B is for Bentley

November 10, 2008

I used to think the climber Neil Bentley wasn’t human like the rest of us.

He looked like he’d been transported from a world of supermen, probably landing on the North York moors as a baby in a ship made from a giant block of chalk.

First of all, he had that Batman expression - never smiling, always stony, dark and brooding, You can see this in the shots of him psyching up to climb Equilibrium: a superhero preparing to battle Gotham’s dark armies. Neil also had the skills and body of a superhero, making everything look so dammed easy: E7, EB, E9 and E10 - dispatching grit horror shows with as much fanfare as a man putting out the milk, making you wonder why he even bothers.

Basically, I used to hate the guy - who wouldn’t? If I’d been a super baddy I’d probably have enjoyed trying to defeat him (I never would have, of course, probably due to my over-long monologues before releasing the man-eating maggots!).

I used to see Neil occasionally when I worked at Outside in Hathersage, but he never said much - it’s best if superheroes aren’t too chatty. The first time I really talked to him was when he planned to free climb El Cap. He asked if I could run through some techniques with him and his film crew down at The Foundry - Neil’s personal training base - which I agreed to - after all how often do you get to teach a superman a trick or two?

I showed them how to haul and jumar and even though Neil was as big as a bull, he found hauling hard.

“It won’t be this hard on El Cap will it?” he shouted down from the top of the wall.

“No,” I said, “it’ll be much harder.”

And it was.

We moved on to jumaring and I showed Neil first how to pass a piece of gear by removing the top jumar from the rope and replacing it above the piece so that it could be removed, which he did pretty easily, moving up the wall past each piece on the rope until he reached the top. The next person to have a go was one of the film crew. Halfway up - with his top jumar removed from the rope - the bottom one popped off. Luckily I’d told him to tie into the rope each time he removed his jumar and so he came to an abrupt halt a few feet down - much to everyone’s relief.

On seeing this Neil turned to me and said: “You never told me to tie in!” It was true and the only answer I could give was, “Oh, I’m more careful with real people,”’ to which he responded with a disbelieving expression, “I am a real person Andy.”

We next met several years later when we worked on a film together, but in the time between these meetings we’d all seen how human Neil really was, coming as close to dying as you can, crushed by a flake in the Dolomites.  A normal man would have died.  But not Neil.

The result of the accident was that he had a visible limp, his thoughts were a little bit muddled sometimes - like anyone whose head gets squashed - but now he had an excuse for being a misery, which wasn’t a surprise when you go from being one of the best climbers on the planet to someone who has trouble climbing the stairs in the morning. Nevertheless, he still looked hero-like, only more like one of those post-modern Frank Miller creations, especially as he had a huge scar across the side of his face where his head was stitched back together.

People in the film kept asking me how Neil had got the scar.

They were too scared to ask him themselves, as he just stood looking miserable all the time, looking as if he’d pull your head off to cheer himself up a bit if he was asked. I told the first couple of people the truth about the accident, but as time went on I started to embellish the story a bit, which then become more embellished as it went around the crew,.

The first time the story came back to Neil I was, unfortunately, standing next to him.

A young grip came up and asked if it was true that his whole face had been ripped off and it had had to be sewn back on again.  Instead of answering, Neil just loomed over me and scowled.

This story continued to circulate and grow until eventually, it surfaced once more when a timid camera assistant plucked up the courage to ask Neil if the story was true.

“Excuse me,” he said, looking up at this colossus, “is it true that you once fell and broke your leg?” Neil nodded, amazed that someone had finally got part of the story right. “And did your mate lower you off the mountain?” Neil nodded again, looking at me to check I wasn’t feeding the guy the correct line via sign language.

“And then” the man continued, speeding up now as if he was now sure he wasn’t being wound up by his mates, “he lowered you into a crevasse and had to cut the rope with a knife and you had to crawl all the way down the glacier by yourself?”

Neil just looked at me, but instead of the scowl I expected I saw his stony face begin to crack as he burst out laughing,

The good thing about working with supermen is that slowly you begin to see the man behind the costume and in Neil’s case the ordinary man behind some extraordinary climbs.

I found out that Neil’s wife, Phil, was expecting their first baby and when he talked about it - voicing his excitement, worries and concerns - he didn’t seem like a superhero anymore. He talked about the human side of his accident and its effects on his family and about the stuff that’s fascinating about people but which never makes it into magazine profiles.

We ended up sharing a couple of lifts driving down from Sheffield and I realized that Neil wasn’t stony, he was just reflective, never giving his opinion until he’d had time to think it through - unlike me.

In getting to know Neil l realized that I’d spent my whole life making people into supermen, no doubt part of a coping strategy, my way of explaining away what makes some people extraordinary and others less so, but when we finally finished working together with any beliefs I’d had about Neil being superhuman had gone, replaced by a respect for someone who was as human as the rest of us.

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