The opening chapter of the book is called ‘Dead Man Moving’. And if someone knows about death in the mountains it is Joe Simpson. He was left for dead in Peru and yet he came back to tell the tale. However that is the story Touching The Void deals with.
In Dark Shadows Falling Simpson moves his attention to the Everest region and to a large extent the present day climbing ethos which includes guided expeditions. So far you can turn back and tell me that there are countless other books that talk about the same. I agree but this one has a section on the trekking culture in the region and that surely got me puzzled. Also Simpson asks hard questions about present day climbing, particularly the guided ones.
But let me go back to the first chapter. It talks about South Col which is high up on Mount Everest. A climber is dying about 30 meters from a well stocked tent. It could have been any climber I am sure but he was an Indian. What do you think would happen? That people from the tent would go out and get him in? Offer him comfort? Hold his hand? Give him water? Well nothing of that sort happened. No body came out of the tent and offered anything to a dying man. Simpson brings in his own near death experience to say that he fought so hard to live because he didn’t want to die alone.
He then goes on to talk about the summit at any cost culture and wonders why are people climbing the Everest? There are many who could do it only via guided expeditions. On their own they do not have the ability to climb the mountain. For them the route has to be prepared, the tents pitched, oxygen used and a guide to help them through. And then there are those who climb in small teams, rely on each-other and climb without oxygen.
Everest Base Camp, Nepal
So is it that the mountain belongs to one group and the commercial groups are impostors? Is the modern climbing community so goal obsessed that human values have taken a backseat? Human values like offering comfort to a dying person no longer seem to be universal. If it affects the summit chances is it fine to leave someone dying without a crumb of comfort?
These are some of the questions that Simpson raises. Of course there are no easy answers offered. But the section that disturbed me most was the section on trekkers and their response to crisis. I have trekked in the Everest as well as the Annapurna region and I was shocked to read his account of trekkers in Chapter 6. In 1995 November a freak blizzard hit the Annapurna region. It looks like trekkers left their guides and local staff in tough conditions to fend for themselves and in some cases eventually die! He also mentions trekkers disobeying their guides in spite of hardly knowing anything about the region.
I can to an extent understand aggressive behavior from mountaineers as theirs is a high stake game. But trekkers? I mean what is there in a trek? Anyone who is determined or marginally fit can trek. So I was really shocked to read of accounts where people disregarded horrible weather to put lives at risk, all for a trek!
In the end he asks a very pertinent question- Just because a trek or a climb has been paid for, is there any guarantee that it will happen? I mistakenly thought everyone knew the answer! Dark Shadows Falling is a compelling book about modern day climbing ethos or the lack of it. And if you are a mere trekker like me you should definitely read chapter 6.
This is the third book of Joe Simpson that I have read and I am going to read more. I have already read Touching the Void, This Game of Ghosts and now The Beckoning Silence.
“Sometimes I feel completely unnerved, wary of the cupboard crammed with skeletons that sometimes seem to constitute the sum total of my climbing memories” (The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson, p. 283)
When I started reading the book I thought it was about different expeditions of Joe Simpson and was more like a short stories book. The book starts with a climb in Alea Jacta Est in France with his climbing partner Tat. It was hair raising episode with a retreat in grave conditions and then an ascent. The next chapter is set in Bolivia and the next two chapters are about paragliding with death as a constant theme. Hence my initial impression that the book is about his various climbing and other adventures. I was so keen on starting the book that I did not read the book cover at all! Not my typical behavior.
The Lure of the Mountains
Even though this book is not about Everest but he mentions meeting Anatoli Boukreev at a festival and later about his death. With Boukreev came the mention of the Everest tragedy in 1996. I have read both Into Thin Air and The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. But apart from reading I know next to nothing about mountaineering so I rely on expert opinions to figure out what happened. When I asked this question to Sir Chris Bonington in one of his talks his first response was that I was asking him a controversial question. He answered my question after that quite clearly.
Simpson writes in this book about the 1996 tragedy-
“I never did comprehend how someone, quite understandably exhausted by his own oxygen-assisted ascent of the mountain, could sleep through the events of that night and then write critically of Boukreev. Boukreev made repeated solo forays into the teeth of a blizzard to rescue three climbers who otherwise would certainly have died in the stormy darkness at 26,000 feet. I admire Jon Krakauer hugely, both as a climber and a highly talented writer , but I felt his treatment of Boukreev did him no credit whatsoever.” (The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson, p. 55)
There is a strong underlying thread in the book and the quote at the beginning (of this post) will give you an inkling about it. Joe Simpson from the start of this book talks about quitting mountaineering. A close climbing friend of his actually does, only to die in a paragliding accident. And till the end of the book he has still not given it up!
Far from giving it up we find him with his climbing partner Ray at the foot of Eiger’s north face. And this book is above all about Eiger and its north face, its daunting history and the sway it holds over Joe Simpson. It is a captivating tale and makes for an excellent read. Did he and Ray manage to climb it? Well read the book to find out or maybe you will Google it first and then read the book?
This Game of Ghosts by Joe Simpson is a remarkable book. I thought there could be nothing more gripping that his Touching the Void but I enjoyed reading this one equally if not more. If you have not read Touching the Void I would say you read it first. If you like reading about the mountains you would enjoy both his books.
This book starts in Peru after Joe survives his fall and sheer hell of an ordeal which is covered in Toughing the Void. But soon it moves to his childhood and what a cracker of a child he was! After reading that part I actually felt sorry for his mother and wondered how would I ever cope if my child would be as prone to getting injured.
Then the book moves to his early climbing experiences in UK and Alps. He struggles to complete his degree in Literature as he is running to the mountains at every opportunity. He falls on a climb and hangs on a mountain for 12 hours on another occasion before getting rescued. He still doesn’t gives up. Then Touching the Void Happens and it feels for a while that he will give up. And then he goes back to rock climbing and soon he is in Pakistan and then in Nepal. And then disaster strikes again.
Through the book he tries to make sense of the perennial question, why do people climb? And how to make sense of the deaths that happen on the mountains, death of friends, acquaintances and ace climbers. One particular passage stayed with me. He looks at the name of five people and says only Chris Bonnington remains alive!
Another very intriguing aspect was the involvement of the author with Greenpeace. He and his partner climbed chimneys, bridges and department stores to unfurl banners for the organization!
The book ends with an attempt to climb Pumori, the mountain you see in the picture above. His body after the accident refuses to cope so he decides to walk on crutches and says he could still go ahead of many trekkers even then! I can imagine myself as one of those trekkers!
Throughout the book his ability to retain a levelheadedness and his sense of humor are evident. A thoroughly enjoyable book, I would say. Go and read it for the love of the mountains!
I started my India travel blog, Travel Tales from India in 2005. In 2016 I realized Travel Tales from India and Abroad better reflected my writings. I love to walk and ride in metros around the world. I have not been everywhere, I am not even close, but it is on my list. I also quit my job as a professor in 2015, it was a happening year! I did a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur ages ago!