Many close calls later

Mountaineer and author Simon Yates is still chasing first ascents

Paul Schweizer, climbing partner to Simon Yates, atop Good Neighbor in Alaska.
Photo by Simon Yates

“It was a miracle really, that neither of us were killed,” says Simon Yates. “We were in this really narrow couloir on Makron Chhish, myself and another guy, when just a massive amount of rockfall started coming down.”

It was late on an unseasonably warm Pakistani night when a storm of rock that had melted out of ice on the mountain face came hurtling down.

“He felt the rock closing in on him and jumped to the side I was on, and I think that saved his life,” Yates recalls. “A rock hit his boot, and one tore a hole in the back of his ruck sack, the air was full of rock. … We were incredibly lucky.”

Yates, an English mountaineer, is perhaps best known for his role in the events chronicled in the film and book by Joe Simpson titled Touching the Void, one of the most incredible survival stories in the history of high-altitude climbing. But nearly three decades and many close calls later, Yates is still climbing and writing.

He’s seen technology change the way people approach spending time in the mountains, and witnessed his own approach to that time change, even as he continues to chase first ascents. He will be in Boulder for his only U.S. stop on a speaking tour for his latest book, The Wild Within.

“It’s a biography, really, about climbing through the first decade of this century, during which time I’ve been increasingly drawn to mountain wilderness,” Yates says.

It is a wilderness, however, that he sees changing rapidly. Climbing has moved from a fringe population of adventurers to something more mainstream, and more people are going into the mountains.

First came satellite phones. Expensive to own and use, they made it possible for climbers to stay in touch not only with base camp, but with the rest of the world. Now Yates says that cell towers are going up in remote mountain valleys in Asia and other ranges throughout the world. “The wilderness has shrunk in some respect; you might be alone, but you no longer feel it; in the past a big part of the experience was that you were out of contact in this very remote place.”

According to Yates, the risks some climbers are willing to take may be growing, due to a false sense of security engendered by cell phones and new, lighter helicopters that can evacuate climbers from 6,000 meters and above.

“It can lure people into a false sense of security,” he says of the new technology in use in the mountains, which makes it possible for people to call out for rescue when they can’t possibly be reached in time to be helped. “It’s happened several times now that climbers have been out at altitude in very remote places … and basically phone in to tell people they’re dying.”

For climbers trying to make a name for themselves and gain the lucrative sponsorships that might allow them to climb full time, conquering the world’s marquee peaks seems vital. Yates has found a different way to support himself as a climber, by dropping out of the 8,000-meter peak madness and targeting smaller, often unknown and unclimbed peaks “alpine style” or with a minimum of gear, more akin to the early mountaineers.

“I had a period where I was going after the big peaks, but that’s a long time ago,” he says. “I’ve turned away from them, and I’m pleased that I have.”

Yates says the decade he has written about has been the most successful of his climbing career primarily because he has turned toward more remote, often unclimbed mountains in places like Tierra Del Fuego, Greenland and the Wrangell range on the Alaska-Yukon border.

“It’s a honeypot now, isn’t it, Everest. It’s become just a trophy peak, more and more people are going there,” he says.

But in less trodden places, it is still possible to accomplish that singular feat of mountaineering: to summit an unclimbed peak.

“I’m more interested in the unknown, and explorative mountaineering,” he says. “I can use my time and resources better on smaller, more technical peaks, going to more out-of-the-way places.”

The trips he does now, he says, aren’t expensive and don’t require a great deal of time.

“When you go on the 8,000-meter peaks you have to allocate at least six weeks for acclimatization, plus the length of time it takes to walk into them, and the permit fees are very expensive,” he says.

The story he has written in The Wild Within is about the change not only within the wild, but within himself, of a maturing climber learning to balance a family life with his passion for adventure.

“I’ve got children now, and they’re always in the back of my mind,” he says. “I don’t want to leave them without a father, so my attitude toward risk-taking has toned down a bit.”

To fuel his climbing career and support his family, Yates has become more active guiding, often only a single client, into the wild. For many hard-core climbers, guiding can be a necessary evil, a chore undertaken to pay the bills.

“As I’ve gotten older,” Yates says, “I’ve become more patient, and I enjoy being in the mountains, regardless the circumstances.”

The biggest difference, he says, is the planning required for going into a successful climb with a client.

“My first decade of climbing, when I was in my 20s, I was nowhere near as busy as I am now,” he says.

Yates in India in 2011

If anyone is nostalgic for those old days, it isn’t Yates, who credits the mainstreaming of climbing with developments in gear.

“The kit has become a great deal lighter over the last 10 years,” he says. “It’s big business now, suddenly boots, ropes, harnesses, what you’re carrying up the mountain in your rucksack is an awful lot lighter than it used to be … it’s great,” he says, laughing. “And of course, that means you can move faster!”

The question is, with telecommunications invading the world’s desolate mountain ranges, super-light, high-flying rescue helicopters, big-name sponsors, and dedicated super athletes, what might be the future of climbing?

“Climbing as a whole has become almost a lot of specialist sub-sports, hasn’t it? It’s hard to tell which way it will go. I think people will be doing more stuff faster,” Yates says. A case in point: prolific Austrian speed climber Ueli Steck, who has sprinted the Eiger’s north face in under four hours.

“It’s a beautiful mountain, the Eiger, there’s a lot of myth and legend, and tragedy surrounding it,” Yates recalls. “I’ve climbed the north face, but it wasn’t in four hours, I can tell you. Took me two and a half days.”

In the early days of mountaineering, the Eiger’s north face was thought perhaps impossibly difficult for men to climb, and many adventurers lost their lives trying. For someone to have sprinted so quickly up it might have been deemed superhuman.

“It’s the way everything’s gone, isn’t it?” Yates says. “With a big name and a big sponsor, the amount of time and training that they’re able to devote to this now, as well as changes in the equipment, these guys are professional athletes, really.”

Whether you are a climber living on a shoestring or a sponsored pro, however, mountaineering will never be comfortable in a conventional sense, and never risk-free.

“The only reason to do it is because you love it, there’s too much hardship otherwise,” Yates says. “If I ever stop loving the mountains, I’ll go to the beach.”

In the meantime, Yates continues to pursue chances to stand where no one ever has stood before.

“Next year I’ll be back down in Tierra Del Fuego, and then back up in the Wrangell,” Yates says. “There are thousands of unclimbed mountains, even over 6,000 meters, and I’ve got a big new route I’m planning there — but I’m not going to tell you which mountain it is.”

Simon Yates will present on his book The Wild Within at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6 at Neptune Mountaineering at 633 S. Broadway in Boulder. Call 303-499-8866.