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Two old chimney pots stand orphaned on my roof. I placed them there, ready to be put back on their century-old chimneys. But there they stay, reminding me that I am no longer the fearless youth who once climbed Everest.
“Everest,” I should say, was a hydro pylon. I was 15, stifling in a minor English boarding school, when plans were announced for a vast hydro power line to be laid out across the bucolic countryside.
Today, we would all protest madly at the desecration and ugliness, but to me it was a golden opportunity for excitement. I wrote to ask the hydro company for the plans, which – to my astonishment – they cheerfully provided. I solicited co-conspirators, and the next Saturday afternoon several of us met secretly behind the chapel to form the Mountaineering Club. (There were probably a few cigarettes also involved.)
The plan was to climb all six towers that passed the school, as they were being constructed but before the wires were live. The map showed that each pylon was over 100 feet high, so we named them appropriately. I remember Kilimanjaro, Annapurna and K2. The tallest, at 120 feet, we called Everest.
The goal was simple: Each of us had to climb each pylon with two bottles of beer in our pockets. (Obtaining the beer involved nonchalantly posing as adults in the local Waggon & Horses pub.) We swore to drink one bottle sitting on the top crossbar; the other we would leave for the bemused hydro workers.
Oh, did I mention that it had to be done after midnight?
So, we watched with delight as the giants began their majestic march across the meadows and hedgerows.
First, the contractors poured four concrete footings for each, then began constructing the four widespread legs; then the tall body and three pairs of arms, and finally a topknot for a seventh cable.
I mapped them all, and documented their construction with photos taken by my Brownie camera. When workers started hanging enormous insulators from the arms, we knew it was time. Two of us set the date for our first midnight rendezvous. A pal and I crept out of our dormitory in the dark, tiptoed down the cold stone stairs, eased open the ancient front door, and ran across the dewy grass to our first target.
We had scouted the towers, and thought the climbing would be relatively easy: Bolts were screwed into the supports, probably about 18 inches apart, on two opposite legs. So there was lots to hold on to – except for the heart-stopping spots where, for some reason, a bolt had been forgotten.
But the metal felt cold as ice, it was pitch dark, and the climb seemed endless. At the top, we celebrated quickly and quietly, shivering with fear and excitement, then manoeuvred back onto the corner posts for the downward climb, which was worse, as we felt with our toes for those occasional missing bolts.
What cocky lads we must have been, the next morning, when we boasted about our feat to our fellow mountaineers!
Over the spring, we occasionally slipped out again, and I did manage to conquer Everest before the semester ended and we went home for the holiday. None of us climbed all six pylons, but we were pleased enough with ourselves. By autumn, the power line was switched on, and talk turned to a much tougher challenge – girls.
But I didn’t lose my hunger for heights. When I was 18, I took a real mountaineering course on the Black Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye. I learned the thrill of edging my way up vertical rocks, with no helpful bolts. But never in the dark.
After I received my certificate as a “beginner mountaineer” it was all downhill, so to speak. I had to satisfy my lofty ambitions by being content with stairs or elevators – going up the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Husky Tower and the Seattle Space Needle.
I became the family handyman, happy to replace an eavestrough, paint roof shingles or gather a dumb cat from a tall cedar tree.
Ten years ago, I helped restore an 1861 house, and revelled in swinging on the highest scaffolding. In recent years, my wife and I have been restoring our own 1891 house, taking off the asbestos shingles, rebuilding dormers and doing other tall-ladder jobs.
In the process we hired a mason to repair the chimney. But I clean forgot about putting back the chimney-pots until after his scaffolding was gone.
No problem, I thought: It’s a flat roof, only 20 feet high, and I’ve often been up there. I just leaned a ladder on the back porch off the deck, then pulled another ladder up to the main roof. The cement pots were hugely heavy, but I hauled them up the two flights, to wait for some warm, dry days to mortar them into place.
Time passed. The other day I went to check on them. Somehow, the porch roof seems to be much steeper than it used to be, and the ladders far less stable.
And that nasty stretch at the top, swinging off the ladder onto the flat roof, just seems too intimidating. Is that what vertigo feels like?
I climbed down, suddenly very aware that it was 60 years since I’d climbed Everest in the dark.
Nick Russell lives in Victoria.