on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

The Uninvited Guest

The voice that says “you can’t” when clearly you most certainly can

Alister Benn

Alister Benn lives on the west of Scotland with his wife, Ann Kristin Lindaas. Together they run Expressive Photography Ltd, which includes a successful YouTube Channel, a private forum for subscribers, and running small group workshops and retreats in Scotland and northern Spain.


I feel my arms begin to tire, forearms pumping with lactic acid as I make another hard move up the crack in the overhanging rock face. I smear my toes on little edges and look down to see the rope snaking away below me, perhaps some 20 feet above my last piece of protection. Falling twice that height and adding rope stretch puts me pretty close to the ground. I look at the gear hanging from my waist harness and consider placing another ‘runner,” but as I look up at the next 15 feet of climbing I realise the effort required to do that could mean I fall off before I get safe.

I lock the first joint of two fingers into the crack above my head and get my feet higher on the wall,the next step up makes a ground fall guaranteed. Again, again, again, adrenalin pumping, arms saturated, brain on fire. Momentarily I imagine hitting the ground from 60 feet, and a smile crosses my lips. I’m alive, really alive. A couple more moves and the lip of the cliff appears in front of my face, one more long reach over the top to find a good edge and suddenly I’m up. The world stretches below me; the misty glens of the Scottish Highlands, smoke from wood fires drifts lazily from chimney stacks, a Willow Warbler sings passionately from a nearby birch tree, I smell the sap rising and the taste of spring. I notice everything, as if for the first time; opening my already open eyes. (As I write these words, even after all these years I can vividly remember every move, little nuances of the rock, even individual holds! How uncanny it is to have experiences burned so deep in our minds.)

I make my belay and start bringing up my brother, who, with the safety of a top rope makes short work of the pitch, powerfully cruising the moves, absorbed in the ballet of movement on rock. How different the experience is depending on what end of the rope you’re on.

On another day, on another route, a different outcome. I fall from a hard move high on the cliff, the gear I’d placed for my protection ripped from the thin crack and I slam downwards, ripping the next piece as well. My brother jumps off the ledge he’s belaying me from to take in some slack rope and I get brought up on rope stretch with my feet brushing the ground. After nearly 100 feet of free fall, I laugh maniacally as I realise I’m alive.

It was these experiences over 30 years ago that focussed my will, absorbed my attention and demanded engagement. With the cost of failure being terminal, the consequences were a very real motivation.

It was these experiences over 30 years ago that focussed my will, absorbed my attention and demanded engagement. With the cost of failure being terminal, the consequences were a very real motivation. No matter what was going on in my outside life; university exams, being dumped by my first girlfriend, or dealing with growing up a loner, once I was on rock, it meant nothing. With extreme climbing, there is no room for thoughts, no space in your attention for irritation, heartbreak or insecurity. This was where I was in control, here I was me, in total, complete.

A few days ago, I walked along a beach, cliffs rising above my head. I’ve been guiding 4 participants on a workshop to the Spanish coast and they are jubilant in their epiphanies. I smile as they engage with the world in new ways, finding themselves in nature and flowing. I notice an overhanging corner on an outcrop, rising perhaps 30 feet above the shingle beach. My fingers itch and I wander over to “take a look.” As my fingers touch the rock, my focus narrows again; I search for a place to smear one foot, twisting it to make it stick. A step up and my hand rises to another hold, then another, I raise my feet, surging upwards. Even after all these years, my body instinctively leans and twists to keep in balance, finding its place in space to be. Hitting the ground from 30 feet hurts, and I was motivated to stay up, not down! Moments later I’m sitting with my feet dangling over the edge, a client glances up and smiles at me, we return a look. He knows, I know.

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