Interviewed by Jon Doran
Whether the tee-shirt is a statement, I don't know and I don't ask, but it makes a point. With two highly acclaimed autobiographical books and a novel to his name, Simpson is probably one of the most readable, accessible and successful 'climbing' authors around. The 'climbing' bit is in inverted commas, because Simpson's appeal and readership goes beyond the mountaineering audience. Cape, moreover, are an established publishing house, with a stable of literary figures, many of whom have never languished in a Peruvian crevasse or dragged themselves for days over rocky moraine in order to write their first book.
It's an extraordinary introduction to a career in literature. But then Simpson's record of surviving near death mountaineering experiences is pretty extraordinary too. He plays it down, but you'd have to be daft to believe that there isn't something in him that has him tottering along the edge of disaster with occasional forays over the brink. His early screamer from the Screen on Aonach Dubh, the avalanche on the Courtes, the nightmare bivouac with Ian Whittaker on the Bonatti Pillar and the Peruvian epic that turned his life upside down, followed by the near replay with Mal Duff on Pachermo.
It's hard to believe that the child who launched himself down 28 Gibraltarian steps onto a stone-flagged patio by tricycle isn't still lurking within the man. Simpson is obviously pretty sick of observations like these and in particular any suggestion that he's accident prone: "It drives me barmy when people say that! I happen to be alive, so maybe I'm survival prone," he says indignantly.
So what makes him survival prone? It's a hard question for Simpson to answer. He's constantly aware of friends in similar situations who haven't survived: "I know that they will have fought just as hard as I did and they just didn't get the breaks. I sometimes get more freaked out by why I've had these lucky breaks and some friends have been killed in the very first accident they've had. That makes me feel uncomfortable. I'm not a fatalist, I don't believe in destiny or anything like that..."
All this is said quietly, matter-of-factly, but with a considered conviction that comes from a lot of reflection. He goes on: "If you get a lucky break you have to really use it, you have to fight like a bastard. You can't just sit there and wait to get lucky. It doesn't happen. I get slightly pissed off when people say you're really lucky, cos I think, oh yeah, sure, yeah. I've had my leg smashed up and a lot of injured bones and I'd much rather not have had those and been climbing the way I was..." He pauses, and takes a metaphorical step back, aware perhaps of sounding ungrateful: "It's different now, because I look back and think, 'with the success as a writer, well maybe it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't done this,' but it's all very hypothetical."
You can imagine Simpson 'fighting like a bastard'. His manner may be quiet, but he speaks with quiet conviction. When he talks about his climbing he burns with an unashamed passion: "The idea of a life without climbing is, to me, quite horrific." He's also capable of being immensely argumentative: "I am quite stroppy, quite obdurate when I want to be. I'll argue black is white if necessary," he says. Get him onto a pet subject like the horrors of conversing with non-climbing journalists or our safety-first society and indignation oozes from every pore: "Everybody's as safe as fucking houses and then as soon as someone does something different they either applaud it or they tear it apart, you know. It drives me bananas actually..." And the physical side? "Before Peru, if you'd ever have said, could I have done that, I'd have said don't be stupid. I learned things about my body and what my body is capable of doing that I would never have understood."
Ah yes, the body. Joe's is showing the signs; the face, smacked up on Pachermo and now topped with a neat short back and sides, is lightly scarred, but more important are his legs. Perched on the edge of the hearth he demonstrates how the Peruvian demolition of his right knee means that stepping high tends to make him overbalance: "It pushes me over backwards, I have to climb differently. The knee is sort of destroying itself. I'm in a Catch 22; if I'd done what the surgeons said and led a sedentary life, there'd be so much scar tissue in there, I wouldn't be able to move it. I've had ten expeditions or more to the Himalaya or Karakoram and ironically it's keeping it alive." The real worry is the right ankle, which he pulverised on Pachermo: "Everything below there," he says indicating the bit where most ankles bend, "Is just like sugar. I think I'm going to have that fused, because if it gets any worse and I start limping because of the pain in the ankle, I'll be stressing the knee and I can't afford to stress the knee. You can fuse the ankle and still climb, but you can't fuse a knee. That would be the end of things, so I'm in a bit of a bind as far as injuries are concerned... But I'm not that bothered about it." He concludes rather perversely.
That final throwaway is there, I guess, because of his writing. The gripping Touching The Void was written mainly to get the story straight, he says: "I knew enough about climbing writing to know that it doesn't make much money." But it snowballed into a rampant success that has sold over 300,000 copies and been translated into more than 14 languages.
The effect on Simpson was rather like the bewilderment of popping out of that crevasse: "Suddenly it ['Void'] started becoming really well known and I became well known, which made me feel guilty, because I've got a lot of friends who are much better climbers than me."
"I sort of regained control by writing the novel [The Water People]. Writing again, and thinking: right, I'm a writer; which is how I see myself. I didn't set out to be a writer, but now I regard myself as a writer and it's something I enjoy and it's something I seem to have got back from what I lost, perhaps, in Peru."
What Simpson lost in Peru was the ability to climb as hard as he wanted to in the future, the thwarting of his ambition to become a hard man doing hard routes, a concept he now derides as "a load of bollocks really."
