First published on 4 Jun 2012. Updated on 13 Jun 2012.
British mountaineer Simon Yates has been climbing the world’s tallest peaks for 30 years. He has written three books about his adventures. And he has led expeditions to some of the world’s remotest places. But he will always – always – be known first as “the man who cut the rope”.
Yates is the climber who, as retold in fellow climber Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void and the 2003 documentary based on the book, did just that. With Simpson suspended over a cliff on their way down the 6,344-metre Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, his leg broken, a storm whipping around him, Yates cut the rope connecting them. His decision ultimately saved both men’s lives – Simpson fell into a crevasse and ultimately survived – and changed them, too.
For Yates, 49, Siula Grande brought a certain infamy. Many in the mountaineering fraternity criticised him for ditching his partner to seemingly save his own skin (though Simpson has always supported him). The hugely successful film did not paint him as a villain, but did not show much sympathy, either. On-set friction might not have helped: director Kevin Macdonald, for whom Simpson and Yates went back to Siula Grande to recreate the climb, clashed with Yates on the mountain. In his latest book, The Wild Within, Yates says Macdonald told a guide that Yates was “worse to work with than Mick Jagger”. The bolshy mountaineer describes it as “a compliment I will cherish forever.”
Yates tours Australia in July to promote the new book and told Time Out that those who come to see him will hear “some rattling good tales of derring do and see some stunning images from places they’re pretty unlikely to go to themselves.” The book is, he says, the story of a decade of his life. It takes in his experience making Touching the Void as well as expeditions scaling previously unclimbed mountains on the Alaskan-Yukon border, in Eastern Greenland and in the Cordillera Darwin in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off of South America’s southern most tip. “I’m increasingly drawn to places where fewer and fewer people on earth have been,” he says.
The on-set/on-mountain feud with Macdonald gets a good airing in the book: “I intercepted Kevin on his way back from the glacier. ‘You’ve obviously not worked on a building site,’ I told him, … ‘because you’ve still got all your front teeth.’” But the dishy stuff is outshone by the boys’ adventure story that makes up its bulk – pickaxes, grand mountaintop vistas, nights spent sheltering in man-sized holes in a sopping-wet sleeping bag... That last part forced Time Out to ask the mountaineer the obvious question: why does he do it?
“I feel I’m reconnecting with the natural world,” says Yates, who got his first taste for climbing in the mountains of the UK at age 14 (“hills, really”). “In developed countries you don’t have to engage with nature or work for your livelihood anymore. I think a lot of human behaviour is about that; if you’re doing a bit of gardening you’re doing a similar thing. My reconnection just happens to be extreme.”
While the impact of Touching the Void has been extreme, the biggest event in Yates’s life this last decade has been the birth of his two children. They’re already getting a taste of his lifestyle – in 2009, the then three- and five-year-old children joined Yates and his wife on a trip to Nepal where porters carried them in baskets around areas near Everest (a tourist or two let Yates know what they thought of that).
Having kids has not changed his view on climbing in any expected way. There’s been no “what happens to them if I die?” epiphany – he adjusted his attitude to risk in his thirties. “What it has done for me is put is put the whole activity into perspective,” he says. “I love mountaineering and it’s very personally important to me. But in the grand scheme of things I know it’s not that important at all. It’s just a couple of people going off to do some rather daft thing in the mountains.”
The Wild Within is out now through Vertebrate Publishing.
Choose your own Adventure:
3 other must-read mountaineering books
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (1959)
Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer tells of his first climb up the infamous north wall of the 3,970-metre Eiger mountain in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps in 1938. Harrer and three others were the first to scale the mountain; they survived an avalanche in doing so.
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (1988)
The book that spawned the film sees Simpson recount his struggle for survival in the Andes after climbing partner Yates cuts his rope leaving him stuck, broken-legged, in a crevasse. Tense, complex and very well-written.
Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber by Mark Twight (2002)
A collection of previously unpublished stories from magazine writer and “extreme climber” Twight recounting climbs from the Chamonix to the Himalayas. Twight writes, “No matter what I did, the suffering I experienced did not satisfy me.”