Internationally acclaimed mountaineering author, Simon Yates, will visit Galway’s Town Hall Theatre next Thursday, September 7, to present the visually stunning and hugely entertaining My Mountain Life. Best known for his harrowing expedition to the Andes documented in the book and film Touching the Void, Simon is one of the most famous and accomplished exploratory mountaineers of his time.
Yates spoke with me ahead of his Galway visit and I began by asking what first sparked his passion for mountaineering – especially seeing as he grew up in Leicestershire, not a region renowned for its lofty peaks. “It was a school trip when I was 14,” Simon replies. “We went to the Lake District and we had a week of canoeing, hiking, and all those kinds of activities. Towards the end of it I got the chance to do rock climbing and that is what started me basically. From that I began to expand my horizons and do some winter climbing in Wales, the Lake District, and Scotland, and when I was 19 I went to the Alps for the first time and did my first proper big mountains with snow and glaciers on them.”
There is a strong tradition of fine writing on mountaineering and Yates has written three books about his climbing experiences Against the Wall, Flame of Adventure, and The Wild Within. Which other writers on the subject does he admire I ask? “I remember devouring Chris Bonnington’s books when I was younger then as I got to know mountaineering more and the people involved in it I started to look at a lot of other books from previous eras. I am a big fan of Bill Tilman’s writing, and other favourites include Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and, more recently, the American Steve House.”
He also name-checks one of his favourite mountaineers. “In terms of mountaineering there are a lot of great people I admire, such as Mick Fowler who used to work full time with the tax office. Not a lot of people outside of the climbing world have even heard of him. When you think how much coverage there is of people who achieve various things it is surprising how someone as good as he is gets so little public recognition. What he has done in climbing is quite amazing.”
The famous mountaineer George Mallory once said that a climb was like a symphony of the whole day, not just about reaching the summit. “Yes absolutely,” Yates agrees. “It is like a number of these past-time adventure sports which have become a lifestyle almost. You have cavers, power gliders, surfers, etc, and it is a whole package really. There is the activity itself and then also the camaraderie of it, the travel and the wonderful places you get to go to and the environment you spend a lot of time in.”
Yates will forever be associated with his near-fatal expedition to Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985. On the descent from the summit Yates’ climbing partner Joe Simpson broke his leg. Yates was attempting to lower him by stages down the slope when Simpson went over a precipice. Believing Joe to be dead on the end of the rope, and being slowly pulled off the mountain himself while losing all feeling in his hands, Simon was forced into the stark decision to cut the rope that joined them in order to save his own life. Miraculously, Simpson survived and retold the story in the best-selling book and the BAFTA award-winning film, Touching the Void, that made both men household names.
Did the experience of that trip alter Yates’ approach to climbing I ask; “At that point in time I was very young and very driven,” he recalls. “I did learn lessons on that trip, a lot of very hard lessons in a very short space of time. There were many things on that trip that were new and so it was a steep learning curve and that’s largely why it turned into such an epic. We were unfamiliar with that environment and things started to go wrong in it. In mountaineering a number of tiny little mistakes can snowball into something that is totally out of proportion. That was the big thing I learned from that expedition. When the book and the film came out that made me famous whatever that means exactly. That helped me to an extent in terms of my career in mountaineering but I don’t think the fame altered me or altered my lifestyle a great deal because I carried on living the same as I have always lived.”
Yates lists some of his favourite places to climb; “My all time favourite place to go and climb mountains would have to be Pakistan, although sadly that is not as safe as it used to be to visit which is a shame because it is a wonderful part of the world and the mountains are incredible and the people who live in them are pretty amazing as well. More recently I have been climbing a lot in Tierra del Fuego, the island off the tip of South America and that’s my special place at the moment. The other place I have been going to lately is a group of mountains called the Wrangell Range on the Alaska/Yukon border which are remote, empty, mountains. I have a number of lines and peaks that I’ve been looking at there. There are still piles of things I want to do, it is just a question of time really. Hopefully I will get a good few more years out of this before my body collapses on me - I am 54 now and I can already tell in terms of my physical condition it is past its peak.”
Yates’ mention of the people of Pakistan reminds one that these daunting mountain ranges are also human environments and he has always enjoyed meeting the people who live in these places as well as doing the climbs; “Absolutely; if there is one general thing I found it is that mountain people tend to be very nice people pretty much everywhere I have been in the world. Some of them live in very isolated places and circumstances and maybe because of that they tend to be warm and welcoming. Some of these places are so far out of the way they do not get many visitors so there is a novelty thing there as well.”
What sort of changes has Yates seen in mountaineering over his 30 year career?
“There have been big changes from the global revolution in communications which have affected the experience of mountaineering, though that has not unique to mountaineering, it is affected everything else we do. The main thing is the change in the gear really which has been great for me because it helps me as an older man enormously, it is so much lighter so I don’t have to carry as much as I used to which is a big bonus.”
Simon concludes with an outline of his talk at the Town Hall; “I start with my early experiences, one of which is the trip to Siula Grande and then I share snippets and snapshots of my time among mountains. I cannot cover all of it in the hour and a half –I have been doing three or four expeditions every year for 30 years so I concentrate on the ones that were particularly dramatic or done in a certain style or in particular places, so there are snowy mountains and bits about big rock spar mountains, and the wilderness mountains that I have been increasingly drawn to in Tierra del Fuego, the Wrangells, and also Greenland where I have been spending a lot of time recently. It is a whole raft of things and it’s illustrated with images of the various places and a lot of people will not ever have seen these places.”
Simon Yates is at the Town Hall on Thursday, September 7, at 8pm. Tickets are €15.