From ten metres – and 40 years – away I raised my eyebrows and moved through a few exaggerated gestures I hoped were universal enough to signal, ‘Do you want a belay?’ He shook his head at my mime and waved his hand, no. It wasn’t dismissive, it was kind and he smiled warmly. His partner was laying on their rope, eyes closed against the bright sun.
He must have been 70, an old French crusher, leathery and wirey, shod in stained and scratched Miuras that he never took off, laces wound all the way under his foot and back around again, a rope discoloured at the end from slobbering mouth and chalked hands, scratched ‘draws all of the same colour and make. Quiet and efficient, he organised their things and when I turned around again only moments later he was somehow already halfway up a 40m route. The two of them spent the day unobtrusively moving through the crowd and around the crag, speaking together in low voices, climbing three or four 7a/23 routes and a fistfull of easier lines. They looked at peace.
I saw that septuagenarian French couple on my first day in Kalymnos, and then sporadically here and there across the trip. I was surprised that there were so many of their ilk climbing on the island; grey-haired, slack-skinned climbers with blasted hands were seemingly at every cliff. Portly Brits who looked like academics, neat Swiss who looked like bankers, dero-looking Spaniards who were likely anarchists. I was surprised by the demographic I encountered on Kalymnos, I had thought it would be much younger.
Kalymnos is popular AF and has been for ages. Access is easy, the climbing is convenient, the atmosphere is welcoming, the climate is warm, the food is simple and delicious, the small-cc motorbikes add to the air of freedom, the bolts are many and they protect routes across a wide grade spread, with tonnes of easy and moderate stuff. Upon reflection it seems obvious that there were would be old Euros on short breaks. I never had much of a desire to go there but somehow there I was.
I sat on a rock in the shade at Secret Garden; not a secret, it was one of the most popular crags, and with only a single fig tree standing out against the scratchy scrub that I figured was the genesis of the ‘Garden’ name. The wind tugged at my hair, the boldest goats tugged at my pack closure, and I was radiating with a calm hope. I was taken by what seemed a lost idea resurfacing from the Grampians-infected shitstorm of home – that climbers are good and climbing is good and it will ever be thus. This was a very simple place, I thought. I never overheard snatches of conversation about Brexit or the bombing of the Kurds or Trump or refugees or the climate catastrophe. It felt like proper removal and in a similar way that distance meant that no one was smearing me, aside from my partners giving me shit about my weakness. Escaping from home had scoured clean the filth and all the fretting. My mind wandered through thoughts of happiness and fulfillment, memories confused with flights of fancy, but I wasn’t thinking about clipping chains and ticking projects. I was thinking about ‘bests’.
The ‘bests’ that I had had whilst climbing.
The best wash I ever had. That was an amazing en-cleaning. It was in a knocked-together wooden sauna propped in the middle of a paddock in the property that is opposite the start of the walk to Cape Raoul in Tasmania. Climbing out there is big day on your feet that is more defined by the mountaineering sense of a there-and-back journey than it is by a normal day doing a few routes. Climbing Pole Dancer to the jeers of barking seals, getting the ropes jammed and being at The End of the World made sitting naked and sweating with Jess in the small wooden box something else.
The best coffee I had ever drunk. I have imbibed a lot of coffee, much of it very good. But the best was at Hyper Hyper in Nowra.
Incongruously, the day-in-day-out coffee there is outstanding, but being showered with rose petals as I sipped of paradise in the warm winter sun was otherworldly. The tripped-out owner snatched my first coffee out of my hands; unhappy with the crema, he sashayed back with a replacement then threw rose petals over me as I drank it, before moving off to bless others in the same way. I love Hyper Hyper and this particular Saturday rest day, with sore shoulders and ground-down fingertips, the coffee was so flavoursome and so invigorating as to be more than caffeine. Having gotten off the ground at PC the day before made it something else, the laughter of my mates as rose petals rained down on them made it something more.
The best feed that ever filled my belly. I was filming übermensch Simon Bischoff climbing on Flinders Island, and every day as the sun was going down he would wrap himself in a 30-year-old, floppy three-piece wetsuit and disappear under the waves, surfacing 20 minutes later with a bag of abalone and purple lips. Cooking them up in the back of his van, drinking utterly atrocious wine, the abalone and brussel sprouts were as good as anything I have ever eaten. I didn’t even feel guilty about being the world’s worst vegan. The lonely, immaculate rock of Flinders Island made the food something else.
The best night sky I ever looked up at. When all of the darkest, cloudless nights are canvases for the brilliant Milky Way, it is the set and setting that separates one night from another. To escape the suffocating significance of turning 40, I had humped into Mt Geryon and made camp by a tarn. We had done a little climbing, rigged a highline, and there was not another human soul within cooee. It is true that nothing diminishes your anxieties at aging like light from the depths of the Universe’s past. The silhouette of the DuCane Range, the remoteness of Geryon made the slowly turning stars something more.
Old French climbers dancing still with what must be creaking bodies after so many years alive, tying in with the habitual precision of a thousand climbs, searching through sequences for the first time with an uncanny familiarity, not shouting or fussing. I didn’t speak to them and I don’t know anything about them, but they gave me hope.
Hope knows nothing. You can never know the future; chances are that it will not be what I wish for, but also that it will be different from what I fear. Watching that old French couple was as if I were watching not only other people with their own lives and dreams and pains, but equally I was seeing all of the years that are still before me distilled into a promissory human form.
It happens that sometimes you have to go far away in order to be able to see and what I saw is that maybe the future isn’t going to be so bad afterall, maybe there are some ‘bests’ yet to come.
This piece originally appeared in the print edition of VL#31, get the mag here.