In Jim Perrin’s book ‘The Villain’, his excellent biography of Don Willians, he makes a point that some of the climbers who died in the Himalayas in the 70 and 80s were not the best rock climbers, pointing out that perhaps their ambition was greater than their ability. I expect Jim’s thinking of people like Boardman, Tasker, and Macintyre (to name only a few!), who, although climbing respectably (probably E5 by today’s standards), weren’t climbing at the upper levels like Fawcett, Livesy, Bancroft, and the rest. It’s an interesting point, and one that should merit a wordy response, after all, Jim’s is one of the climbing’s most erudite writers, but knowing Jim I’ll keep it short and in the style of the Villain himself: bollocks.
What Jim fails to realise is that comparing Himalayan mountaineering, pushing human limits in the ‘death zone’ or at least where the term ‘no pain – no altitude gain’ sums up the sport, to cragging in the Pass in the sun, is like making a judgment between scuba diving and surfing. Same medium, different sport.
Most climbers are crag rats at heart, and although they may dabble in mountaineering, and sometimes excel for short periods, their hearts yearn for warm rock. Fundamentally they like having a good time, laughing, climbing in shorts and t-shirt, drinking too much red wine after a great route, waking up in tents in green fields to bluebird days. Like girls, they just want to have fun. Mountaineers on the other hand, although wishing for the same kind of relationship, generally have to find inner joys, especially those who chose to go where the air is a size 0. For them it’s not about the quick thrill of a hard mantle or 25 metres of grit ecstasy, it’s about days, weeks, sometimes months of hard work to reach a point that’s undefined within themselves. To say a mountaineer is lacking because they can’t crank 7a is like doubting a cavers ability to move safely underground because they can’t flash the Green Traverse.
Climbers like Andy Cave, Stevie Haston or Ben Bransby are prime examples of world-class rock climbers who dart into the mountains but never stay long. Sure they can transplant their skills onto huge faces, but deep down you know that their hearts lie in the sun, bouldering and cragging with friends. Going to the mountains is part of how things used to be, that long apprenticeship that took you from outcrops to multi-pitch, Scotland to the Alps, and eventually led to the greater ranges. I think partly this was led by an attitude that unless you followed this pilgrimage you weren’t a proper climber, but I’ve met loads of old climbers who simply hated both the Alps and trips to bigger mountains. It simply wasn’t what climbing was about.
The thing to remember is the further you get away from the simplest forms of climbing, namely bouldering and indoor plastic pulling, the further you move away from climbing itself, the thing you most want to do, and very often you’ll find you’re just walking. The bigger the objective, the more climbing turns to walk, waiting and wishing. Mountaineers love to feel superior to those people who never leave the climbing gym, but fundamentally who does the most climbing? It’s strange to think then of the traditional apprenticeships of climbing lead you away from what you most want. It’s no wonder then that climbers now tend to stick with what they love best.
We are all climbers and we all share many things in common, but I think often there is a tendency to feel that what we do somehow has more credibility, thinking because you can climb E7 you’re better than some fat beardy bloke on a 7000-metre face, or you can enchain of three North faces in a day.
I’ve climbed with lots of crag rats in the mountains, climbers who thought E5 slacking, and it’s not a lack of ability that set them apart from true mountaineers. It was a lack of will. At 3 am, standing freezing your ass off below a kilometre high wall of ice and rock, feeling you have a good chance of getting squashed, you’re equally aware that this just isn’t what you want climbing to be. It’s a good thing to find out early on. A good thing to admit to yourself.
So why did they die? Well, the problem is that when there is no fun involved, well compared with the amount of pain, then you need some big reasons to go on. As I said the place many top mountaineers seek is a place within themselves, a place no one knows how to reach, a place that is actually unreachable. It’s an itch that once scratched grows worse. They died not because of a lack of open had strength, for poor jamming technique, or the inability to lock off. It was the thing that more often than not drives people to greatness but often leads them to their downfall. They died because of their ambition. Perhaps if they had only settled for a good time, and been willing to just cruise down the wall they would all still be with us today.