:: Article

Head for Heights

By Alex Diggins.

Peter Goulding, Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-Climbing Scene (New Welsh Rarebyte, 2020)

Say you’re on a cliff face and there are four storeys of empty air below. There is one final move to the top —a stretch, a shuffle up the rock, and that’s it. There is a meaty-looking chain bolted beneath the lip of the cliff: reach there and you’re done, safe.

But you can’t move. Your left knee is jammed in a cleft, cramped up like some tortuous yoga position. Your right leg strains out in ballerina pointe, foot splayed. The rubber of your climbing shoes grips a tiny dimple of rock, the barest suggestion of friction. Your left hand is squashed awkwardly against slope beside you, pressing hard to give support; while the right strains upwards, finger walking higher and higher, searching for a decent hold. But now the shakes have started. Legs are jellying. Forearms pumped and clumsy with exertion; not long left.

Over your shoulder, the sea is a splinter of mineral blue. The sun is hot and hard on the back of your neck. Your friends waiting below are anxious, cricking upwards to get a better view. But in that moment, all has vanished. It’s just you, your inching fingers, and an awareness that builds and builds: move, or you’re coming off.

Then—a slip. Gravity has made the decision for you. You’re gone. In the air, heavy and falling. The rope snaps tight: a sharp parabola over the protection you placed below. The rock approaches again. There is no warning, and without thinking you raise your legs, brace the impact. Neatly done: no pain, no scratches or shattered ankles.

And then all the adrenaline rushes out—a huge whoop breaks free, wild and body-deep. You look down at your friends. Their uneasy smiles tell you that it was a big fall, that you’re lucky. You just grin back stupidly, settle into your harness and look up at the rock. Plotting how to go again.

*

It’s damn hard to write well about climbing. As a sport, as an experience, it exists in a realm outside of language. Not necessarily in an ineffable, mystic sense—though undoubtedly climbing literature tends to court a kind of dudeish Transcendentalism. But more that climbing, when done well, is absolutely nothing like writing or reading. Those activities are the work of the mind. Whereas to climb effectively requires the shutting down of thought—fear and rationality must be banished. Climbing is completely embodying. It’s the interplay of muscle, balance and instinct: a seamless sensation with little texture for language to grip onto. Dedicating a whole book to it, then, is a bold move.

Fortunately, Peter Goulding’s Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-Climbing Scene keeps a wary eye on these pitfalls. His book is an account of his initiation into the slate-climbing community of north Wales. It is structured around the annual early summer pilgrimages he takes with the local climbing club and friends to the slate quarries of Snowdonia. Though this region contains some of the finest mountain scenery in the British Isles, Goulding and his fellow slateheads prefer the shattered architecture of its quarries, rubble tips, tunnels and tumble-down tools sheds. This brutalised industrial landscape makes for excellent climbing. Slate dries quickly, and the quarries are more sheltered than the surrounding hills – a major plus when the weather in north Wales is often so fantastically drear.

These yearly climbing trips transport Goulding from the cossetting fug of domesticity—‘the blare of the telly’, the ‘fur’ of ‘overbrewed and over-sweetened tea’—to the exposure of high rock. Climbing is an exfoliating experience: it scrubs away the impurities of the everyday. To be sure it provides companionship, he writes, and the rich sensation of ‘having a go at living’; but it also opens him up to something far more fundamental and intoxicating, too.

Part of it was the movement. Deeply satisfying to be stretching up, twisting my body to reach a thin sharp edge, pulling my body weight through half a pad of my fingertips. I liked the fear, not the anxiety of unpaid bills, but the deep old fear of death.

This passage, and others like it, charge Slatehead with a real contagious joy. Exuberance spills out of Goulding’s prose; proximity to the ‘deep old fear of death’ gives it vitality. When he’s on rock, it’s a heady read.

Part of its success comes from the way he translates the demanding mechanics of climbing into engaging writing. As in Lee Child’s thrillers, it takes a careful discipline to map out, say, the path of a punch or the lift, heft and grasp of a crux move on a rockface. Goulding has evident enthusiasm for his sport, and a deep technical knowledge: he knows his belay-plates from his bolt-hangers. But it’s to his credit that he rarely allows this expertise to leave to the reader hanging.

In fact, he shares in our wonder at the strange, immersive passion slate-climbing inspires. He thrills at the knock-about poetry of the names of the climbs: Comes the Dervish, Cirith Ungol, Disillusioned Screw Machine, Sexual Salami. These otherwise unremarkable slabs of rock, pitted and scabbed by the lesions of heavy industry, were transformed by the imaginations of earlier climbers. Steeped in Tolkien and Frank Herbert, and spiked with adolescent immaturity, they immortalised their exploits on the rock. A first ascent conferred the right of naming—those titles were solemnly inscribed in the tattered ‘climb book’ kept at Peter’s Eats, a beloved local café. There, they were pored over endlessly, as idle climbers fortified themselves with strong tea and listened to the rain on the windows. Goulding vibrantly evokes this world: its dangers and spirited rivalries, triumphs and fast friendships. Being a slatehead sounds like a blast.

