I was being interviewed the other day by Nail Grimes when he asked me a question, the type of question you laugh off, but which sticks into like an arrow and stays there. First, he told me he’d asked many of my old climbing partners, most of who are now Alpine guides if they’d read my first book Psychovertical, to which they’d all replied “Of course not - it’s all bollocks”. He asked me what I’d say to this statement.
At first, I just laughed it off and said the usual line about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story etc. Then I said that these people just didn’t understand the limits of telling and writing a story and that a blow by blow, line by line, metre by metre account of the truth would take the same time as the bleeding climbs. A story about a climb is always an amalgamation of events, with minor details (like the truth) being sacrificed in the pursuit of brevity and timing. What you should end up with are a few thousand words that somehow capture the character of the event, an event that is made up of innumerable emotions, actions and images. Finally, now feeling defensive, I said that these people were just climbing extremists, the people who knew nothing beyond the extreme, the colour, and couldn’t tell stories, and that’s why I make a living doing just that - and they make a living climbing.
But days later that question still sticks in my mind.
Before I even started writing Cold Wars I came up against this, when one of my old partners, with who it turns out I shared a pivotal climb (and pivotal chapter in the book), said in no uncertain terms (with expletives), that he didn’t want to be in my book. This of course created a real dilemma and begged the question of who owns the story of a climb? Was it his to withhold, or mine to do with as I wanted? It’s something that’s obvious in many climbing tales that a climb is one of two parts or many parts in a big team, and everyone has a differing view of events, and more importantly their place in them. People are defensive about the parts they play, and although they love to have their heroics captured, their more human - and interesting - actions are harder to take. In the end, I told our story, but just left his name out, and hoped that him being the hero of the piece would make it easier to bear.
Esmond Tresidder once complained that I made him look like a bumbling idiot, a climber who is now one of our best mountain athletes. I pointed out that although he was good now when I asked him to climb the hardest (and unrepeated) route on the North Face of the Droites (and in winter) he was all but a novice (as I remember it we had to buy his first pair of plastic boots to do it). What I saw in the nineteen-year-old climber was some real fire and talent, something that was proved with six months when we also climbed a Zenyatta Mondatta (A4) on El Cap together - his first big wall! Instead of trying to make him look like an overreaching fool, the story was of a climber (me), so desperate to find fulfilment, he was willing to climb with anyone, no matter how foolhardy. In my eye’s that story is about a defining moment (one of many I’m sure) of a young and amazingly talented alpinist.
The same goes for Rich Cross, who I always poke fun of due to him coming from Doncaster (probably a Hull - Doncaster thing) and his use of the word ‘cock’ and ‘snack wagon’. No one likes to be made fun of, and maybe the bitterness of being made fun of obscures all the positive things I’ve always said about Rich (well as much as you can for someone from ‘Dony’).
In writing Cold Wars I strived to write the truest account I can of modern Alpine climbing, and Alpine climbers, something that many have been shocked at (it’s not often pretty in the mind of an extremist, something true in all sports). But at the same time, I’ve tried to also show that colour, and the reasons for going back, and the friendships that bind it together - even the love (well man-love).
I guess it’s not the criticism of me the writer from ex-partners that hurts, after all, it’s only a book, I guess it’s the fact they obviously never knew how much respect I had for them, and these stories are always stories of adventures - and friendship - even if short-lived - that we shared.