Powerful Moments

David Craig

  • Touching the void by Joe Simpson
    Cape, 172 pp, £10.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 224 02545 7
  • Climbers by M. John Harrison
    Gollancz, 221 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 575 03632 X

These two books about climbing, a memoir set in the Andes and a novel set in the Pennines – each of them as excellent of its own kind as we are likely to get – between them raise again the question posed by all attempts to write creatively about experience in conditions of extreme steepness and altitude: how to do it in ways that evoke the heart of the experience and don’t resort unduly to its more freakish terrors?

The wonder of Joe Simpson’s escape back into life is both that he survived near death on the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes and that he has the power of recall to do justice in vivid and original phrasing to an episode which will remain as a true myth of survival through hair’s-breadth chances and uncommon fortitude. The plot of the myth is perhaps famous enough by now for it not to matter if a reviewer gives it away. Simpson and Simon Yates had climbed a colossal aiguille in the Andes and were inching back down again. Their photos show monstrous black teeth jutting through the weltering golden clouds of sunset, cliff faces so huge it is as though the whole fall of dark space between the Moon and the Earth had hardened into pure rock starred and grained by ice and scored by the soaring white flutes of avalanche tracks. Simpson fell when his axes tore out of brittle ice. His knee shattered. Yates started to lower him, his hands stiffened into claws by frostbite. Simpson fell again, dangled in a crevasse. To save at least one life from certain disaster, Yates cut the rope, then barely got himself off the mountain, numbed by cold and remorse. Simpson had not died, but had lodged on a snow bridge, deep in freezing darkness. He lowered himself to the bottom, crawled up and out into sunlight, hopped for six miles over glacier and moraine, and collapsed at base camp a few hours before the team had been due to leave for good.

All this is told with a sensuous force and psychological precision which make the experience much more available than is usual in mountain literature. Simpson remembers and confronts the difficult dynamic which the accident created between the two friends:

  ‘Are you sure it’s broken?’

  ‘Yes.’

  He stared at me. It seemed that he looked harder and longer than he should have done because he turned away sharply. Not sharply enough though. I had seen the look come across his face briefly, but in that instant I knew his thoughts. He had an odd air of detachment. I felt unnerved by it, felt suddenly quite different from him, alienated. His eyes had been full of thoughts. Pity. Pity and something else; a distance given to a wounded animal which could not be helped.

As he swings above the crevasse or lies deep down in it, he is rapt by its beauty: ‘I saw stars in a dark gap above me. Stars, or lights in my head ...’ And as he grovels down the long gauntlet of thirst and pain from glacier-snout to camp, semi-delirious visions plague him: ‘I started ahead at the gradually widening yellow gully and peopled it with other figures shuffling along its bed. I imagined an exodus of cripples taking this yellow path to the sea.’

All those powerful moments come from the two-thirds of the book that follow the accident. From the first third I already remember nothing. This is the problem. We climb not in order to undergo amazing horrors of frostbite, fracture and starved thirst but for the liberating joy of concentrating our whole minds, limbs, imaginations into that blazing gestalt which can happen on the great grey bulging strakes of Scafell’s East Buttress, or the last pale-gold extremity of Cornwall, or the weirdly sculpted spires of the Dolomites. Climbing writers, however, almost never reach beyond the banal when they are concerned with the heart of their experience. It takes epic disasters to rouse their language to levels above the workmanlike. I except Andrew Greig, the Scottish poet who has gone on two Himalayan expeditions to write about them. If our touchstone (among living writers) is W.H. Murray, with his power of opening up a quiet, unremarkable hour in the mountains into layers and vistas of visionary meaning, few climbing writers attain this unless chance presents them with an ordeal so terrible that they are moved out of themselves – ‘beside themselves’ might be a better phrase since the self is often split by extreme stress and exhaustion (Doug Scott speaking to his feet in his bivouac with Dougal Haston near the summit of Everest, Joe Simpson’s ‘voice’ that kept him right on his agonising descent).

It is a mark of John Harrison’s quality in Climbers that he never milks accidents to produce climactic passages. Climaxes, sexual or other, are something he avoids. His cinematic eye and vocal mimicry are preternatural and enable him to be intense without melodrama. He is at home in muddy gritstone quarries, caffs with steamy windows, embarrassed funerals, long drives through the rain in beat-up vans: the sub-culture of climbers from Sheffield and Manchester whose young manhood is spent among those crags with grating surfaces and features carved like totems, compacted of coarse sand from prehistoric deltas, which stud the Pennine foothills like great granary loaves. The novel cuts from frame to frame, sequence to sequence, in a staccato that perfectly matches that terrain: broad moors that break off and drop abruptly; the various settlements, perched beside quarries, cuttings and steep-sided dales; stubby sawn-off terraces of brick or sandstone; gawky, obsolescent machinery; and the young folk’s lives, lived from weekend to weekend, partner to partner, climb to climb, and one hard job to another.

