HOW WE MET JOE SIMPSON AND SIMON YATES
Joe Simpson I met Simon 12 years ago in Chamonix in the French Alps. A bunch of us were out there climbing. Even though I liked him straight away, I didn't decide to specifically climb with him. Some people have a partner they have been doing routes with for years, but Simon and I would climb with whoever happened to be around.
Having climbed in the Alps, it was a natural progression to want to move on to the great ranges. Simon and I worked through the winter to get the money for a trip to the Peruvian Andes in 1985, where we aimed to do the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande.
We were experienced climbers, but we'd never been to that altitude before: Siula Grande is 6,356m high, just under 21,000ft. We knew that we'd be doing a serious route and that a lot of people had failed it. We also knew that if anything went wrong there was no chance of anyone coming to rescue us.
I got on well with Simon but deciding to go on the trip with him wasn't something I analysed.You just think: yeah, he can climb, and I get on with him.
We succeeded in reaching the summit of Siula Grande two and a half days after leaving base camp, but we were frost- bitten and completely wasted. There wasn't time to hang around, so we took some pictures and started going down the North Ridge. We went as far as we could before dark, then spent the first night of the descent in a snow-hole.
The next day, climbing down was difficult; we were making slow progress. I was some way ahead of Simon when I slipped and fell. When the realisation that the impact had broken my leg sank in, I looked around and thought, "I'm dead." I was at 6,000m and I couldn't think how we could get out; a mountain rescue team needs eight or 10 men to get someone with a broken leg off a mountain.
I was dreading having to tell Simon. I could tell by the way he looked at me that he knew I was in really deep shit. What he should really have said was, "I'll go off and get some help," which would have been a euphemism for, "You've had it." Instead, he chose to try and save my life by lowering me thousands of feet down the mountain on a rope, at great risk to himself. It was an incredible feat of mountaineering and we descended about 3,000ft in this way.
By dark, the conditions were appalling. We had seen that we were not that far from the glacier, so we decided to keep going down as there was a better chance of finding somewhere to shelter there. Anyway, we were practically there - just one final effort and we'd have got down on the glacier.
Had it been daylight, we'd have seen that there was a sheer cliff of ice directly in our path - which could have been avoided - but in the blackness Simon inadvertently lowered me over the edge. Instead of being able to support my own weight to some degree on a mountainside, I was now dangling in space with my full weight on the rope. Simon couldn't support the strain and I was dragging him down with me. In order to stop himself plummeting over the edge, the only thing he could do was cut the rope and let me go - to prevent us both being dragged to our deaths. He obviously knew that this could kill me, but he had no choice.
At the foot of the cliff there was a massive crevasse which I fell into. Luckily, I landed on a ledge system from where it was possible to reach a steep slope which actually led out on to the glacier. For someone with two working legs, getting back to base camp would have taken five or six hours, but dragging myself took me four days, with no food or water. People have said it was heroic, but I was doing the only thing I could do in the circumstances. One of the worst aspects was the fear that Simon might have already left. Had I turned up two hours later, that would have been the case.
It's odd that people imagine I think badly of Simon for cutting the rope. There's a pragmatic side to mountaineering which armchair climbers and the public do not understand. After I landed in the crevasse I did feel angry, but at the circumstances, not with Simon. I felt no resentment towards him whatsoever. It would have been totally illogical for Simon to die with me. In fact, because of his decision to cut the rope, we both lived.
I did crack up when I got home. I was told by doctors that, as the bone in my lower leg had been driven up through the knee, I'd never walk again, let alone climb. At the same time, Simon was climbing the North Face of the Eiger, something I'd always wanted to do. I was determined that I wouldn't accept the opinion of the doctors. I did prove the doctors wrong, but it wasn't until five years later, when I climbed Ama Dablam in Nepal, that I succeeded.
The long-term psychological trauma of the accident hasn't changed our relationship: we like one another and we get on and that's that. Just because we have had this incredibly powerful experience together doesn't mean we're bonded for the rest of our lives in some way.
SIMON YATES: We got to know each other in 1984 in Chamonix in the French Alps. Joe and I got on well, drank a lot of cheap red wine and did some climbing.
I think the idea of making a trip to Peru the following year was first mooted during that summer in the Alps. We were both keen to go on to bigger mountains. At the end of the summer Joe decided to come and live in Sheffield, where I was living, because there was a big climbing scene there. Over the winter the idea of going to Peru took shape.
Originally, four of us planned to climb the West Face of the Siula Grande in the Andes, but the other two were invited to go on an expedition with Doug Scott, so they went to Pakistan instead. To an extent, a climbing partnership is a marriage of convenience. You have to be pretty evenly matched in terms of temperament and ability. I got on well with Joe; I knew he was ambitious but fair.
Reaching the summit of Siula Grande, we didn't feel so much elated as simply happy to get there in one piece. The relief at getting to the top was short-lived. We stayed there about five minutes before starting down, as it was mid-afternoon by this stage. We chose to go down the North Ridge, as we thought it would be simpler than the West Face we had just come up, but it proved to be just as bad. We spent the night in a snow-hole and carried on in the morning. We were roped up, and Joe was ahead, hidden by a crest. I felt a tug on the rope, and when I caught up with Joe and discovered he had broken his leg, I felt pretty bloody horrified. We were still at 20,000ft, and I thought that we had both had it. I knew the only thing was to try to rescue him.
I started lowering Joe down on the rope. By early afternoon conditions had become pretty bad with small avalanches pouring down the face. We could see the glacier not far below, and as it was bitterly cold we decided to keep going .
In the darkness, I accidentally lowered Joe over an ice cliff. I had all of Joe's weight on the rope and I couldn't hold it - I was being pulled towards the edge of the cliff, too. Cutting the rope was the only choice I had, even though it was obvious that it was likely to kill Joe. There wasn't much time to think; it was just something which had to be done quickly or I `d have been dragged to my death.
After I'd cut the rope I was in a state of shock and exhaustion. I spent the night in a snow-hole; there was nothing I could do until morning. The following day, I saw the huge crevasse beyond the ice cliff - and realised that's where Joe had gone. I shouted across the crevasse but I didn't think of looking in it - it seemed impossible he could have survived.
I made my way back to base camp, where I spent a few days recovering physically; the grieving process hadn't yet started. On the third day I decided to pack up; there was no point staying; I was asleep in the tent when I was woken by Joe's voice, calling my name. My first reaction was delight, but I was shocked when I saw that he was on his last legs.
I don't really care what people outside climbing think about the cutting of the rope, because they don't understand what was involved. Sometimes someone who thinks what I did was unacceptable will come up and verbally assault me. The rope between two climbers is symbolic of trust and to cut it is viewed as a selfish act. What's important is that Joe didn't think that, and the first thing he did when he crawled back into camp was to thank me for trying to get him down.
In mountaineering you have to make logical, cold decisions. At the time it was the only thing I could have done. You can go on and on about the what ifs, but if I hadn't cut the rope I would certainly have died. I don't think the accident has marred our friendship. We were quite matter- of-fact about what happened. It was a bizarre thing to happen, like a fairy story - it even had a happy ending. It was something we drew a line under there and then, although it was part of Joe's life longer, as he suffered more mental and physical trauma than me.
I see us always being friends. When we meet up we have a few beers and catch up on what we have both been doing. We have both lost an awful lot of friends through climbing and the risks you are willing to take decrease as you get older. The impatience to succeed is tempered by the knowledge that the mountain will still be there next year. !
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