Dangling man

The Beckoning Silence

Joe Simpson <em>Jonathan Cape, 308pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0224061801

Of what are the following all varieties - peelers, lobs, zippers, screamers, bombs, craters and deckers? No, not fireworks, nor ill-behaved children. All, in fact, are different types of fall in mountaineering. A peeler is where you wilt slowly backwards off the rock face. A lob is a straight, fast plummet. Bombs, craters and deckers all involve the ground, and are to be avoided. A screamer speaks for itself, as it were.

The writer and mountaineer Joe Simpson knows a lot about falls. He possesses the rare triple qualification of, first, having taken a lot of them; second, having survived them all; and third - a talent relatively unusual among mountaineers - being able to write well about them. Simpson's most famous fall took place in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, leaving him stuck in a crevasse with a shattered leg. He escaped from the crevasse, and then dragged himself to safety on his elbows over six miles of moraine and glacier. Touching the Void (1988), his account of that event, is a remarkable work - a moving fable about human resilience, rather than the grisly mountaineering horror story that it could so easily have been. Its delicate metaphysics will doubtless be mangled by Hollywood, to which, in the present book, Simpson admits having sold the film rights.

Since Touching the Void, Simpson has produced three works of autobiographical non-fiction exploring the same themes: the siren song of risk, the ethics of high-altitude climbing, and what he has now nicely christened "the beckoning silence" - the attractive power of great height, which draws people upward to slopes, summits and danger. One of Simpson's gifts is his ability to evoke height and steepness. I read his book sitting on a sofa on the ground floor of a house in the Fens, but was still gripped by vertigo.

Simpson's mixture of homespun philosophising and well-paced adventure writing has earned him a huge reading audience. Many of his admirers will be disappointed to discover that this book is, in effect, an extended letter of resignation to mountaineering. Mountaineering, at least at the levels at which Simpson has practised it, is a morbidly risky business. In the 14 years that he has been writing, he has lost almost 20 friends to the mountains, and, he confesses here, it is this constant "attrition" that has finally convinced him to break his own addiction to the hills.

Before he hangs up his axes for good, however, Simpson has decided to draw up a tick-list of final climbs. With these safely under his belt, so the plan goes, he can retire in peace. Of the climbs with which he has chosen to round off his career, by far the most serious is the North Face of the Eiger, and it is his summer ascent of this route that is the real focus of The Beckoning Silence.

The Eiger-Nordwand, a near-vertical rock wall more than a mile in height, is legendary in mountaineering circles. Strafed almost constantly by rockfalls, and prone to sudden storms, the route has a long-standing reputation for danger. During the 1930s, the Nordwand became known as the Mordwand - the murder wall - because of its "attrition" rate. To date, more than 60 climbers have died on the North Face. The route has even whelped its own macabre spectator sport: down in the Grindelwald valley, the cafes and bars are all equipped with binoculars and telescopes so that punters can watch the climbers struggle up the face as they sip their beer. It is, as Simpson observes, "a horribly public place to die".

Undeterred by the grim history of the route - indeed, attracted by it - Simpson and his climbing partner, Ray Delaney, make their way to Switzerland to begin the climb. Ahead of them are two other teams; it is a busy day on the Eiger. We are half expecting it, but it is still horrifying when, only a few hours into the ascent, disaster strikes in the shape of a violent storm, and what should have been Simpson's joyful valediction to the mountains turns into a tragedy.

The description of the climb and its aftermath, which occupies the second half of the book, is compelling. Risk-taking in person offers potent rewards - the surge of adrenaline, the exhilarating confirmation afterwards that you are indeed alive - and reading about risk-taking offers an abridged version of those same pleasures, a vicarious brinkmanship. Few people have spent as much of their lives taking risks as Joe Simpson; those who have usually die young. There are, as the saying goes, very few old bold climbers. For Simpson's sake, let us hope that he is telling the truth about giving up climbing; for the sake of his fans, let's hope he is lying.

Robert MacFarlane's book Mountains of the Mind will be published by Granta in 2003