TAC 27 May-Jul96

TAC 27 Index

Don't Go Climbing Waterfalls

Gordon Smith

What about that Free As A Bird, then? Rubbish or what? Why oh why, we ask, was this turkey not confined to its cage like Duncan Ferguson and his doos?

There are, of course, millions of good reasons for plucking the golden goose from richly-deserved obscurity, and all of them are green and crinkly: but if Paul McCartney was really so desperate for cash, wouldn't it have been kinder just to have bought a few Lottery tickets rather than inflict that plod-awful bassline and those self- parodic harmonies on us?

Hold on a minute, you may be saying to yourself, is this TAC I'm reading or is it the NME? Why all this apparently irrelevant moptop-bashing? What's it all about, wack?

Well, the answer is that hearing Free As A Bird reminded me of all the other ear-wearying toss that Macca has produced in the last quarter-century, including Mary Had a Little Lamb, Mull of Kintyre, The Frog Chorus (bum bum-bum); but especially the memory-sodden Waterfalls: for any time this last one turns up on an oldies radio show, my sphincter tightens in terror-stricken Pavlovian response.

From the first time I heard it in 1980, I hated and scorned it, and in particular its ludicrous lyric. What the bleeding hell was he on about, don't go climbing waterfalls? How do you climb a sodding waterfall then, Paul? I used to dream of putting these and other questions to him with the aid of a strong light and a length of hosepipe filled with lead shot. McCartney had the last laugh, however: for years later, by some astonishing quirk of Aristotelian metaphysics, the words of the song were made goose-pimpled and trembling flesh; and I found that to mock Macca's lyrics is to play with fire, to dice, perchance, with the same evil fortune that pervades the Scottish Play...

----- Brr, it's cold, I groaned as I emerged from the warmth of the car.

----- Don't be such a big Wendy, scolded Willie, filling his lungs with chill December air: Wendy was his favourite term of abuse for lesser men. Certainly, no-one could confuse my friend Willie with Peter Pan's girly pal, a fact which had been proved to me recently, when he had taken me to try out a new climbing wall in Carlisle.

This entailed me trying to hold on to a frozen pea-sized protuberance two feet above a crash mat, falling off almost immediately and spending the next three hours holding the end of a rope for my more competent companion. So I very soon found myself belaying Willie as he powered up some piece of overhanging awfulness, clipping into bolts as he went. Then, just before he reached the last bolt, he fell off, but not before informing me calmly that this was about to happen and would I please prepare to take the strain? Somehow I contrived to get the rope between his arm and some other bare flesh, and then allowed him to slide ten frictive yards down it before stopping him. There was an awful smell of char-grilled burger, and I saw that his arm was hanging from his body by a small length of singed flesh; but all Willie did was tut quietly and give me the briefest glance of mild reproach, as a teacher might to one who had just misconjugated an irregular verb. So no Wendy he.

Anyway, there we were in Glen Coe that grey and wintry Saturday morning, having travelled up the night before for a weekend with Willie's climbing club in that monument to the inscrutability of Gaelic orthography, Inbhirfhaolain, a name which has always seemed to me to be a phonetic transcription of expectoration.

I wheezed, and a numinous gob of breath rose into the cold damp air. Come on then, insisted Willie, hammering off up Bidean and piledriving the path inches deeper into the hill. Lung-rasped I followed, heart pounding but unwilling to halt for fear of Willie's scorn. To no avail, however: he turned to catch me fat and scant of breath. Look at you, he spat in imitation of a dyspeptic camel. Is it not about time you gave up either the fags or the whisky? I looked suitably shame-faced and had to accept that it was no good trying to climb Colin Baxter-style scenery on a Jim Baxter-style fitness programme.

Not that there actually was any scenery worth looking at, unless you're really into loads of grey and wet stuff with the occasional streak of dirty white. Even the irrepressible Willie paused to consider the aesthetic value of plodding further into the achromatic gloom. Shite, intit? Willie asked. I was happy to concur, since his comment suggested to me a willingness to abandon the day as a bad job. Aw bugger it, he finally decided, let's go and find some ice to climb.

I was sure he had said let's go and find some ice to climb.

Willie confirmed that this what he had indeed said, and with a peremptory nod meaning I'm going this way, follow me or forever wear Wendy's pastel blue nightdress, he was off. Dreams of a warm pub and a very large whisky immediately evaporated as I stumbled after him off the path and up the steep sides of Gearr Aonach. Haud on, I hawked up, we're hardly very well equipped for that sort of business.

