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6 September 2019updated 19 May 2023 12:05pm

I’m often defeated by even the gentlest incline – so why am I obsessed with climbing stories?

By Pippa Bailey

On a family holiday to Scotland in 1997, a walk up a particularly soggy, slug-infested hill proved too much for me. True, I was only five, but my three-year-old brother pushed on unfazed – and wanted to do it again the next day. In my memory, it was a treacherous, slippery climb, the sky growing ominously dark, but my mother assures me it was bright daylight and little more than a grassy knoll. And so the legend of “Slug Hill” has become shorthand in the Bailey family for “Pippa is a wimp”.

I’ve always been an over-thinker and cautious when it comes to physical pursuits. I am painfully aware of how fallible my body is, and simply too uncoordinated to catch a ball. I worked out early on that the safest position to play in team games is defence on the winning side, and was in charge of banner-making at sports day while my classmates took to the high jump and javelin.

Any illusion that things might have improved with age was shattered recently when, halfway up the side of a volcano in Iceland, with scree cascading down the slope and paralysed by fear, I was overtaken by a small child. (I made it down safely, and with great dignity, on my bottom.)

It was an unlikely obsession, then, that I found in the pages of Jon Krakauer’s classic book, Into Thin Air – or perhaps very likely. Transfixed, I read of his experiences during the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest that took the lives of eight climbers in one night. Next, I picked up Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, who, left for dead after falling into a crevasse in the Peruvian Andes, dragged himself eight kilometres with a broken leg to reach base camp.

Egged on by Amazon’s suggestions, I read Hermann Buhl and Walter Bonatti, bounced from Maurice Herzog to Heinrich Harrer. For a while I read Rock and Ice, too, which bills itself as “the climber’s magazine” – though no one seemed to notice I didn’t qualify for my subscription. I learned a new vocabulary: rappel and traverse, belay and bivouac, pitons and jumars. Lhotse, Nanga Parbat, Denali – I recite like a liturgy the names of the peaks and walls that enthral me. Better yet the ones bestowed with a definite article, for that extra touch of foreboding: the Eiger, the Matterhorn, El Capitan.

In my mind, I have peered over dizzying drops, reached hand over foot to find purchase where there is none to be seen, and balanced precariously on ladders over seemingly bottomless abysses. I have imagined the threat of gathering dark clouds, and the pain of unbearable, bone-deep cold. But, of course, I do all this from the comfort of my sofa; it is an innately cowardly fixation.

It’s voyeuristic, too, particularly the books that document disaster. I am drawn to climbing stories for the same reason that people find themselves in Wikipedia holes about shark attacks, serial killers, or cults: the cheap thrill of peering into danger – even death – and allowing yourself to feel it, just for a moment, before retreating to safety.

To give myself a little more credit, there’s also the Romantic allure of being – or at least imagining being – at the mercy of a landscape. The pull of the wild can surely only grow in our world of tight control and struggle-free convenience. In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith, at the foot of Matterhorn Peak in Sierra Nevada, finds “a most beautiful small lake unknown to the eyes of most men in this world, seen by only a handful of mountain-climbers”. Mountains are generous to those who dare to climb them. Perhaps that is why there’s something intrusive about watching Free Solo, the Oscar-winning film about Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Cap without ropes or harnesses: Honnold has a more intimate, intuitive relationship with a rock face than I’ve ever had with another human.

But more interesting than the mountains themselves are the men and women who come to them. Often, climbing books have a glossy, colour picture-insert in the middle. I pour over the faces held there, trying to compute that such ordinary-looking people are capable of such extraordinary feats. This, I think, is the heart of my fixation: in these faces, and in the pages of their stories, I find the person I wish I was but will likely never be. 

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler