Friday, August 03, 2007

Mind Over Mountain 3

Of Mountains and of Man 3

I have already mentioned two gems of books on mountaineering and they are Joe Simpson’s marvellous Touching The Void and Dark Shadows Falling both of which I have been thumbing through and reading snippets from these past few days as I explore my theme.

Joe Simpson was born in 1960 and is still a very young man. He is a mountaineer, but in more recent years has become a motivational speaker and an exceptionally good writer. In a recent interview I read somewhere on the www he said that he had ceased to be a mountaineer and had now become a writer. He drifted into writing quite simply because he had wanted to explain to the world what had actually happened when Simon Yates and he climbed Siula Grande in the Peruvian Alps in 1985. In an interview with Jon Doran for Climber magazine, Joe told him that he had written Touching The Void to get the story straight and to defend the actions of his great friend Simon Yates who had to cut the rope linking the two when Joe had fallen over a precipice. By 1995 the book had snowballed into a rampant success that had sold over 300,000 copies and been translated into more than 14 languages. Needless to say most of the purchasers or readers were not climbers – rather stay-at-home Joes or armchair climbers like the present writer.

It is interesting to note that Joe talks about “passion” and “obsession” when he talks about mountaineering and mountains. Undoubtedly it is these two qualities that he carries over into his marvellous writing. Honesty is Joe’s hallmark as it is of all good writers. At base if the writing in a book is honest then it is good writing. That’s my belief.

Like any survivor of any disaster say The Stardust here in Dublin in 1981, the horrific fire in the tube station at King’s Cross in London in 1987 etc, the telling and re-telling of the story is undoubtedly therapeutic for the victims. As I’ve already stated in these pages the telling of our stories is a very important way of giving meaning to our lives. Joe himself admits he fears re-reading his own book in case he may relive the most harrowing experience of his whole life, literally dangling over the edge of a crevasse, over a dark abyss of nothingness and extinction.

Here’s a little from Jon Doran’s interview in Climber which I think is interesting: "My memories of falling and the avalanche are absolutely vivid. The problem comes when you are trying to articulate them beyond just the emotions ... when I tried to write that piece in Ghosts, I just tried to be back in the avalanche ... I can remember the terror, I can actually remember the physical sensation of what it was like and I can remember hanging by that fucking rope on the Dru. The best way I can describe that feeling is by standing on top of a skyscraper and a mate goes woooo ... pushes you off, then grabs hold of you." "That," he continues. "Is why Peru really fucked me up: writing Touching The Void wasn't cathartic in any way, it just scared the shit out of me. I had to recall all these things. I used to wake up in a cold sweat every night ... John [Stephenson] used to say there were these nightmarish screams and howls coming from my room. To go through all the blocks you've put there in your mind to stop yourself remembering was actually quite painful, quite disturbing and maybe that's why I don't particularly want to read Touching The Void." See the following link for the full article:

Like all good books Touching The Void opens simply and beautifully with an experience any of us who has ever done the least amount of camping can associate with: “I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a particular anonymity about being in tents.” (p. 15) What a marvellously clear and powerful opening this is - bringing us right into his wonderful book. Then his description of breaking his leg and falling is simple and startling: “I hit the slope at the base of the cliff before I saw it coming. I was facing into the slope and both knees locked as I struck it. I felt a shattering blow in my knee, felt bones splitting, and screamed. The impact catapulted me over backwards and down the slope of the East face. I slid, head-first, on my back. The rushing speed of it confused me. I thought of the drop below and felt nothing. Simon would be ripped off the mountain. He couldn’t hold this. I screamed again as I jerked to a sudden stop.” (p. 72) Simon manages to get to Joe and help him. They know they have to go on or they’ll die out there on the mountainside. Even with a broken leg Joe kept on. Joe was to fall a few more times after this, and then finally and almost fatally over the edge of the crevasse. The descriptions of these falls are frighteningly vivid. The reader’s heart is in his mouth. Then the simple stark description of Simon’s cutting the rope that connected them because he was in danger of being pulled off the mountain is brilliantly succinct: “I reached down again and this time I touched the blade to the rope. It needed no pressure. The taut rope exploded at the touch of the blade, and I flew backwards into the seat as the pulling strain vanished. I was shaking.” (p. 103) There are too many good descriptive passages to quote here, but this little piece is a beauty as he dangles over the crevasse: “I turned the torch off to save the batteries. The darkness seemed more oppressive than ever. Discovering what I had fallen into hadn’t cleared my mind. I was alone. The silent emptiness, and the dark, and the star-filled hole above, mocked my thoughts of escape. I could only think of Simon. He was the only chance of escape, but somehow I was convinced if he was not dead, then he would think that I was.” (p. 113)

To cut a long story short Joe miraculously climbed out or down the crevasse and literally crawled his way back (with broken leg) to camp where he was re-united with Simon and their friend Richard. In an epilogue written ten years later I can only marvel at Joe’s final words: “I can only add that however painful readers may think our experiences were, for me this book still falls short of articulating just how dreadful were some of those lonely days. I simply could not find the words to express the utter desolation of the experience.” (p. 206).

In another interview with Joe that I read yet again on the www and which I’m recalling from memory, he recounts that his drive to live during these terrible days that he recounts in his marvellous book was motivated by sheer loneliness and the desire to be hugged and at least die in human embrace. This thought strikes me deeply inside. A good friend of mine, Pat Fanning, goes to Zambia each summer holidays to work with children stricken by various diseases as well as the AIDS virus and he often describes emotionally how one little boy tugged at his sleeve to lift him up and cuddle him. He died in Pat’s arms. I will never question that deep desire within us for human intimacy. When Magnus Magnusson was presenting Joe with the 1989 NCR Award he said, and his words are worth pondering, “It is not just a book about mountaineering. Ultimately it is about the spirit of man and the lifeforce that drives us all.” Let these few words honour the awesome and terrible beauty that is our human spirit!

Above is a picture of Joe Simpson.

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