Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing

Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing
Simon Thompson
Cicerone   400pp   £20

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One summer’s day in 1802 Samuel Taylor Coleridge strayed off the summit of Scafell in the Lake District and scrambled down a cliff known as Broad Stand. He found the experience terrifying but also exhilarating. When he got safely to the bottom and his limbs had stopped shaking, he ‘lay in an almost prophetic state of trance and delight’. Thus the sport of rock-climbing was born.

Simon Thompson argues, somewhat unconvincingly, that the sport is not as dangerous as it seems; hardly a page goes by without some notable climber falling off and meeting a grisly end. But the emotional intensity and elation of dangling over a large drop – and occasionally surviving – makes everyday experience seem banal by comparison. This frisson has appealed to successive generations of madcap mountaineers, from the upper-middle class pioneers of the Victorian era to today’s lycra-clad rock-athletes.

Asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory famously answered, ‘Because it’s there.’ The book exposes other motivations: the romantic, quasi-religious impulse that inspired some of the early Victorians or the competitive drive of Edward Whymper, whose first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 was achieved at the cost of four lives and brought an end to the golden years of mountaineering.

In the Edwardian era climbers explored the Himalayas and became heroes of the British Empire. High achievers, in all senses of the word, were drawn to the sport. The pre-First World War climbing parties at the Pen-y-Gwyrd hotel in North Wales included four future Nobel Prize winners, five cabinet ministers, eight future peers, 15 knights and the poet Robert Graves. The Great War brought an end to such frivolity; many climbers died and those who survived did not want to risk their lives on the crags. A noble exception was the poet and educator Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who continued to climb despite losing a leg in the war.

In 1924 the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Everest had an ‘almost redemptive quality’ for a society still reeling from the slaughter of the trenches. In the 1930s the sport opened up to the masses. The first ascent of Everest in 1953 defined the start of a new Elizabethan age. Thereafter, in the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of talented mountaineers ‘climbed themselves to extinction’ in the Himalayas, while at home working-class climbers like Joe Brown and Don Whillans pushed the boundaries on the cliffs of North Wales and the Peak District.

This fascinating chronicle traces the social history of a sport almost entirely devoid of rules, the object of which is especially pointless and the risks out of line with any tangible rewards. Unlike so many highly commercialised sports, there is little or no money at stake: in the entire history of climbing, professionals have earned less in total than one month’s wage bill for the Manchester United football team. Somehow the cheerfully anarchic activity of British climbing is all the more heroic for that.

David Waller is author of The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman (Victorian Secrets, 2011).

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