The climbing may not be as extreme as before - even though he's since completed more than ten Himalayan expeditions - but much of Simpson's intensity has been carried over into his writing: "It's a two-fold thing. On one level it earns me a living, which I've got to do, but it's actually something I'm quite passionate about and I really like. I don't think it will ever replace climbing, but it's something I can do which will be some compensation if I can't climb."
"There are similarities with writing and climbing, or for me there are, it's quite challenging and pretty scary, I think, to be doing it and I also find it to be a fairly small world in the way climbing is." What he dislikes about writing, what makes it scary, is the public nature of it, the months of research and writing with no real feedback followed by: "this horrible feeling that now you've got to wait. You can't do anything, you have to sit there and wait for the reviews to come in. And someone says 'What a load of crap!' And, you can say words shouldn't hurt, but they bloody well do, and you never get that with climbing. You never have to face that sort of criticism."
For all the passion, there's still a pragmatic bent to his writing. He's proud to have sold out all his advances and insists: "I don't have any huge literary pretensions. I just try to write the best I can and I want to make a living out of it." That's not to say that he doesn't care about quality, just that at the moment he's speaking about practicality.
One of the problems with talking to Simpson is that his commitment to whatever is in the now, tends to overshadow anything else. You only have to recline in his sitting room, surrounded by shelves of books from classic mountaineering epics to airport novels and everything in between, and talk books to appreciate that bubbling enthusiasm.
"Bonatti is my all time hero at every level, Cassin's books, Bühl's Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, Comici's books, those were all very inspirational. Lionel Terray's Conquistadors of the Useless, absolutely fantastic; Diemburger's Summits and Secrets, a superb book. Funnily enough Bonington in a way. I know Chris personally now and I can remember a time when I would have been tongue-tied and awe-struck beside him." He says. And then there are the non-climbing authors, hordes of them; Hemingway and Chatwin are the two most prominent, but he confesses to devouring virtually anything other than Jeffrey Archer and Barbara Cartland, particularly on expeditions.
At this point I ought to confess to being an unabashed admirer of Joe Simpson's work. Not just Touching The Void, but his other books too, and I'm interested to know how he approaches his craft and how it's affected him in other ways. A lot of his writing isn't really about climbing in the technical sense, more about life, emotion and obsession, of basic things experienced through climbing, what goes on in the head rather than the physical details.
He's got over an initial block that to write about climbing, you have to be a leading edge practitioner - "A load of bollocks... I was thinking I'm not climbing very hard any more, so I shouldn't be writing about climbing. Horse shit! To me climbing is about life, it's about all sorts of adventures and I will happily digress and go barrelling on about something else." And he does. "Maybe that's why a lot of non-climbers read my books. Maybe they're more accessible like that. The trouble is that no matter how good say, a Shining Mountain is, and I think it's a brilliant book, there's not many non-climbers going to read it, because it's about an extremely difficult ascent of Changabang and if they don't know anything about climbing, it's elitist before they start it."
He also questions the point of some expedition books. After first stressing the high quality of a lot of mountaineering literature, he ponders: "Sometimes I wonder why some of these books are produced, I don't mean to sound arrogant, a lot of formulaic-type expedition books - got a plane, climbed mountain, failed on mountain, came home again - and you think, well, why have they published this book? There seems to be a confusion between literature and photobooks, mixing them up together." His own books are anything but contrived, I wonder whether he finds it hard to be so open, so utterly honest in print. "Not really," he says. "I like writing like that and I find it natural to write like that and I'm not self-conscious about saying these things because they happen to be true... I'm not going to write about climbing in some understated way because it's one of the most passionate things that I do."
"I must admit that when I finished Touching The Void, feeling worried because, with the reserved British attitude, maybe I'd gone too emotional, too far, but how on earth are you supposed to express something unless you do it honestly? Even then... after finishing Touching The Void, I thought maybe that's gone halfway to describing how bad it was, but you can never really articulate it."
Even now he's never read Touching The Void, wary of the submerged memories it might bring back! Interestingly, he thinks the regular repetition of the story may have had an effect similar to post-traumatic stress treatment, where survivors of disasters are encouraged to recount their experiences again and again until the reality becomes a story instead of fact.
The other really striking aspect of Simpson's writing is the sheer vividness of his physical descriptions. It's not just a neat turn of phrase, though he has that too - on Simon Yates at the beginning of Void: 'He had a thatch of blond hair, blue laughing eyes, and that touch of madness that makes just a few people so special.' - more a gift for describing in detail the nuances and sensations of specific situations. The 'you're fucked matey' look in Yates' eyes for example, when he sees Joe's leg in Peru or the violence of the avalanche on the Courtes, even the tiniest details seem to be there. How does he do it?
"My memories of falling and the avalanche are absolutely vivid. The problem comes when you are trying to articulate them beyond just the emotions... When I tried to write that piece in Ghosts, I just tried to be back in the avalanche... I can remember the terror, I can actually remember the physical sensation of what it was like and I can remember hanging by that fucking rope on the Dru. The best way I can describe that feeling is by standing on top of a skyscraper and a mate goes woooo... pushes you off, then grabs hold of you."
