Friday, 1 November 2019

Roger Hubank's North Wall...Reviewed

140pages: Perfect Bound Paper Back £12.99; e-book version £4.99.

Roger Hubank is one of those seminal figures whose writing en-riches the climbing scene. He has published five novels so far, and North Wall which was his first such, appeared over 40 years ago. His greatest success so far as a climbing novelist was Hazard’s Way, set in the mountain fraternity at Wasdale Head in the early years of the 20th century, a volume which won both the Boardman/Tasker award and the Grand Prix prize at the Banff Mountain Festival.

I had read Hazard’s Way before I was invited to review the re-published edition of his Alpine climbing novel, ‘North Wall’ and most interestingly in this he has penned a Foreword explaining the stories genesis. And how it is actually set in the Bregaglia Mountain Range, and that the fictitious village of ‘Molino’ is actually Promontogno at the foot of the Piz Badile. I found resonance in his story as to the actual happening during the first ascent of the North East Face of that mountain, which was led by Riccardo Cassin. They were caught high on the face in a terrible storm and two of those who joined up with his party they met on the climb, whilst pioneering the route, died in similar storm conditions to those faced by the main characters in North Wall.

The author also explains in this Foreword why because his novel contains a certain autobiographical element, he was persuaded that his two main characters, Daniel and Raymond should be French and not English, lest the originals be too recognisable. Although the mountain Piz Molino does not exist, at the preface to the novel he has also included a topo and route description for ‘the direttissima on the north-east face of the Piz Molino’. Sufficiently like the real thing for some to have claimed to have ascended this climb!

The story appears to be well set in its era of Alpine exploration, now changed beyond recognition by the advances in equipment and technique. To fully appreciate this one has to know that the author began his climbing career in an era of moleskin breeches, jammed knots and long run outs. And though some of today’s super Alpinists may find the whole premise of such a climb too far-fetched, the plot is sound; two climbers, Raymond a hard case professional mountain guide and Daniel a talented amateur set forth to take up the challenge to climb the 1200metre north-east face of the Piz Molino; a fearsome route that has not been repeated since its first ascent twelve years earlier in 1954, by a team of four Italian climbers, two of whom perished on the descent in the inevitable bad weather of storm conditions.

Though in the story of the climb, four climbers are involved, for they meet up with two Czech climbers, Tomas and Jaro on the face, only Raymond and Daniel really matter to the story. I found it difficult to get into the story, which starts during the two climbers walk in to the base of the climb. Within these early Chapters we learn something of their characters; Daniel a practising Catholic but confused about his beliefs, a pious domestic orientated man, who when not climbing attends at Mass on Sundays, and who worries about his wife and child back at home, with a partner who has never understood his need to go and challenge himself in the mountains. Raymond is the wise old guide, who has seen it all, but is haunted by his previous participation in a Himalayan expedition, during which several members of their party were deceased in an avalanche, and the death of his brother whilst climbing on the Aguille du Plan.
Once the climbing actually starts it does become page turning, the mountains face is split by a huge diedre, and the line of the ascent is always obvious. Access to this feature becomes one of the cruxes of the ascent for it closes above the first bivouac and necessitates a daring pendule across the face to reach a parallel flake crack. This is followed until it is possible to regain the upper diedre, which once achieved it is better to press on to the summit than to attempt to retreat. Unfortunately during this Raymond is hit by stonefall, which shatters an arm and renders him unconscious. The Czechs catch up and help all they can and eventually agree to climb on and go for assistance. However once Daniel is alone with Raymond he begins to realise how serious their position really is. Retreat is not possible and the weather is closing in, their food and fuel are running out and though Raymond is now conscious he is limited by his injuries and cannot lead on up the climb.

So the scene is set for a climbing epic, for above Daniel and Raymond are several hundred of metres of difficult climbing some of it grade six, and in part with sections of high standard artificial ascent. But with no way of communicating with anyone else, and believing that the Czechs must have perished high above in the storm, after a couple of days waiting they realise they must try to ascend to be saved. Daniel must become the leader and Raymond with his one good arm must somehow manage to follow him.I will not describe the climbing further but I believe the story from thereon, written in short sentence syntax, is carried forward by some truly, great evocative writing. The perspective in this is also enhanced by moving from character to character. You get to know what Daniel is thinking and likewise Raymond.
North Wall is much more than a gripping survival story; it is one that examines the nature of climbing itself? Why trade earthbound comforts for the allure of the mountains, risking all to achieve something in climbing terms which might be extraordinary. But which to the average none climber could mean something akin to a madness. As an aside is it now Quo Vadis for climbing, set against such as an ascent as described in North Wall? Will new generations of participants be more enamoured of relatively safe and cosseted gymnastic performance, via artificial walls, and competition climbing and its outstanding ‘winners’ at an Olympics, than my generation were of the ascents by Bonatti, Cassin, Heckmair, Robbins and our own Joe Brown?

I have already noted the quality of Hubank’s writing in ‘North Wall’, it received many plaudits on its first publication. It achieves something extraordinary in its relationship between the climbing and the writing, highlighting the mental impact on its participants of dedicating one’s life to such an activity as North Walling! However in this it exemplifies that mentally there is no way you can ‘method’ your way out of such a predicament, you adapt as you go on. Interestingly someone who really knows about such is Mark Twight. In his collection of short stories/articles which also won at Banff; ‘The Confessions of a serial Climber. Kiss or kill’ he notes this aspect found in the pages of North Wall and quotes from these.
Roger Hubank: Image-Boardman Tasker
Expanding on such the book highlights more closely the context within which climbing takes place, the lives of parents, wives, girl, and or boy- friends. And families as well as the larger cultural, social and political worlds, for often they do not appear in the pages of mountaineering books. Finally, Vertebrate are to be congratulated on the re-publication of North Wall, for it has brought to attention once more the writings of Roger Hubank, a former Loughborough University English literature lecturer, who is heading the judges this year at the Boardman Tasker award; an outstanding commentator on our sport. 

Dennis Gray: 2019