Thursday, 12 April 2012

Simon Yates' The Wild Within-Review

It is generally accepted within the mountaineering writers union that anyone writing about Simon Yates has to begin by using 'best known as the climber who cut the rope' in the opening sentence.There.....I've done it; obligation fulfilled; but isn't that like describing a brilliant footballer like Roberto Baggio as someone who is 'best known for missing a penalty in a world cup final' !

Truth is, Simon has quietly spent the last 25 years making his own mark on the mountaineering scene with a series of accomplished achievements spanning the globe. Simon's latest book 'The Wild Within' chronicles the last 10 ten years of a multi faceted career which increasingly, has taken him to the the furthest flung mountain ranges on the planet.From Patagonia at one end of the Americas to to the Wrangell St Elias range at the other....from the Scottish Highlands to Karakorum....Simon has followed the call of the wild and consistently made impressive Alpine ascents in both in a Professional and recreational capacity.

Eschewing the traditional 'big is beautiful' approach,the author-often accompanied by climber artist Andy Parkins and old friend Paul Schweizer- has made a series of bold sorties upon remote virgin peaks and established hard new lines on 'conquered' mountains without fuss and without the rigmarole which is generally the lot of the big  team climber. In terms of climbing style, Simon's approach is just about as pure and ethically sound as you can get. In fact, at risk of overworking sporting analogies ,his style might be likened to a mountaineering Muhammad Ali as opposed to a barnstormer like Mike Tyson...floating like a butterfly but stinging like a bee!

For the average UK climber whose main logistical problem on a climbing expedition is where to park the Skoda at the Roaches, a sobering perspective is quickly applied when you read the author's opening account of the complexities of climbing a virgin peak in Patagonia.
A challenge which involves chartered yachts in the unpredictable South Atlantic waters; horseback treks with a Gaucho guide and a desperate gorge ascent to reach a glacier upon which no human foot has trod before. And that's before he and Andy Parkin have even begun to lay down the supply trail and actually climb the mountain they eventually name Mount Ada. The elaborate preparation which underpins even these small scale Alpine expeditions highlights just how small a part of an expedition the actual act of climbing often is.

Early in the book there is a fascinating insight into the making of the film version of Touching the Void which was directed by Kevin McDonald. Without going into too much detail, it is fair to suggest that Joe and Simon are not at the top of the director's Christmas card list and I can't imagine there's an open invitation for him to stay in Sheffield or Penrith either ! Goes to show; Despite TTV being generally well received by the public, the main protagonists perhaps take a different view. A view which might almost surreally have preferred to see the film made by Tom Cruise who was rumoured to be interested. might have turned out like Vertical Limit but maybe Joe and Simon would have had more fun making it than they obviously did with the director of The Last King of Scotland !

Interspersed with the mountaineering sections, Simon offers an honest account of his relationship with his partner and family. A role which quite naturally can burden the 'have rucksack will travel' mountaineer with a fair amount of guilt when they frequently choose to take their leave and put their life on the line in some remote and inhospitable mountain range. It is a fine balancing act which those who operate at Simon's rarefied level, must go through countless times throughout a long climbing career.
However, there is genuine warmth in his detailing of his life and times with his family,which includes simple family holidays, often just cycling around a remote Scottish island and sleeping under canvas or meeting up with them on his way back from leading a trek in Pakistan.

Another aspect of his mountaineering life which appears to give the author a measure of satisfaction and pleasure-apart from bringing in some hard earned capital-comes through his well rehearsed role as a mountaineering lecturer. For a long time now,Simon has gigged around the UK and beyond these shores, often to packed houses. It is a measure of his success as a mountaineer that the climbing public are only to keen to turn out on a cold rainy night in places like Stockport or Ayr, to enjoy the vicarious delights of these games without frontiers.

Simon's overall mountaineering philosophy these days is overwhelmingly to seek out the last remaining wild places on this tiny, crowded planet and to avoid as far as possible, the commercial over-kill which has rendered-even in the last ten years- certain mountain areas as as wild and untrammelled as Blackpool Pier!  However, there are, as Simon keeps discovering, still relative backwaters in  places like Greenland or in South America where new challenges await. Where virgin peaks are still without a first ascent-glaciers remain untrodden- gorges unexplored and caves yet to be discovered.

Even in the world's honeypot mountain venues,Simon postulates that there are still adventures to be found and new horizons to explore but ends by cautioning us that 'more than ever the mountains are what you make of them or want them to be.

The Wild Within takes the reader to the outer limits of mountaineering experience and frames the journey in all its elemental power and mystery. The author's first book for Vertebrate can be considered a success. It can only further cement his reputation as a romantic wanderer and wilderness narrator.

John Appleby

The Wild Within is published by Vertebrate Publishing.