“The Beckoning Silence” by Joe Simpson (The Mountaineers Books, 2003)
As one who gets queasy merely by looking at the ladder on the Oak Island water-tower, I might be considered an unlikely enthusiast for books on mountaineering. I prefer to get my kicks maneuvering a dodgy three no-trump contract to traversing the upper slopes of Mount Rainier. Nevertheless, I have devoured such material since my teenage years, and the popularity of volumes such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air suggests there are many like me, never daring to expose ourselves to the danger and privations that mountaineers undergo, but gaining a vicarious thrill as these adventurers peer into the abyss between triumph and oblivion on our behalf.
Someone who has been as close as anyone to that precipice, and has returned, is Joe Simpson. He wrote the classic Touching The Void, the mesmerizing account of how he fell and broke his leg on the Peruvian Siula Grande, after which his partner had to cut the rope that joined them to ensure his own survival. Left for dead, Simpson managed subsequently to crawl for six miles over torturous terrain to link up with his shocked comrades days later, just before they left the area. His latest volume, The Beckoning Silence, shows him undergoing a mid-life crisis. His bones ache, and many of his climbing friends have perished – if not on the mountains, then while undertaking the presumably safer sport of paragliding. His mother dies while he is away on a climbing trip. He now thinks more about his own mortality, and wonders if a new cautiousness has crept into his mountaineering instincts. He is nevertheless tempted by a friend, Ray, to undertake a series of final climbs, including the scaling of the horrendous North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
Simpson brings the tension of the exploit crisply into the living-room, interspersing his story of the attempt with a series of glimpses of other famous climbers, many of whom lost their lives on the Eiger (and elsewhere) before him, either falling to their deaths or being trapped by cold and hunger. One of the most poignant episodes is the chance meeting with an elderly lady who, as a girl in 1935, had provided hospitality to two famous mountaineers, Sedlmayr and Mehringer, days before they themselves became victims, and who has mementoes to show the stunned author. As the drama continues, Simpson deftly links present and past together. On the day that he and Ray undertake their climb, a sudden, fierce storm sweeps in. Viewers watching the multiple climbers through binoculars from across the valley see figures slipping down the Eiger’s sheer wall…..
This is a haunting and poetic memoir, but Simpson avoids sentimentality, vanity or self-aggrandizement (unlike some authors of this genre), and what elevates the book beyond just a gripping adventure tale is Simpson’s struggle to derive meaning from his perilous pastime. As a non-believing rationalist, Simpson knows that the mountains are neutral, and that there is no plan behind the tragedy of young life abruptly taken. Yet mountains are frequently personified (“Eiger” = “Ogre” in German), and the author admits to a deep sense of awe and humility before their brutal beauty. He likens the North Face to a cathedral that awakens his spiritual awareness, and writes openly about his soul being moved. And as he records the tragedy of those who perish (“going to meet their Maker”), he tries to imagine the numbness in the victims’ minds as they become aware of the enormity of what is happening to them. That encapsulates his struggle to come to terms with the paradox of his obsessive and ever-dangerous quest, and he concludes that, while mountains may result in his own demise, they are what give meaning to his life. I have only two quibbles about this engrossing book: the many fine photographs could have benefited from a map or two – especially of the routes on the Eiger; and a glossary would have been useful for the armchair-mountaineers among us who are still capable of confusing our karabiners and our chock-stones. Simpson would not want us on his team.