*

But Goulding’s book is more than a climbing memoir. In fact, as with Wade Davis’s monumental Into the Silence, the sport becomes an aperture onto a particular era—a way into its peculiar pressures and desires. For Davis, the failure of the 1920s British Everest expeditions and the death of George Mallory, the era’s finest climber, high on that mountain’s slopes, was a vivid metaphor for Imperial decline. For that generation, the unconquered ‘third pole’ of the world’s highest mountain stood for a rarefied world unsullied by the mud and slaughter of the Somme; death in pursuit of its summit was shrugged off by men already steeped in trauma.

In Goulding’s case, the pioneers of north Wales slate climbing scene become representative of the 1980s decline in the industrial heartland of Britain. The climbers he lionises are not the Oxbridge-educated children of empire, but the lost boys of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. They are young men whose fathers lost jobs down pits and in factories, and who faced bleak futures: signing-on, the Dole, stagnating in forgotten places. Instead, some chose to head west and set up in the nascent climbing community of Llanberis. ‘The quarries were walking distance,’ Goulding explains,

They’d have a smoke or a bit of a party in an abandoned hut, then try and climb something. The ones who got really obsessed with it were called slateheads by the ones who weren’t. What they did is “little history”, a small culture of nutters, artists, punks and petty thieves. Crawling up abandoned rock, then heading to the disco at Dolbadon.

Goulding captures the almost nihilistic hedonism of that era well. In his hands, Llanberis takes on the trappings of a Frontier town—its hardscrabble prospectors seeking not gold, but virgin rock. Money was always tight; and new routes were put up with ringing hangovers and in the funky afterglow of acid trips. Inevitably, the slateheads lived with transgressive disdain for the high-vis officialdom and legal handwringing which tried to keep them from their walls.

Slatehead is particularly sharp on the maturing of this scene. As the lost boys grew up, as friends died in falls or left the valley, many found—to their horror—that they began to acquire the beginnings of respectability. Climbing moved away from the fringes. There was increasingly demand for instructors to coax tourists up the rock. More money began to pour in, magazines and TV programmes on their exploits flourished, and a gifted few even gained sponsorship. And there was growing recognition that recklessness was a young man’s game. Goulding himself only took to climbing in his thirties; a child, a partner and a steady job forced him to confront its risks honestly. Indeed, some of the book’s strongest moments come when he seeks to negotiate between these two contradictory impulses. How to choose between the rooting of family and the freedom of being on rock? How to split the loyalties of love and the bonds forged when you literally take a friend’s life in your hands? This negotiation often takes the form of an imagined dialogue with his late father. He walks his young son to school, for instance, and resolves:

I won’t imagine him being hit by a car. I can’t imagine him dead in a car crash as a teenager killed by the bravado of his mates. Or overdose, or suicide … I get it, Dad, I do. You wouldn’t like what I’m doing now, not the climbing. But it was never really your choice.

In fact, I would have enjoyed more of such reflective digressions. They humanise Slatehead’s story, and ensure it becomes more than simply a narrative of derring-do. At one point, one of Goulding’s friends takes a nasty fall and has to be helicoptered to hospital. Reluctantly, they climb back to where he came off to retrieve his gear. Back at the bunkhouse they clean his down jacket – ‘It’s tattered to fuck, like a load of moths have swarmed on it … There’s blood soaked in, and little lumps of matter – bone marrow, muscle? There are about a dozen of them, white and fatty looking. One sticks to my finger.’

How does this experience make Goulding feel? He doesn’t say. This reticence partly arrives, no doubt, from the all-consuming reality of such moments; sunk in their jittery rawness, it’s hard to verbalise, let alone explain, your emotions. But such attempts—or, tellingly, an absence of explanation—make for the stuff of great literature. Simply replying ‘fuck it’ to such difficulties, as Goulding often does, works to shut down the storytelling. It might be authentic, but it clams up the narrative.

Despite this, Slatehead is a warm and spirited account of a little-reported community. Its merry band of rogues, misfits and dropouts is sympathetically cast, and the central experience of being alone, high on rock, is exhilaratingly wrought. In many ways, climbing is a daft, dangerous waste of time—and Goulding is wryly aware of its ample absurdities. Yet his writing also burns with the sublime fever of it. As he sees it, climbing—at least for a moment—plasters over the holes knocked in us by time and circumstance. Up there, with four storeys of empty air below, in the space between one move and the next, all else is forgot.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Diggins is a writer and editor based in London. His writing has appeared in, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Spectator. He is also published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). Reach him on Twitter: @AHABDiggins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 22nd, 2020.