----- What's the matter with you, Willie scoffed without bothering to turn round. You've got crampons, haven't you?

I agreed that this was true, but dared to point out that he had only one short technical axe with him and I had a single long walking axe. Which makes just two axes between us, I calculated out loud.

----- That'll be fine then, he trumped. Because we'll only be climbing one at a time anyway.

I was speechless in the face of his logic, and even less loquacious when he halted suddenly and pointed upwards. Here we are, he announced. This'll do us.

Above us was an opalescent bulge of ice, a waterfall frozen in mid-cascade. Inbhirfuckingfhaolin, I spluttered as I peered up and through the mist . On the far side of the convexity, the line of a burn could be seen hanging white and motionless down the side of the hill, like a dreep of phlegm on a roughcast toilet wall. Before I could express my apprehension further, Willie had his crampons strapped on, and was in the run-out of the waterfall demonstrating how steep ice could be negotiated without any axes at all, if your body was properly balanced.

And your mind entirely unbalanced, I thought as I watched him frontpoint up to the bulge with his hands in his pockets. When he arrived at the foot of the bulge he spent a long time examining its form first from one viewpoint, then from another, then another, as if he had come across The Three Graces and was trying to decide which of them had the nicest arse; then he kicked his way back down. Gimme the axes he said, and set off again up to the waterfall. This time he didn't stop, but carried on up a cleft, chipping and kicking till he had sculpted a line over the curving ice. He stopped at the top and after a further study, decided that he would like the protection of a rope before proceeding.

----- But we don't have one, I objected.

----- I know where we can get one, though, he told me as he kicked and jabbed his way back down to me. Come on, let's go, he said, already heading down to the car before I had my crampons off.

On the way back to Inbhirfhaolain, Willie warned me to say nothing about the icefall, on the grounds that we had discovered it, and he didn't want anybody else in his club to find out about it in case they tried to knock it off before we did: it was to be our secret. Here was a situation, he told me, that required skill and cunning; he would have to attempt to extract a rope from one of his club companions without revealing what he wanted it for. It would be tricky, and hence it would be better if I were to keep my gob shut. So later that evening, when the cottage and its occupants were bathed in a warm whisky glow, I watched as Willie went to work.

----- Ho Jim, he began, what's your plan for tomorrow?

----- No sure, said the other, mibbe Bidean.

A worried look flickered briefly on Willie's face, to be replaced by one of studied unconcern. Oh, right? he said, whereabouts on Bidean, then?

----- Mibbe go up from this side, came the answer.

Willie exhaled in relief: You'll not be needing a rope for that, then, he stated.

----- Mibbe no, Jim agreed, obviously determined to make Willie work for whatever it was he was after.

----- Well, Willie said, leaping over the Rubicon, any chance I could get a loan of it?

----- Mib...be, came the agonisingly slow reply, but what do ye want it for?

It was the moment of truth, or rather the moment of lie.

----- Just going up a hill, like, Willie mumbled, up the Coe, ye know ... no really sure what it's called, ken...

----- Are ye doing a route, mibbe? Jim asked directly.

Shaken but not stirred, Willie gave him the cover story. Quite a bit of snow up there ... Gordon's no used to it ... he'd be better off with a security rope, like...

Willie continued in this vein for some time, and I stopped listening out of sheer embarrassment: the only other words of his character assessment which penetrated my consciousness were probably, shite and himself. Ya bastard, I thought. That's nice, using me as an alibi; but to my complete chagrin, the feasibility of the story was accepted by the other with a nod of the head.

----- Inbhirbastardfhaolain, I growled, as early, very early the next morning I felt a silent but violent tug on my foot. Get up, ya Wendy, Willie hissed. Time we were moving. You don't want anybody stealing our route, do you?

At that moment, as far as I was concerned, there was no question of theft being involved: anybody who wanted that great buttock of ice was more than welcome to it. Willie, however, did not agree: so after forcing down a couple of spoonfuls of corn flakes, I found myself creeping out the door into the icy blast. Only it wasn't: it was damp and grey and exceptionally mild, and I sniffed in the air a zephyr of hope that I might be spared the threatened ordeal. Willie felt it too, and scowled his disapproval at the balmy air. He was not to be denied, however: Come on, he demanded, let's get up there and do it before the fucking thing melts.

So an half hour later, I was fifty yards behind Willie and trying hard to keep up, sweating profusely and gulping litres of air, a malty mix of last night's whisky and this morning's corn flakes burbling caustically in my gullet. At last he stopped, holding up the palm of one hand, then signalling to me to hurry up. Look, he hissed. We've got to get up before they do.

