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?
Don’t cheat, don’t scroll down the page in advance to see whom I met. You have to hear out my tale first.
I read about him and heard of him much before I met him. I gobbled up a fascinating book by him on Everest with record speed. In a world full of things that are ‘young’ or trying to be young (don’t you watch all those anti-aging cream ads?) I was surprised to discover that he got on to the top of that mountain at the age of 50. Come on, admit it if we were to believe those ads, by 50 a lot of us would stop living, forget about climbing Mount Everest!
Last year when he came to New Delhi to give a talk, I was unfortunately trekking in Uttarakhand. I got to hear from others about the event and I simmered for almost a year before I got my chance. Fast forward it to February 7, 2012. I was in a room full of people, listening in rapt attention to his Everest account. The narration came to the point where their group was making the summit push. What do you think he would tell the audience? Let me add that he is considered to be the ‘all time great expedition leader’ by the likes of Reinhold Messner. So take another guess?
How about telling that he was the slowest climber on that day? That many times he thought he would not make it. That Dough Scott (one of his climbing friends not on this expedition) appeared as a vision and was goading him on. That later a fellow climber stopped for him so that he could catch up. He then mentioned by name his friends who died in various expeditions as if paying a tribute. He still choked up a bit when he finally let it out. Only to add that he forgot to take out his oxygen mask at the top and that is how he appears in all the pictures!
In a world full of people claming to have done this, that and what not and screaming themselves hoarse over it, this account for me was like a breath of fresh air. I have to admit my jaws also dropped. He made it sound like it was everyone else but him who got him up there! Maybe he can afford that style as his achievements are truly great.
I know now you will say that this was a talk he gave and I was a tiny miny bit of audience, so why do I claim I met him? Well I asked a few questions, like what he thought about the Krakauer/Boukreev controversy? He said I was asking difficult questions but didn’t shy away from giving a reply.
I also talked to him after the session was over. Do I hear you say, it still doesn’t count? There would be countless other fans hanging out? OK, there was a dinner the next day at one of the big hotels in Delhi and I was invited. See I did not even travel very far to meet such an eminent personality!
It was a long evening and I did not get anywhere near him for most of the time. But my luck changed when we sat for dinner. I was next to him. Yes, of course, there was another lady on the other side but she got up due to some reason after talking for 15 minutes in which I managed to get 10 words edge wise.
After that for good 45 minutes I had the legend all to myself and my questions were countless. Why is K2 more difficult, what about Messner’s solo assent to Everest? Does he have any other interests? I must admit I had him there. He tried to talk about military history as his interest but failed miserably. He is a different man when he talks about the mountains.
Then he asked if saree had gone out of fashion in India and I had to sheepishly admit that I myself did not know how to tie one. He inquired about my treks next. And we compared a few notes about Spiti and Ladakh. By now, you rightly guessed it, I was on cloud nine!
Gradually the conversation drifted to social media, as I had been following him on Twitter and Facebook. He mentioned that some of the charities and other organizations he was involved with wanted him to use social media, so he joined. He added, “I anyway like to learn new things.” Here he was at the age of 77 when his personal documents from the expeditions have been declared of heritage value, (and NO you can’t click on that link now, you can click only after having read the remaining lines) he is learning Twitter and Facebook!
It was then that I dared. I said, “Why don’t you mention your Facebook page on twitter and Twitter id on Facebook ”? He took out his visiting card and told me, “write me step by step instructions and I would follow them”. If you now go and check his accounts you would see he has gone ahead and actually done that. And then he emailed a note of thanks to me!
They don’t make people like him anymore. People who reached the heights and yet somehow manage to retain their touch with small things in life. He is the mountain of inspiration for me. It has, indeed, been an honour and privilege for me to meet Sir Chris Bonington. And lest you disbelieve me, I will do as he would say, “show a picture that you were there”!
After the dinner, the pro vice chancellor of the British University we were affiliated with told me, “you are in love with him!” When I don’t know what to say I just laugh. The next day I told this incident to one of my British colleagues and he said, “boy he (the pro vice chancellor) sure must have been drunk to say that!
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!
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