Joe Simpson: The man who came back from his icy grave

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The Independent Online

"Well," said Joe Simpson, on seeing for the first time in 18 years the mountain down which he had crawled for three days with a broken leg, close to death. "The fucker's still there."

And so, one has to point out, is Simpson. Yet as he discovered while filming a drama-documentary of Touching the Void, the harrowing book he wrote in 1988 about his experiences, the mountain is probably in better shape. The project did not go smoothly: there were furious rows on the set, which led to Simon Yates - Simpson's original climbing partner from 1985, who had come back too - first confronting the director Kevin Macdonald and then walking out on the project.

Simpson himself suffered panic attacks, and began thinking that the intervening 18 years had been a dream, that he was once more crawling, stricken, across the moraine of the implacable mountain's glacier towards what he hoped would be help.

The whole experience left Macdonald, who admits he had never done anything more strenuous than walking up Ben Lomond, bemused. "I thought making this film would help me understand climbers and why they climbed, but it hasn't. Now I think they're madder than ever."

The film opens next week, and will only add to the enduring mystery which Simpson, quite unintentionally at first but now with a weary familiarity, embodies. Why do people do things that are dangerous, yet pointless? Why climb mountains? What do people hope to find there?

In 1985, Simpson and Yates, then 25 and 21, knew the answer. They were looking for the respect of their Sheffield peers and other mountaineers around the world. The west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes was unclimbed. They wanted to conquer that, and other peaks around the world, and be recognised as people who could do what they set out to do.

Born in 1960, the son of a lieutenant-colonel who told him that men did not cry in public, Simpson went first to Ampleforth public school in Yorkshire, and then to Edinburgh University where he read English and Philosophy.

Ironically, in view of later events, his dissertation was on the strengths and limitations of existentialism as a form of literary criticism.

"You had to define existentialism, which nearly killed me," he said recently. (The dictionary offers "a philosophical theory which considers human beings as morally free and responsible for making their own system of values in an otherwise meaningless universe.")

But he had been turned on to climbing by reading Heinrich Harrer's book The White Spider, an account of the first ascent in 1938, after many fatalities, of the north face of the Eiger. (The "white spider" refers to a pattern of ice on the mountain.) He recalls: "My logic was, 'God, this is so awful, what they're doing, there must be something really good in this if they think this is worth enduring'."

So he and Yates went to Peru, and attacked the Siula Grande route, and in the course of three blizzard-racked days managed to reach the summit. To them, the achievement was a crowning glory; yet to the wider public it would have remained an anonymous moment between anonymous men if Simpson had not slipped on the descent, destroying his right knee joint.

Now Yates had a choice: abandon him, or help him down. He chose the latter, lowering Simpson through gathering storms on ropes knotted together for a whole day. They were close, so close, to the final manoeuvre, when abruptly Simpson and the rope slid over an overhang. Dangling, he couldn't climb the rope, and Yates, sitting on the slope above in powdery snow, couldn't pull him up. Yates agonised over what to do for several hours, while slowly sliding towards the overhang which meant certain death for them both. He decided to cut the rope.

Certain that his friend had died in the fall to the bottom of the crevasse, he headed back to the camp. Simpson was not dead, though; despite his injuries he managed to crawl and struggle back, reaching the base camp just hours before Yates packed up.

It would be compelling enough as a novel - though the ending might feel a little contrived. "The strange thing is that 90 per cent of the people who read the book aren't climbers, so they must get some inspirational message from it," said Simpson this week.

Perhaps it's because, knowing it's a real-life tale, shot through with the fine-grained detail of pain and struggle, where death is the only certainty and the time of its arrival the only uncertainty, it feels like a metaphor for all our lives - and holds out some hope for redemption of sorts at the end without being in the least bit religious. (Indeed, despite his upbringing, Simpson is stolidly atheist, which he confirmed to himself while lying abandoned and injured in a deep crevasse on Siula Grande.)

Yates and Simpson returned home. While Simpson endured extensive surgery and lengthy recuperation, Yates continued climbing with the aim he had initially had, and within weeks of returning to Europe had climbed the Eiger's north face.

Simpson began writing about his experience to exonerate Yates. "When I got home many climbers heard about it and were highly critical of him, and the story went round and round until the only thing people could remember about him was his cutting the rope, completely ignoring the single-handed mountain rescue he had done. Given that I thanked him the moment I saw him again, I think that says what I thought there.

"If it had sold 2,000 copies, I would have been happy. But it sold millions and went round the world."