Harrison’s style has the suddenness of current film. Each image is stunning while it lasts. Snapshots of people: ‘David was a fireman, whose prematurely white hair give him a kind but slightly overdressed look, like a professional snooker player.’ Of animals (a mortally injured cat): ‘The eye on that side had been pushed in, causing it to turn and lift its head irritably every so often, as if it could see something through it that wasn’t there.’ Of crags (Almscliffe near Leeds): ‘Being there is like watching an old elephant, dying split-skinned in its own tremendous ammoniacal reek, gazing patiently back at you in a zoo. It hasn’t moved for a long time, you judge, but you can still detect the tremor of its breathor is it your own?’ Of fantasy (city children escaped from a Variety Club ‘Sunshine Coach’ and gone feral on the moors below the Snake Pass): ‘When there are no more ramblers, the girls might run down a sheep: three or four flickers of naked white speed against the rain and the endless black peat rollers: a fire in the night. A girl on her own will not light a fire, but get into the warm carcass and curl up instead, to conserve heat.’ As in a Mike Leigh film, ‘ordinary’ people turn bizarre under the camera’s brilliant definition, enlargement and selectivity – so that they seem both idiosyncratic and typical. At one point the smell of creosote is likened to ‘the smell of an unguarded physical commitment to the moment’ and this is in tune with the current climbing ethos which abstains from philosophising, preferring to immerse itself in perceptions evoked in the hypersensory language of the drug culture. Such imagery can be heartless: of a seriously injured climber the narrator says that ‘strapped to a Thomas stretcher, he reminded me of a chrysalis, primed and pupating.’ This goes naturally with the climbers’ hardboiled lifestyle: they rarely express liking, the’re hard on each other, they hate their jobs (‘what a crock of shit’), they like to seem invulnerable.

Inside the throwaway cynicism and the emphasised squalor there is a good deal of barely-repressed machismo, including the writer’s. Although he, or rather ‘I’, is carefully defined as the incomer and learner of the group, this is the convention whereby the first-person narrator is set up as blatantly modest. Now and again the cowboy toughness is allowed to show: for example, a rock-climb called A Touch of Class is said to be ‘quite easy’. It really exists, in a disused limestone quarry three miles from my home in south Cumbria. It goes up a deep crack in a thirty-metre, eighty-degree wall and it is graded Hard Very Severe. It has become much harder since a huge block fell out of me overhang near the start, and you finish the climb on carious holds smeared with dribbles of clayey orange earth. In the novel an unnamed character falls off it and dies with cerebrospinal fluid dripping from his nose and ears, saying mildly: ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to tell me again: have I done the route already, or what? I’m not quite clear about that still.’ The photography, and the soundtrack, of such a scene are faultless; what is missing is a sense that anything matters more than anything else, or that lasting feelings or relationships might count for more than momentary ones. The novel withholds or bypasses those cruxes in lives when we are more open than usual, less armoured (like Simpson’s pang of estrangement from Yates after his first fall on Siula Grande).

One of the few I noticed occurs at the end of Part Three, Chapter 12, ‘Sankey and his Sister’: at a New Year party Sankey, the senior of the group, a highly intelligent man who has never done much with his life, looks suddenly ‘quite blank with anger ... like someone waking up suddenly and wondering how he came to be where he was’. Mostly, however, these lives register as scintillations, even when major things happen like the end of a long relationship or moving home two hundred miles, and deeper involvements usually come to nothing or happen off-camera. In just one episode the narrator is challenged to reveal himself. A character he doesn’t know well, a steeplejack called Stox, ‘wiped his mouth and said with a grin, “And what’s this I hear about you screwing Normal’s wife?” ’ There follows a short genuinely erotic flash-back. But both Normal and his wife have often been present earlier. To have withheld the covert affair is almost a cheat, or at all events serves to excuse the author from going into the difficult emotions and dissimulations which would have been entailed.

The dust-jacket (which carries one of the most imaginative designs I have ever seen) refers to ‘the strategies of escape we all devise to make the world bearable’. Climbing is certainly one of these, but it also returns us to ourselves, and really good books ‘about climbing’ must be as fully in touch with the steady beating of our hearts as with their wilder peaks. If Harrison had shown us more of the narrator’s life with Pauline (from whom he parts for no particular reason), we might have had a stronger sense of why these other episodes in his life still matter once they have twinged across the screen, and the same might be true if Joe Simpson had attended as fully to what absorbs and fulfils him in the main course of his mountaineering as he does to his staggering adventure.