When I had almost stopped wheezing and sputtering, I looked up and saw a group of four people ambling uphill about one hundred metres in front of us. They didn't look as if they were intent on robbing us of our route, but Willie was taking no chances: he broke into a sprint with the implausible command that I should follow. By the time I caught up, Willie was already interrogating them with Stasi-like tact: Hi. No bad day. Where you bastards going, then? They answered that they were looking for a line to do a bit of climbing, to which Willie retorted Oh aye? He turned and muttered No on our route you're no, then he raced away across the Glen Coe landscape like Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

By the time I caught up with him at our waterfall, I was so hot and sweaty that I didn't notice the external temperature rise; nor could I find the breath to argue when Willie demanded my axe without any further ado. As he roped up, he promised or threatened to lower both axes on the rope to me as soon as he reached the top of the first pitch. Then off he went with ruthless efficiency, cleaving like Trotsky's assassin and kicking like Rosa Kleb over the dripping ice bulge and out of view. Nothing happened for a while, and then Willie appeared hanging over the edge, having rigged himself by some tricky ropework to a birch tree. He assured me that the belay was completely bombproof and that I should have no bother in the battle of the bulge; then he disappeared behind the convexity again. Not long afterwards a snake of rope with a short axe attached slipped down through the mist. I untied it and gave the rope a tug. As it slid back up the ice again, I heard a garbled shout from above: gabbalabbainbhirfhaolain. Just as I was replying I can't hear you, there was a loud noise reminiscent of a skeleton falling down a fire escape, followed by a whoosh and the weird sensation of having my hair parted by a Tomahawk missile.

----- I said, catch that fucking ice axe, will you, Willie repeated helpfully. Now stop pissing about and get up here.

I retrieved the axe from where it had embedded itself, and prepared gloomily to climb, first shouting for a tight rope. As it tugged at my waist, I kicked my right crampon into the ice, where to my surprise it remained. Right axe, left axe, then left foot and I was there, attached by steel spikes to the glazed face which was now dripping like the wall of a public lavatory. I tried to repeat the moves: but my right crampon wouldn't bite, and I was left hanging on the other three points. Fear and adrenalin surged about me, and I began kicking like Gregor Stevens until I was attached again. I stopped for a breath, amazed to be standing up on these little points of steel. I tried to lean my knees into the ice wall, hoping that the hairs of my breeches would melt into it and give me a bit more security. The only result of this was that my calves started to tremble as if they knew they were headed for the veal crate.

It was exhilarating nonetheless, and I was almost beginning to enjoy the frisson of the penetrative act when something winked at me. I thought at first that this was merely an optical illusion caused by the sudden exertion: but no, I looked again and saw that a malevolent eye was beadying me from the other side of the ice, as if through the spy-hole in a cell door in the Lubianka. I blinked hard and shook my head and put my nose to the glistening surface, determined to stare it out. It winked again. I smiled to myself: not an eye, you silly sod, just globules of water dripping beneath the surface. That's all right then.

Very slowly, however, the drips, like in the Chinese water torture, got through to me: the water is running underneath the ice, ergo the ice wouldn't be attached to the underlying surface with anything remotely approaching a vice-like grip. Whereas it was all very well to be securely attached to a sheet of ice, such security would avail you little when the ice was hurtling down the mountainside to be smashed into tiny pieces at the bottom. Such were the thoughts on my mind as I quickly set about getting to the top at all speed, howling to Willie to keep me as fucking tight as you fucking like, please. I noted with some concern that each time I withdrew an axe or crampon point, liquid spurted from the hole as if from an unlagged pipe. Very very very quickly I reached Willie's stance. He was looking at the next pitch of the route, and after pushing a finger through the ice to the water below, decided that it would be inadvisable to continue. We traversed over to terra somewhat firmer, and I didn't bother to conceal my relief as we packed up and headed for the car, at last coming in from the cold.

And that, dear reader, is why, every time I hear one of the post-coleopterous Paul's turgid basslines on the radio, it reminds me of those brief but terrifying moments Climbing a Waterfall. And even though I may complain about his ponderous pluckings, I will never again scoff at a McCartney lyric, for fear of its strange power: no, not even that horrible redundant preposition ('...and in this ever-changing world in which we live in...' Ha!) in Live and Let Die. For who knows what might be the upshot of unleashing that particular song's weird metaphysics: maybe you'd become obsessed with dodgy old spy films; or even start to believe you were in one? Maybe sho, Mish Moneypenny...

TAC 27 Index