Joe Simpson: What I’ve Learned

Eyam, England, author of eight books including Touching the Void, age 58

By Alison Osius (Interview) | May 20th, 2019

Joe Simpson on the Eiger in 2007. He tried the North Face repeatedly, defeated by storm. “I would love to have climbed the ’38 route. I’m not going to lose sleep about it.” Photo: Keith Partridge.

 

At 14 I read The White Spider. It’s quite grim, isn’t it? All these black-and-white photos and the way people get trapped and die. Part of you is thinking, Jesus Christ, why would anybody do that? Part of you thinks, There must be something really good about it.

***

 

I attempted the North Face of the Eiger about six times. We got beaten back by storms every time. The last time, we were caught in a huge thunderstorm as we were crossing the Hinterstoisser. … We got to the Swallow’s Nest bivy site, which is sheltered, just in time. Two guys ahead of us decided to carry on. Me and Ray [Delaney] were looking at stuff coming off the end of the Spider, off the Second Band, huge waterfalls and rocks raining down. I just couldn’t understand why they carried on climbing. … One bloke fell off, and they were moving together without putting screws in. They flew over our heads and landed on the top of the Shattered Pillar. So we retreated because we were a bit freaked out.

I always regret never having climbed it. It was probably the one route I always wanted to climb. I just was so inspired by it, [the 1938 route] is such a seminal route … It’s an amazing piece of mountaineering route finding. I’d have just loved to spend a night on Death Bivy and the Traverse of the Gods, but it never happened.

I live my life by the Tibetan [motto] Ge garne, which roughly translates as “shit happens.” You don’t get everything you want in life.

***

I suppose I felt better about it because in 2009 Ray and I went to Nepal, to the unclimbed south side of Mera, and we were going to try and do this new route, and it had a very dangerous serac on it that Ray didn’t want to risk … so I soloed it. I don’t usually solo, I don’t really like it, but I climbed it, in two days, and stopped on the summit, and I could see all these 8,000-meter peaks all around me.

I thought, It doesn’t get much better than this. I stopped climbing and sold all my gear and haven’t climbed since.

I was having real trouble with the knee that I broke in Peru [Simpson fell high on Siula Grande and was lowered, but fell in a crevasse and ultimately crawled out alone], that’s my right knee, and my left ankle. I suffered a very serious fracture on Pachermo [in Nepal, in a 500-foot fall in 1991].

It took me about five years to get over climbing. It was like a grief.

***

I wrote Touching the Void [1988 bestseller about Siula Grande] in seven weeks in a friend’s attic bedroom. It was not a cathartic experience. No, it just brought back some very intense memories. I never go there again. Even when I give a talk, I’m on the surface of it.

[The book] sold slowly, and gradually the scale started steadily going up, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. … It was almost alarming, it kept selling and selling and selling. … I found it quite unsettling at first. I was suddenly becoming famous. I didn’t deserve the fame as a mountaineer. … I had this imposter syndrome.

Then I thought, well, actually, I quite like writing. I wrote a novel, which wasn’t very good. But it proved to me that I could write.

I’ve just finished my latest novel, which has no climbing in it at all. It’s called Walking the Wrong Side of the Grass. It’s set in the trenches of the first World War. … I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

***

Returning to Siula Grande [for the 2003 film “Touching the Void”] I walked up the moraine I had crawled down. … It’s hard to appreciate how difficult that ground was and how far [six miles] was.

When we came around the corner and you could suddenly see the west face I got quite a shock. That was quite a big face, an intimidating face. I remember being quite surprised at my former self [laughs]. … I never climbed anything like that again. I climbed at a higher technical standard … but I could never commit mentally in the same way.

I discovered that I should not have agreed to reconstruct the crawling, it did my head in. It was cheaper than using an actor, but … being in that place again, I was crawling on my own, the film crew was miles away on a ridge, it was all exactly the same, I was in the same clothes I’d worn in ’85 … . It triggered something. I had a sort of panic attack, I thought it was all happening over again. It lasted quite a few months. I was quite disturbed. I’d find myself crying for no apparent reason, and I don’t tend to cry.

I had to give a talk to a corporation, and I said, “I don’t think I can do this, I’m not in a very good state,” and [the agent] said, “You’ve got to, you’ve signed a contract.” And I thought, well, this is going to be dreadful, but as soon as I started speaking, it just went, and I never got it again. It was almost like speaking was a form of therapy.

***

Most of the things that happened in my life I didn’t think were going to happen. The minute you ever think you know where you’re going in life you’re almost certain to be disabused [laughs]. … In some ways I wish it hadn’t all happened, I’d never had the accident in Peru and I’d managed to achieve what I’d hoped for in climbing, and I never did. So that’s a regret, but in a strange way the experience was almost a privilege. … Out of it came lots of positive things. I would never have become a writer if I hadn’t ended up in that bloody crevasse.


 

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