Published in 1988, the book gathered sales through word of mouth and in 1989 won the £25,000 NCR Non-Fiction Award, fighting off Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Now it has sold millions, and been reprinted again and again (and has just been reissued to coincide with the release of the film).

Simpson admits he was initially overwhelmed by the book's success, and turned the advance and quite a few of the royalties into pints of beer. Yet the money and his climbing accident tore him away both from the lifestyle of the ambitious but impoverished climbers who abound in Sheffield, and from his ambition to conquer the hard, interesting peaks.

And the respect he wanted for his climbing appeared instead to be for his writing.

But that has had its effects too. "Because I never planned to be an author, I feel continually harassed by the 'impostor syndrome', the feeling that any day now someone is going to find me out, stand up in a crowded room and denounce me as a fraud," he wrote earlier this year. "I am always startled and filled with gratitude when readers tell me they like my writing."

It's not just his writing. Simpson gives corporate motivation lectures which build on those experiences, and his other struggles (such as the time he fell down a mountain in Nepal, seriously breaking his ankle, or was avalanched in the Alps). He insists he's not accident-prone; though one has to accept that after all his body has been through, he's probably more fragile than the average mountaineer. He doesn't need notes; he relives those days for the audience, giving a sort of oral history of an experience they should hope they never have to survive.

He is also brutally honest about the pointlessness of climbing. It's a game, as he acknowledges, and a deadly one; hence his second non-fiction book, This Game of Ghosts, about his experiences in Nepal, which reflects on how many of his friends have died while pursuing nothing more than a summit. He has written six in all; the second was a novel, but the rest have all been climbing-related, including his most recent, The Beckoning Silence, about his self-doubt during a failed attempt on the Eiger. (He plans to try again next year.)

Yet having experienced the indifference of the universe to his existence at close quarters, and despite knowing the meaning of existentialism, he seems reluctant to believe that humans so frequently have different systems of values from his own.

Another book, Dark Shadows Falling dealt, in part, with his fury at the disorder on the higher slopes of Everest, where people have actually climbed up or down past other stricken climbers without offering help. It's sometimes said that "above 8,000m [known as the Death Zone, as your body is dying there] you cannot afford morality". Simpson has never done high-altitude mountaineering (above 8,000m). In a sense, his criticism here is the same as that made by those who knew only that Yates had cut the rope, but not how he had saved Simpson's life previously.

Both climbers are inured to the way that the cutting of the rope has tied them together, and to that mountain. The fucker's still there. But while Yates went on to climb and to marry and have children, Simpson has never married, never quite been able to settle down. He drives a silver Mercedes. He likes his beer. He likes the camaraderie of climbing, and brushes off the suggestion that it's "daft".

"We're intelligent. We knew the risks," he says. "It's not as if we went there and had an accident and thought 'Oo, this is dangerous'."

After Peru, despite the days dragging his shattered leg and ankle over rocks, he was physically still able to climb, even though the doctors insisted he never would. Simpson thus joined a long list of climbers with broken bones who have confounded orthopaedic specialists. And he carried on despite the escalating number of close friends, colleagues and acquaintances who died on the mountains.

But he says that after the accident in Peru, "I've never [again] done a route that committing". It wasn't his body, but his mind which let him down. The prospect of facing a moment when he would again stare into the abyss was too much. That's what being on the ground, staring at Siula Grande, brought back to him again: that whatever he did, the mountain wouldn't go away.

LIFE STORY

Born

13 August 1960 in Kuala Lumpur.

Family

Unmarried, despite several long-term relationships. No children. Has a dog, Muttley.

Education

Ampleforth public school; Edinburgh University (English and philosophy).

Literary career

Touching the Void (1988), The Water People (1992), This Game of Ghosts (1994), Storms of Silence (1996), Dark Shadows Falling (1997), The Beckoning Silence (2002).

Awards

Boardman-Tasker prize for climbing writing (1988), NCR Non-Fiction prize (1989), German Literature Prize (1990), Spanish Mountaineering Literature prize (1993), all for Touching the Void; Speaker of the Year, Association of Speakers' Clubs; 2003 National Outdoor Book Awards, Literature Category for The Beckoning Silence; May 2003 Sony Gold Speech Award for radio broadcast Stark Talk.

Hobbies

Rock and ice climbing, paragliding, big game and saltwater fly fishing, golf, scuba diving, snooker, clubbing and photography.

He says

"The most memorable event in my life? Living."

They say

"His life has been defined by what happened and by retelling it again and again." - Simon Yates, climbing partner

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