Wisdom From a Climbing Book

I recently ordered one of my favorite mountaineering books for a friend. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson is a truly epic tale about a climb Joe did in 1985 with his friend Simon Yates. What I found interesting was that the updated edition came with a few interesting sections added since I read it 20 years ago. To explain, you’ll have to humor me as I try to give a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Joe and Simon were in a remote part of Peru trying to put in a first climb of the West Face of the 21,000 foot Siula Grande. It probably goes without saying, but first routes are always tricky because you don’t have anyone else’s notes about where to go and what is passable.

They get to the top and are then trying to get the heck out of there when Joe loses his footing and falls, shattering his right knee. They are so far in the back of beyond that there is no chance of a rescue. Mountaineering ethics allow for Simon to leave Joe in this situation because to get Joe out means truly putting Simon’s life at risk.

But Simon doesn’t leave Joe. Instead they devise a way of lowering Joe down the vertical face of the mountain. Simon is suffering frostbite on his fingers at this point but he still is able to sit in a snow hole they dig out, lower Joe about 300 vertical feet, then climb down to him to do it all again because they have about 3,000 vertical feet to go before they hit the part where they walk out. But the key part of this method is that Joe has to stand up in the middle of the lower to unweight the rope so Simon can thread past the knot.

After they’ve done this about 8 times, they believe it’s the last section they have to do this and they start. They’ve been doing this all day and by now a storm rages around them. Simon starts the lower and Joe goes over a cliff so that he’s hanging in mid-air about 100 feet over the ground they are trying to reach. Now he can’t unweight the rope so that Simon can move the knot.

Worse than that, Joe is pulling Simon out of his snow seat. Simon can’t see where Joe went and they can’t hear each other because of the storm, Simon can’t continue to hold Joe with his frostbitten fingers. They are connected by harnesses around their waists so Simon is getting pulled by the lower half of his body while trying to manage the rope with his wooden fingers. If Joe can’t unweight the rope, Simon will be pulled off the mountain and they’ll both die.

After some time (15 minutes?), the situation is completely dire. Simon manages to reach into his pack, get his knife and cut the rope. Joe falls 100 feet, cracks through the ice and lands on an ice shelf in a crevasse. When Simon finally makes it down that far, he looks and calls for Joe but doesn’t see him anywhere. He assumes Joe is dead.

We know Joe survives – because he wrote the book. He spent 3 days crawling back to their base camp to arrive right before Simon and Richard, the guy who was watching their camp, pack up to leave.

That’s the basic story and it’s well-written and gripping. Joe never judged Simon harshly for cutting the rope. But in this version, he adds a note ten years past trying to absolve Simon of the criticisms Simon faced ever since.

Joe arrived home, had a dozen surgeries, is hailed as a heroic survivor. Simon, who suffered frostbite, dehydration, and the agony of the supposed death of his friend, becomes known as the guy who cut the rope.

This reminds me of comparative suffering. Where we believe we can’t air our pain because someone else has suffered more. I think this happens all the time in my life. As in, I can’t mention I’m miserable with a cold because you’ve had cancer. You don’t want to talk about your dad’s cognitive decline because mine died.

To counter this, here’s some wisdom from Brené Brown:
“Empathy is not finite and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. But fear and scarcity trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked.”

Brené Brown in Atlas of The Heart

After the section trying to free Simon from whatever comparative suffering he’s faced, Joe adds a couple more interesting notes. First, that his fall and the book that he wrote as a result probably saved his life. Instead of trying riskier and riskier climbs, he ended up having a career as a writer.

Which leads to the other note I found fascinating. Joe said he was experiencing some PTSD after returning to the Siula Grande to shoot the film version of Touching the Void. But as soon as he did a speaking engagement and started talking about it again, the nightmares and anxiety stopped. Talking about it helped.

I loved the climbing story. But I’m even more taken by what Joe Simpson added over time. A little extra wisdom which I sum up as: stop letting comparative suffering keep you from talking about it and healing, terrible and traumatic events can sometimes lead to the next great phase of life, and keep verbalizing and working through things that haunt you. Not bad for a climbing book…

Please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com and I also post on Wednesdays at the Wise & Shine blog. And if you want to follow me, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

29 thoughts on “Wisdom From a Climbing Book

  1. I love the Brene quote you included, Wynne…no need to ration love like slices of pizza. ❤❤❤ Her imagery always pulls me in…as did the story of Joe and Simon. Your world related to climbing, your knowledge of the risks, the skills and courage combined? Wow. And while I think I’d heard of the book, I haven’t read it, but your summary makes me think I should. Chilling, and redemptive. Especially the sharing of Joe’s “release” after talking about all of it years later. xo, Wynne!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Vicki! You put your finger on it – the imagery that Brene uses is so good! And yes, the book is really good – although I’ve told the major plot points, the way Joe survives and his mental process is really fascinating! Thanks for the great IG graphic!! XOXO

