Oops! I said “More tomorrow”, I actually meant “More next year when I can get my act together…..”. Well, I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New Year in the meantime, and here, have a bonus longer edition to make up for the break 😃.
So finally we return to our heroes, halfway up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Tommy Caldwell has just reached Wino Tower, from where it’s a pretty easy* climb to the top. Kevin Jorgesen, meanwhile, was stuck below Pitch 15, where he had given up the attempt to conquer the Dawn Wall free climbing, and had turned to supporting Caldwell in his climb. All Caldwell had to do was go on and reach the top and the successful completion of a challenge which had occupied him for seven years. And he couldn’t do it.
When he reached Wino Tower, he realised that completing the climb without Jorgesen would be meaningless. The two of them had worked together for so long to conquer the wall that to do it without his buddy would take all of the pleasure from it. Bromance! Honestly, if Hollywood wrote this you’d reject it as overly slushy and contrived. No matter. Caldwell determined that he and Jorgesen would climb the Dawn Wall together or not at all. He declared “I went into full-on support mode”. In other words, he decided to go back down and help his partner to catch up with him, whatever it took.
At this point, Dawn Wall goes into Hollywood mode itself and gives us a swelling music, triumphant hugging version of what happened next, and if you want to see how Kevin Jorgesen made it past Pitch 15 and The Dyno and to the top with Tommy Caldwell, you’ll have to watch the movie. But the bit that was most interesting for me was barely alluded to, except in one small comment that Kevin Jorgesen made when he was waiting to make yet another attempt on Pitch 15. Caldwell was doing everything he could to support him. His family and friends in the meadow were totally behind him. Strangers around the world were rooting for him. But having acknowledged that, as he prepared to step out onto the stretch of rock that had previously been his nemesis, he said “Now it’s down to me”.
How well I know that feeling! If you’ve ever done anything which requires you to take a step outside your comfort zone to meet a challenge which is almost beyond you, you will know that at the end, however much support you have, you have to meet it on your own.
Now, I am someone who loves being part of a team and I adore both experiencing and watching the joy evinced by individuals when they are part of a group which achieves something by working together. To take an example, I have been involved in amateur dramatics for more years than I care to remember, and one of my most treasured memories comes from almost the first show I was involved in, Ring Round the Moon. This is a play which revolves around identical twins, and, since most directors don’t have access to matched pairs of actors, the twins are played by one actor. As you will doubtless have surmised for yourself, this leads to lots of incidents when Twin A exits stage left in a bowler and moments later Twin B enters stage right in a top hat, exclaiming “Is Archie here? Dash – looks as though I’ve just missed him!” Of course the audience is in on the joke and realises that the actor has merely nipped across backstage, changing his hat as he goes. In this particular play Anouilh (for it is he) has a bit of fun with this in the third act, by which point the joke is well established, when Twin A exits stage left and Twin B almost immediately enters stage right in a completely different set of clothing, thus confounding expectations and delighting the audience.
In the professional theatre, with dressers and wardrobe who for all I know create two complete suits of clothing which the actor simply steps into and Velcros up the back, this is relatively easy. In amateur theatre with a limited budget, not so much. The team deputed to change Dermot, the actor in question, was four young men who played his friends. At every single rehearsal they strained every sinew to get him changed in time for his cue, and at every single rehearsal they failed. Dermot would come on stage late, doing up his tie, and since the dramatic effect entirely depends upon the actor in question coming in dead on cue looking perfectly polished, this killed it stone dead. There’s no way an audience is going to be delighted if the line “Oh, here’s Algy now. Hello, Algy, old boy!” is followed by an awkward pause and the entrance of a flustered Algy with his shoes on the wrong way round.
Reluctantly, the director decided that the joke would have to go. Some lines would be added to make the change possible. The team concerned were distraught at this news. PLEASE could they have one more try? They knew they could do it. And there were still two dress rehearsals until the show. Ok, agreed the director. One more chance. If it’s not right for the first dress, we change it. It will be! they promised. And they practiced. Oh, my goodness, how they practiced! They practiced like practicey things. Came the moment: “Hello, Algy, old boy!” Everyone held their breath. And came the answer “Hello, old chum!” as Dermot stepped onto the stage, suave as a well-dressed cucumber, settling his tie in an urbane fashion. Everybody in the cast cheered like crazy, and each night thereafter his timely entrance brought an audible gasp from the audience.**
I remember this so well because I witnessed the quick change every night, sitting waiting to go on, and I watched the perfect choreography as each carried out his role, whipping off jackets, doing up trousers and shoes and slipping already tied ties over Dermot’s head as the final shirt buttons were done up. I saw the delight and the high fives and the silent air punching of the gang of four each night after they had got their man onto the stage in time for his cue. Nobody else saw this and they got no reward or applause for it (other than from me – I applauded them silently every night) but it still filled them with palpable joy, the joy of working as a team and supporting someone else as part of a larger effort. It’s a wonderful thing, and to be a part of it is its own reward. But the point here, for I have digressed a lot, is that in many of these situations, the team effort is to get one person to a point where it is down to them.
Of course, in this case, although it was definitely down to Dermot, it wasn’t exactly a step into a void, because he’d literally just come off stage, was in the latter part of the play, and was therefore fairly comfortable with his position. But often, that moment when it’s down to you is pretty momentous, lonely and scary. You can have as much help and support as you like, as much encouragement and input, the greatest team or the bestest buddy or buddies ever, but the point comes when you have to step into your own Pitch 15 alone. From going on stage when you’re shaking with terror to jumping out of the plane for your first solo parachute jump to going out to play in the singles finals at Wimbledon, the feeling is probably much the same. As I have said, I know it very well, and it’s both one of the loneliest feelings in the world and one of the least lonely, because although you know that it is indeed at that final point all down to you, you are also comforted and upheld by the help and support you’ve received from others. But you still have to be willing to take that step, alone, into the void.
I’m not really quite sure how, but this reminds me very much of the great CP Cavafy Poem “Che fece….il gran rifiuto”*** It’s a poem I absolutely love although I can’t claim to understand it. But I do think there’s a moment, when you get to the point when it’s all down to you, when you have to say either the great No or the great Yes, and I believe everyone knows those moments and has their answers to them. There are times in my life when I’ve said Yes, and times when I’ve said No, and the poem reflects both of them.****
Che fece….il gran rifiuto
For some people the day comes/when they have to declare the great Yes/or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the yes/ready within him; and saying it,
He goes forward in honour and self-assurance./He who refuses does not repent. Asked again/he would still say no. But that no – the right no -/undermines him all his life.
*For, as the immortal Terry Pratchett would say, a given definition of “easy” 😉.
**One of the ways Dermot achieved his prompt entrance was to start his line whilst he was still in the wings, which is very effective provided you come on within two or three words, as the audience assumes you have been on stage the whole time. I dub this the ‘Clive James’ effect, after the distinguished writer who pointed out that tennis players are disadvantaged in a match against another player who grunts, as the grunt arrives on the other side of the net first and the opponent will often be fooled into trying to hit the grunt rather than the ball.
***Get me 😁
****I’ve written on this topic before here