"That," he continues. "Is why Peru really fucked me up. Writing Touching The Void wasn't cathartic in any way, it just scared the shit out of me. I had to recall all these things. I used to wake up in a cold sweat every night... John [Stephenson] used to say there were these nightmarish screams and howls coming from my room. To go through all the blocks you've put there in your mind to stop yourself remembering was actually quite painful, quite disturbing and maybe that's why I don't particularly want to read Touching The Void."
Writing has also affected the way he looks at the world. Not so much climbing he says, but when travelling or in the pub: "My nearest analogy would be when I started paragliding. Prior to that I didn't know anything about lift or windforce, suddenly I started flying, and when I saw a bird I'd look at how it was flying; or notice smoke coming from a chimney and watch which way it was blowing. It had always been there, but the fact that flying meant, wind was an actual force you had to use, and you had to understand it to see whether you could fly or not, meant I noticed things I hadn't before and it's a bit like that with writing.
"I [now] look at things and think yeah, I'd really like to write about that, what is it about that, that I like, what would describe it, or create the emotions that it creates in me. I take notebooks around, I even take notebooks to the bloody pub because if you have a good idea, you haven't got a notebook, you get pissed, wake up and you can't remember anything."
To be honest his short term memory is pretty thin, probably as a result of nutting too many rocks, but he remembers the big things, the important things. Re-read The Water People after This Game of Ghosts and it's immediately apparent how he's used people and events from his own life - the avalanche being just one example. It was his novel that proved to him that he was more than a one-book wonder, that he could write, but also sign-posted his desire and ability to cover more than climbing. "I let go a bit and tried to write more expansively," he says.
If you were wondering, Jimmy is based on Joe himself, while Chris incorporates elements of himself and of a friend. The most satisfying characters though were the ones conjured out of thin air, the Major and the Hunter. "You know this business about writing fiction where they say the characters come to life? I'd always thought, bollocks, but that happened with those two characters, they weren't even in it initially. I really enjoyed it seeing that happen."
Void, Ghosts - his personal favourite - and Water People are almost like a trilogy, three different types of book, but sharing common ground. Simpson's latest work Storms of Silence, takes another step away from pure climbing writing. It's subject is the brutality and virtual cultural genocide inflicted on Tibet by China and "a sense of travelling with your eyes open, the business of going to Tibet and learning about the history. When you know the history, you're making excuses for yourself, learning more and being appalled by what you seem to have supported by going there... The fact is, you often go to countries with an appalling human rights record and play essentially luxurious western games." By which he means climbing. His message is: "It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but you should try and come back with a fuller perspective of other people's lives and other people's cultures."
It's a far cry from the obsessive route-bagger who swaggers through the first half of This Game Of Ghosts, the young tyro who finished his degree only out of duty to his parents then chose to climb, the man who 'didn't want a career, marriage or family, anything that would tie me down.'
"As you get older you think you're going to live a bit longer, start being a bit more aware of your own mortality, stop thinking this business that you know, you're going to die at 30."
Looking back, he's brutally honest about Siula Grande; the route he climbed with Yates, the South West face is still unrepeated. He says now that the only reason they were able to climb it, was that the weather was terrible, dumping snow on the face - "I've seen pictures taken a year later and the icefield's brown." - the nightmarish, double-corniced descent ridge is, in fact, the normal route on the mountain.
Friends like Yates have gone on to more extreme routes, but Joe's ambitions have been moderated, both by the physical legacy of Peru and Pachermo and by a wider, more receptive state of mind that he suggests owes much to the writing process. He claims to climb in a blue funk. "I don't think I'll ever climb to that grade again... I don't particularly want to. I climb in a different way now, as much to travel - although I saw a new route last summer and promptly went and did it! I'm a bit of a tart as far as that's concerned!"
He enthuses about guiding. "I'm paid for it, but not much, I'm doing it as much because it gets me free climbing. After three weeks they go home, my mate comes out and we know what we're going to do, just very beautiful-looking mountains. What's really good about it is that it stops you taking it all for granted. I go on so many trips, I just think it's natural, then you see people, heads full of magic, and you think: 'Christ, I'm taking a lot for granted, this is brilliant, this view is stunning. This is why I want to be here.' That's what I like about it; you appreciate it more for yourself."
It's hard not to like someone whose enthusiasm for everything he does is so blatantly, obviously genuine. Apparently there have been mutterings that he's 'starting to believe his own publicity', to take himself too seriously, but all the opinionated intensity is underlaid by a quiet awareness of his own good fortune: "I'm very lucky in what I've got," he concludes. "I don't regret anything that's led to that. I could have done without some of the pain; but I think I'm really lucky, I can't complain. I'm also very aware it could all turn to ashes in five seconds."
And the future? A non-climbing novel, Simpson thinks, and he muses, perhaps a spoof about modern mountaineering and commercial, guided expeditions, a Rum Doodle for the nineties. As one door closes, another opens.
© 1996, Jon Doran, Mountain online
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