It's been vile, this bout of 'flu. I've been wiped out for two weeks and am still not quite right. But while I was breaking into a cold sweat climbing the kitchen stairs with another mug of Lemsip, I raised a reddened eye at the bookcase as I paused for breath, trembling, and saw exactly the companion I wanted: Joe Simpson. Possibly because the stairs in our house felt like the North Face of the Eiger at that moment, only the perspective of a mountaineer would do.
Simpson is the master of the adventure and endurance tale. Touching the Void, the story of his extraordinary survival against the odds after a climbing accident on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, made his name. But he is a compelling writer who has gone on to write several other books that examine the psychology of the human spirit in adversity and under pressure.
The book I reached out for on the stairs was The Beckoning Silence. It's a sombre read. In other hands, it could be anything but inspirational. In it, Simpson reflects on his climbing career and the accidents and near-misses he has been lucky enough to return from. He intersperses his own experiences with the accounts of the daring ascents that inspired him to start climbing, and the tragic outcomes that awaited the bravest of them all. The world opens up: from the Himalayas to an avalanche in Bolivia, paragliding in Spain, and extreme ice-climbing in the Alps and Colorado. As he writes:
"There is something about reading that takes you beyond the constrictions of time and space, frees you from the limitations of social interaction and allows you to escape. Whoever you encounter within the pages of a book, whatever lives you vicariously live with them can affect you deeply - entertain you briefly, change your view of the world, open your eyes to a wholly different concept of living and the value of life."
Well. The stories in these pages are so terrifying, the writing so tense and dramatic, that after a while it was hard to tell whether my clammy skin and rapid heartbeat was the result of empathy with the doomed climbers caught in storms in inhospitable places, or my own imminent demise from foggy headache and racking cough.
The legendary route up the Eiger is marked by chilling names. Death Bivouac. Traverse of the Gods. Difficult Crack (Blimey, if these stony mountain men think it's difficult...it must be Absolutely Bloody Impossible.) Climbers have to spend at least one night roped to an almost sheer face on their way to the summit. When I couldn't sleep at night, I focused on thinking how much worse my situation could be on Death Bivouac in a snow storm...
On the Eiger, the mountain face can transform in an instant. Simpson watches from a (relatively) safe shelter as the rock wall becomes a confusion of small avalanches, waterfalls, hail, and boulders skittering down, any one of which can kill. Here is Simpson's description of what happened to two other climbers on the Eiger during his own ascent with his climbing partner Ray:
"The fall was slow, almost lazy. He stepped across his left foot with his right and planted his feet parallel to the ice field. Then he fell. He wasn't hit by falling rocks and there was no indication of a hard impact, no sudden, violent loss of balance. His feet simply slithered away beneath him and he went down onto his right hip and then onto his flank.
It seemed to be the fall of a tired man - a typical slip that every climber has experienced at some point in his climbing career.
The figure twisted round swiftly onto his stomach, raised his ice axe and aimed a hard blow at the ice field, to little effect. The band of soft snow absorbed the ice pick but gave no purchase. Immediately he swung with his other axe but it cut through just as easily as the first. He tried again with the axe. Nothing happened. He still seemed to be sliding down with deceptive, almost languid slowness. As he made a final swing with his axe - more hurried as if with the first hint of desperation - his body moved onto the snow-free hard ice and he accelerated away with brutal abruptness."
As the first man's fall becomes unstoppable, the momentum pulls the rope connecting him to his partner, snapping him away from the wall. There is nothing than can save them.
Even if you don't have an outdoor bone on your body, I highly recommend Joe Simpson's books to open up the world and take an unflinching look at its big questions. At the first sign of a sniffle, take one immediately.