast was a short cut. He didn't know. "Probably," he said. "I wouldn't try it at high tide, though."

Early one morning, before he'd got up, I walked (by road) to the store to buy milk and bread. I asked the storekeeper when high tide was. He looked out the window.

"It's quite low now," he said. "Probably this afternoon."

I asked him how long he thought it would take to walk around to the little beach below where my brother lives, and he wasn't sure about that, either.

"More than twenty minutes?" I asked.

"Dunno," he answered. "Probably a bit more, I think. Don't think I'd want to try it."

Armed with this expert advice I tried it anyway, and that is why, two hours later, I came to be clinging to the side of a cliff, shoes around my neck, and gazing down at the water crashing off the rocks below. I'd run out of land. The little beaches in the bays had all disappeared under the rapidly rising water. I'd started out on sand, graduated to clambering over very sharp rocks, and now I'd run out of rocks as well.

I started to wonder whether it might be better to go back. I understood that I'd made a rather foolish mistake. The last few corners of rocky coast I'd come around had revealed yet another bay with water up to the foot of the cliff. I had no idea how much further there was to go, the water was rising rapidly, and where the hell was that little beach down from my brother's house? Shouldn't it be just around the corner from this bay? How many bays WERE there? I'd expected four or five, but had already negotiated fifteen or twenty.

I decided it was probably further back than forward, and kept going. It couldn't be far, I thought.

An hour or so later I was forced to stop. I'd run out of footholds and couldn't see a way forward. I clung to the cliff at the last safe place, and finally really looked at where I was and what was happening. After a long look around I understood that I could possibly get a Darwin Award for this. There was no safe way forward, and I didn't think I had the strength to carry on anyway. I was able to see ahead to the next two small bays, and neither of them had even a tiny beach to rest on. There was no flat place out of the water. Even the rocks had vanished under the waves, and there was just cliff rising straight up from the sea. Before that I'd only been able to see one bay ahead, so had been able to tell myself that my destination was just around the corner. Now it looked impossible. Waves hitting the bottom of the cliff were drenching me with water and sometimes making me choke and cough, and I couldn't get high enough to avoid them. And the way back looked, if anything, worse. The water had risen over places I'd just climbed along.

I stayed there for a long time, neck twisted to look out to sea, and took a long, cool look at a stupid death. It was a gorgeous day for it. The sky was a deep blue. The water was choppy in the breeze. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead. I could see a boat far out on the horizon, and wondered if it would come closer. But looking down at the white churning water a couple of meters below my bleeding toes I knew that the even most competent sailor couldn't get anywhere near me. I wondered how long it would be before the tide went down again, and whether I could hang on that long.

Nobody knew where I was.

After a while I got annoyed.

I can't die like this! I thought, indignantly. I'm not this sort of person! I don't have adventures; I have naps!

And so I kept going. Every movement after that was horribly risky. I was clinging to a sheer cliff face and there were almost no firm foot- or handholds. Every time I moved I thought I'd slip and fall. Sometimes the rock I gripped crumbled away in my hand, or under my foot. Every flabby muscle in my body trembled. But eventually, creeping like a desperate insect, I inched painfully around a corner and saw, around from the next bay, the little beach down the hill from my brother's house.

I carried on, a very slow spider. This foot, that foot, this hand, that hand, cheek grazing the rock.

By the time I landed on that blessed little beach imagination had me dead already a thousand times, dashed to bits on the rocks, broken body washed by the waves and nibbled by fish, shoes washed up on some remote shore. It took a while to adjust to the fact that I wasn't dead after all. I took stock. I was soaked. My hands were bleeding, my feet were ripped to shreds, and I ached all over. I still had the carton of milk and the loaf of bread hanging from my arm in a plastic bag, tied up so tightly that the bread wasn't even wet. That made me feel both proud and incredibly stupid. I'd forgotten they were there, and could probably have managed better without a litre of milk hanging off my arm. But they were my original reason for going down to the shop and it had never occurred to me to go home without the groceries I'd gone out for.

I hugged the sand for a long, long time.

After a while I washed off the blood and crawled up the path to the house, where I discovered it was two o'clock. I'd been on the cliffs for about five hours.

My brother had prepared a late lunch, thinking I'd gone for an extra long walk. I tried to explain what had happened, and showed him my hands and feet.

"Yeah, the rocks are really sharp around here," he said. "Are you hungry?"

I thought for a moment, and realized I hadn't had breakfast yet.

"I'm starving," I told him.


Paula said...

Wow, what a story! It's like out of one of my nightmares, actually.

Badaunt said...

Except that even in nightmares you wouldn't do anything so blindingly stupid!