Storms of Silence

Dot writes: I’ve just had another little fit of climbing books: Heinrich Harrer’s classic The White Spider, about the North Face of the Eiger, and Joe Simpson’s 1996 book Storms of Silence. I’ll post another time about the former: it was excellent, in a slightly, stiff, old-fashioned way, with its glowing character portraits of athletic, brave young Teutons (Harrer doesn’t think much of Italians and is grudging in praise of the French) hurling themselves at the insanely dangerous Eigerwand. The latter was a bit disappointing. Joe spends most of it stamping around being grumpy and worrying about his complicity in human rights abuses in Tibet and (to a much lesser extent) Peru. His assorted smashed joints and a nasty chest infection mean he doesn’t actually climb anything until right at the end. The issues he raises are hugely important – the nature of human violence at individual and state level, the role of climbers and other travellers in funding corrupt and oppressive governments – but he is at his best as a writer when telling stories of adventure, and there aren’t many of those in the book. In his more sententious moments one becomes aware of an occasional crudity in his writing, a bold but slightly formulaic quality that undermines ambitions to be original or probing in his thought. For example (from the introduction, p. 3):

Could it be that without the mechanisms by which we are warned of attack we have also lost the ability to control violence? As a species we are certainly barbaric. Not far beneath the thin skin of our civilised manners lies a heart of darkness which emerges from time to time to mock our conceited assumption that we are above the realm of the animal’s bestial behaviour.

The idea in the first sentence here is rather interesting and speaks to debates over whether human violence is an atavistic instinctual behaviour, a symptom of how our societies have changed beyond the ability of biological evolution to keep up, and to ideas of humanity being somehow out of step with nature (a secular reflex of the myth of the Fall). I think Simpson is wrong, as it happens: humans are very sensitive to danger of attack, but largely to danger of attack by other humans in urban settings – the environment whose clues most of us read best. What really bothers me about this paragraph is the phrase ‘heart of darkness’. It sets up a clamour of associations with questions about race, oppression, colonialism, instinct and the capacity for moral degeneration – not inappropriately – but in context I am not sure the allusion to Conrad is intended. The phrase ‘heart of darkness’ here has the air of a cliche unreflectively employed. I hope I’m doing Simpson an injustice. But this does strike me as characteristic of his more opinionated passages.

Simpson’s great strengths for addressing issues such as violence are not his powers of analysis but his passion and energy and the sharp scrutiny he turns on himself. One is impressed by his honesty, his willingness to examine his own selfish, cowardly or ill-tempered moments and his readiness to tell stories against himself. He mercilessly records his bad temper on encountering a group of distressed Tibetans refugees during an expedition to Cho Oyu: it is true there is little he can do, but he recognises the root of his anger is the feeling that they are intruding ugliness and suffering on his uplifting adventure. In a lighter vein, he reminisces about practising nasty glares in the mirror as a boy. He tried them out on his sister, but if she noticed at all she just asked if he was feeling ill. The book has some very funny passages. There’s a great anecdote about losing his way in a rocky landscape with a Californian and being puzzled and exasperated when his companion repeatedly exclaims he can see ducks (it turns out a ‘duck’ is what the Californian calls a cairn). There’s also a touching, slightly dated little rant about women in gyms wearing scanty leotards:

Sure, I’m not allowed to touch. I know that. But faced with spread-eagled semi-nakedness, can’t I just leer a little? (p. 246)

Another dated and oddly insistent feature of the book is the constant reference to personal stereos. Actually, it isn’t so odd. Turning up the music is Joe’s way of enclosing himself in a separate space and shutting the world out, and it can turn out to be dangerous: as, for example, when Mal Duff has his Walkman turned up too loud to hear his wife’s warning shout and finds himself being carried down the track on the forehead of a runaway yak (pp. 96-7).

One element in Joe Simpson’s guilt feelings focuses on being so much richer than the inhabitants of the countries where he climbs, buying his slice of mountain excitement, being a ‘credit card adventurer’. This is an interesting point of contrast with The White Spider, in which many of the heroic young climbers are abjectly poor. The sixteenth ascent of the Eiger Nordwand (in August 1959) was achieved by a couple of young stonemasons, who insulated themselves against the cold by wearing extra shirts and bivouacked under the covering of an overcoat, which they then threw away, giving onlookers the impression someone had fallen off the face. Harrer writes about his own student climbing expeditions in the Dolomites, when he would walk for days to get between climbs because in Italy one had to pay for a licence in order to ride a bicycle. Harrer of course is writing about climbers in their own home continent of Europe, Simpson about westerners going to Asia and South America, but it is the case that it is somehow easier to admire a mountaineer who is poor than one who is rich (think of the vitriol visited on Sandy Hill Pittman). Overcoming poverty adds a satisfying extra dimension to the story of overcoming the odds and helps to emphasise the courage rather than the selfishness of the climber: the poor are less readily credited with responsibilities they might be neglecting by hazarding their lives in the mountains.

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