Ships that Pass in the Night

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2010)
A good-looking girl pays a fleeting visit to the climbing scene.

She was a phantom of delight,
When first she gleam’d upon my sight;
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;
Like twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle and waylay.

In the beginning it was envisaged that the IMC would eventually spread its tentacles (or its testicles, as Bertie Ahern would have it) countrywide, with sections in each of the four provinces. In the heel of the hunt we had to settle for just the two: one here in Dublin and one in Belfast. That we held on to the two sections for as long as we did was quite an achievement. As Brendan Behan once put it: the first item on the agenda of any Irish committee meeting is usually a split. The Belfast section lasted until sometime in the nineties, when it just faded away.

Up until the eighties it was the practise to exchange visits on a regular basis – we would go up there, stay in The Bloat (the Belfast Section’s hut in the Mournes) and do some climbing or walking, and they would come down here and stay in the Glendasan hut for more of the same.

On one of their weekend visits we held a joint meet on the Sunday to the seacliffs at the foot of Bray Head. There was about a half-a-dozen of them, and a handful of us. After all these years I can’t recall which of the lads came down from the north, but I do remember there was one female. Hard to forget her, really. Tall, slim, shapely and athlethic, she moved with an elegant, easy grace. She had a peaches and cream complexion, eyes of the brightest blue, and her finely-chiselled features were framed by a mass of golden curls. With a sweet, shy smile and a complete lack of affectation, there was an air of innocence about her. A lovely person, totally charming, and a newcomer to the climbing scene.

Naturally enough, as the meet organiser and local expert on all aspects of climbing on the Bray seacliffs, I felt it incumbent upon me to take her under my wing. A responsibility I shouldered with my usual quiet fortitude. To be fair to the lads, I did have several offers from them to take her off of my hands, but I felt it would be unfair to burden them thus.

We got on like a house on fire. She was a natural on rock, supple, strong and with a keen sense of balance. We rattled off most of the routes on Cable Rock, abbing back down each time to the water’s edge. Towards mid-afternoon, we were standing on a narrow ledge, just out of reach of the waves, having abbed down from doing Spinnaker, a VS climb that is a mixture of the delicate and the strenuous, and one on which I had used almost all of my meagre selection of gear.

With commendable efficiency, as she followed me up each route she had removed the gear and racked it neatly on one of my slings. But this time, as she leaned over to pass the sling back to me, it slipped from her fingers and we both watched in horror as the lot went tinkling down the rock, entered the sea with a plop, and disappeared from view. On that dull, raw October day there was a full spring tide, with about five metres of cold, choppy water below us, so it looked like goodbye to my precious gear.

"Not to worry, Gerry", she said quietly, and before I could protest, she had kicked off her shoes, slipped out of her harness, pants and top, and stood poised on the lip of the ledge, clad in the briefest, flimsiest of underwear. A sudden hush fell over the crag as everyone stopped climbing, keen to witness this turn of events. Then, with a shy, bashful smile and a sidelong glance in my direction, she dived gracefully into the cold water. By the time she surfaced all the lads were lining the bank, waiting to catch a closer look at this gorgeous spectacle. She came up empty-handed, but I was probably the only one to notice that, as she lay on her back, treading water, her golden hair streaming out behind her, her smile as sweet as ever, blissfully unaware of the effect she was having. For it was immediately apparent that, in the few moments she had been immersed, her underwear had shrunk dramatically. Indeed, it was transparently clear that those lacey garments had never been designed for use as swimwear, and were now about as useful as a couple of strands of loose barbed wire – offering a modicum of protection to the property, but in no way impeding the view.

Her announcement that she was going to try again was followed by a flurry of frantic activity, as the lads discarded clothing left, right and centre, and plunged in to join her. She rolled over on to her tummy and executed a perfect surface dive: hands, head and torso going down first, the pert little bottom rising slightly, the long shapely legs the last to disappear. With much kicking and splashing the boys followed, hot on her heels.

They were down for an extraordinary length of time, giving me a chance to reflect on what a thoroughly decent bunch of chaps they were. To brave the cold water on such a raw day in an attempt to recover my gear was, indeed, an act of unselfish kindness. Though not normally one to show emotion, I am not too proud to admit that I felt a lump in my throat, and the merest hint of a tear in my eye.

Although they popped up empty-handed, they remained undaunted, breathing deeply, smiling broadly, slapping the surface of the water with gusto. With the demure mermaid leading the way, down they went again, remaining under for an even longer spell this time. Again they surfaced empty-handed but, surprisingly, more cheerful than ever, and mad keen to submerge again. As they disappeared, however, I felt a slight uneasiness, a small twinge of doubt. For by now they had drifted quite a distance away from the spot where my gear had gone down, and there was no chance whatever of them finding it where they were diving.

Then the penny dropped. This shower of depraved lousers didn’t give a fiddler’s fart about me or my gear. Nothing but a gang of rampant perverts and debauched louts, whatever they were groping for down there, it certainly wasn’t my gear. And, worst of all, they were being lured on by this sly siren, this shameless strumpet, this … this near-naked, brazen bitch from Belfast, while I was left bereft, nutless and forgotten about on the bank. Bloody women. Typical. That’s the thanks you get. I knew the minute I clapped eyes on her she was nothing but trouble.

There was nothing for it – I was going to have to take the plunge myself. Although a strong swimmer, I am normally reluctant to expose my skinny, milk-white frame to cold winds or the public gaze, particularly when I am wearing my saggy, baggy underpants, but on this occasion the focus of attention was entirely elsewhere. Indeed, at this stage I’m almost sure I could see clouds of steam hovering above the frolicking sex-fiends out to sea. I eased into the water and dived down, down, until I was grasping the fronds of seaweed flourishing on the rocky seabed.

In those days we had to fashion our own slings, purchasing the tape by the yard, and you had a choice of two colours: white or orange. Luckily I had opted for the orange and so it was I spotted my sling nestling in a particularly lush batch of seaweed. I surfaced with a yell of triumph, brandishing my gear for all to see. My success was greeted with stoney silence and sullen stares, – I was the party pooper – but what did I care?

Back on shore they clustered around Lady Godiva, each one earnestly offering to dab her down with the tail of his shirt. With dusk fast approaching, we called it a day, packed up and headed back along the cliff path to Bray.

I never saw her again as, shortly after, she abandoned the climbing scene for fresh fields and pastures new. It has always been thus. Every year I see a fresh batch of eager faces as young men and women come to sample what climbing is all about. Some may have a natural talent and ability, others struggle on even the easiest of climbs. But most have one thing in common – within a few weeks they will sink without trace. The trouble is, it is almost impossible to identify the ones who will become hooked.

Sometimes it is the strugglers, the slow learners, who persevere and eventually become competent and keen climbers. Which is why, not being a great one for instructing, I like to keep my input during the course to the minimum required, waiting until it is all over, to see which of them will bother to turn up on the Thursday nights in the quarry. They are the ones deserving of our time, attention and encouragement – and it often pays off – on both sides.

Down through the years, I have been fortunate enough to spend some wonderful climbing days and weekends, on mountain crags and sea cliffs the length and breadth of these islands, partnered by keen and enthusiastic tyros – the best of cheerful company.

And I look forward, with confidence, to more years of the same – for the climbers may come and go – but the rocks remain.