Posted by: Andrea | August 13, 2008

The Beckoning Silence

It’s not a very big secret to people who know me (or previous readers of this blog) that I’m a huge fan of alpine mountaineering.  I find it endlessly fascinating.  I adore reading about it, watching movies about it, talking about it.  Any tv show or documentary about a mountain I will watch.  I once watched the entire marathon of Everest: Beyond the Limit the day after I flew back home for Christmas, even though I hadn’t seen my family in six months.  Visiting friends?  Forget that, there are people about to freeze to death on Everest!

I pretty much love everything about extreme mountaineering except for one teeny tiny thing: actually doing it myself.  I’m drawn to the idea of a personal challenge, to pushing myself as far or further than I think I can go.  But doing that in a situation where if I make a mistake I could die, I don’t particularly love the idea of that.  I have such immense and unending respect for people who can do it, mainly because I wish that I could do it myself.

The most recent book I’ve read about extreme mountaineering is The Beckoning Silence by Joe Simpson.  Joe is arguably the most famous mountaineer outside climbing circles due to his book Touching the Void.  Along with that guy who cut off his own arm with a swiss army knife, Joe’s is one of the most famous survival stories.  One of those oh-my-god-I-could-never-do-that-I’d-totally-have-died-if-that-was-me stories that never cease to awe and amaze readers everywhere.  For people who haven’t ever read the book or seen the subsequent movie, Joe was climbing Siula Grande in the Andes with his climbing partner, Simon Yates, when they were caught in a storm.  On their descent, Joe fell and broke his leg so badly the bone broke through his knee.  Simon managed to lower Joe down the majority of the mountain before the two suffered another fall.  Simon was left on the edge of a crevasse with Joe dangling on a rope forty feet below.  After an hour of yelling down to Joe through the screaming wind and snow, Simon decided his only option was to cut the rope.  Amazingly, Joe survived the fall and over the next 3 ½ days he crawled out of the crevasse and down the mountain to base camp.

Joe was only in his early twenties when he wrote Touching the Void.  Though he admittedly is now a better climber than he was then, he has also lost some of the brash bravado that characterised his earlier trips in the mountains.  He has lost many friends through climbing accidents and natural disasters and as he began writing The Beckoning Silence he was questioning his desire to climb.  He was tired of seeing so much death and wished to end his mountaineering career on a high note.  He decided the best way to do this was to do one last climb.  That climb would be one he’s wanted to do his whole life, one that remains one of the most challenging alpine routes in the world: the north face of the Eiger.

It probably goes without saying that I loved this book.  Of course, I love ALL mountaineering books, but what really made this one special to me was the way Joe examined his motivation for climbing.  He admitted to being deeply, intensely scared on a regular basis while climbing, something that often isn’t discussed much.  As one who has experienced The Fear myself while rock climbing, it was refreshing to hear that I wasn’t so much different from other climbers that I admire.  He’s also an incredibly effective writer when describing the conditions that mountaineers face when up in the mountains.  In particular I thought he touched on the dynamics of climbing partners very well.  When you put your life in someone else’s hands, the decisions he or she makes take on huge significance.  Towards the beginning of the book Joe described an ice climb with his climbing partner.  The ice was poor and protection was non-existent.  All Joe could do was stand and watch as his climbing partner climbed higher and higher, knowing all the while that if he fell, Joe would most likely be pulled off the wall with him.  Having been in that situation (ok, not exactly THAT situation, but having been up on a wall and worried about protection holding) I was seriously ill to my stomach reading it.  He described the fear and tension of that so incredibly well, I felt like I was right there with him.

I know climbing and mountaineering isn’t for everyone, but this is a fantastic book about what it really means to be a climber.  It’s not an adventure like Touching the Void, but a much more introspective look at what drives mountaineers to do what they do.  It also has a great deal of information about the North Face of the Eiger and the many young men who have met their deaths on that face.  I had chills reading about the different attempts and the tragic circumstances in which some of them died.  I dare you to read the story of poor Toni Kurtz without taking a moment of silence for that poor guy.  Not to say that all of them died!  Joe and his climbing partner, Ray, actually ran into one of the first climbers to successfully climb the Eiger in 1938 while getting ready for their climb.  They were star-struck and could barely speak to him.  His wife?  She thought her husband was pretty cool and all, but had they ever heard the story of the British climber who broke his leg in the Andes and then crawled all the way out of the mountain?  Now THAT’S an amazing story!

So if any of you out there enjoy mountaineering books, give this one a try.  It has a little bit of everything in it,  And for more about the Eiger, try Heinrich Harrer’s book The White Spider.  I’ve heard great things and it’s next on my reading list!

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