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That is an amazing story of survival Wynne! I don’t think I really new the term comparative suffering however…I understood the moment you gave some examples. I feel like I was taught that when someone speaks about difficulty, hardship, or trauma the *correct* way to respond is to listen and empathize, offer of yourself and no more. To relate your own difficulty is to be selfish, unfeeling, even rude so we minimize our own pain as a true friend. Over time I think that forces us to minimize ourselves and our worth and makes our pain something to be ashamed of. Thank you for pointing out that while we can always be in a friends court during tough times, we have to acknowledge our own as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Deb – you say it so well about being in a friends court. I was taught the same thing but I agree we have to acknowledge our own pain as well. Otherwise we risk people feeling like they are the only people in the world with hurt. Right? Thanks for the great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too love the Brene Brown quote, Wynne, especially this part: “and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked.” Something else stood out to me, which is that Simon became known as the guy who “cut the rope.” That… after he’d tried so desperately to save Joe. What a touching story. I love the additions to the book, and the take-aways you shared. As always, you’ve given us much to think about. Beautifully written, thank you! ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kendra, that’s exactly what stood out to me to. After a laborious day trying to save Joe, he was remembered as the guy who “cut the rope” when his own life was put at risk. I can’t imagine the burden he must have carried, and perhaps still carries all these years later.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Yes, the guy that cut the rope -you both nailed it. I got the sense from the afterword that the person who might have been the most critical is Simon himself. Thank you, Kendra for the lovely comment. And Erin, you are so right, I think it’s been a huge burden to carry all these years. It really is a touching story of survival — in many ways! Thanks for the thoughtful comments!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I gotta agree with you Wynne . . . Not bad for a climbing book. Sounds like there’s a lot of great wisdom in the book. Love the lesson that talking about the trauma helped. We fight it, but getting it out is always a good thing. I know I have to tell myself that lesson a lot. And yes, it’s funny and sad how society has to label people. They can’t both be heroic survivors. No, one guy is the good guy, the other guy, the bad one. Life doesn’t work that way. Thanks for the great reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What an insightful comment, Brian! So true about the false dichotomy – it’s so easy to buy into that! And about talking about it – it seems to be the key to finding meaning, right? Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your summation of Joe’s addition is great, Wynne. Each of us has our own unique journey with different challenges so, when we step back, it seems a bit silly to compare our suffering. And yet we so often do. Talking and being heard can be such a salve for the pain, but we sometimes feel the need to self-censor. I especially like the final point: terrible and traumatic events can sometimes lead to the next great phase of life. So many people I know we are particularly happy or successful only achieved that position after some abhorrent event from which they chose to learn and grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love what you say about how silly it is to compare our suffering, Erin. I imagine with the health journey you’ve been on, you might have felt this from others a time or two. And exactly right about how awful events leading to other things when we chose to learn and grow!! Yes!! Thanks, Erin!!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, Ally. Certainly with Joe’s story, there was a victory over death survival story that probably makes it easier to share — unlike others where it’s hard to find the uplifting meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a compelling and harrowing story, Wynne. It’s very interesting when authors go back and update the book with additional reflections that only the gift of time and distance can provide.

    I hear you on the comparative suffering but I do believe, as you said, we have the capacity for empathy that transcends these issues… or at least we should.

    Happy Friday and weekend to you and the kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another climbing thing occurs to me in relation to your COVID situation. When you go to altitude for any length of time, your body creates more red blood cells to carry more oxygen so that when you get back to sea level, it’s like you get a huge boost because everything seems easier! At least for a few days until the additional red blood cells die off.

      I’m thinking now that hubby is well again maybe you are feeling the correlating effect on parenting. I hope so!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a unique way of looking at it Wynne! To be honest, I just wanted to sleep that weekend. 😆But I could see what you’re getting at though!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Since I don’t really know your story Wynne, I am curious as far as your draw to climbing books…do you do some climbing in your free time, (or used to)? What an intense real life story. Would make a powerful movie, if it isn’t already. DM

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A good question, DM. Yes, I used to climb mountains. Nothing like first ascents but summits of the volcanoes near me (Rainier, Adams, St. Helens) plus climbs in Mexico, Russia, Italy, Everest Base camp because I got to know some big-team climbers. Once I choose to become a single parent in my late 40’s, I find that I am not willing to risk even the least risky climbs so I’m just an armchair mountaineer these days.

      They did make a movie out of it but since so much of the book is inside Joe’s head – his motivation to keep going, to find a way out, to bear the pain, it’s not nearly as good as the book.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, DM!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember reading an account of Lynn Hill free climbing “The Nose” in Yosemite in some magazine….Could not wrap my head the logistics of what she did…. I would love to hear stories of your adventures climbing! Are they buried in the archives of your blog somewhere? Let me know. I am very interested. Thanks Wynne! DM

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, Lynn Hill. A legend! Are you a climber too, DM? She once came into the rock climbing gym on a night I was there and I was surprised at how tiny she is. Have you watched Free Solo? or Meru? Jimmy Chin is such an amazing climber and cinematographer. The guys that can not only climb but also film those that do — whew, astoundingingly talented.

        Yes, I love my climbing stories and metaphors. I’ll dig up some links and leave them in comment if you are interested.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I am not a climber in the sense of the word that you are. I do some climbing for my job (home builder/ framer) Can’t remember where I read that story by her, but there were photos of that rock feature (the nose) she described what she had to do w/ her body to make that climb..I remember thinking..it’s one thing to be tied off, another entirely to be that far off the ground w/o any rigging….Thank you for all of those links, plus the movie titles. Lots of good reading and watching. Sweet.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I’m going to have to look up the description of “The Nose.” Sounds fascinating. There are a lot of climbers who work as home builders in the off season to earn money – Ed Viesturs comes to mind. Makes sense how that is good practice.

        Liked by 1 person

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