by Nick Bullock
Vertebrate Publishing £24 246pp
In 2012 Nick Bullock produced his first book “Echoes”. On page one he has a steady job with relatively good prospects and a pension to safeguard his old age. He also lives in his own house, a fact he values highly. At the start of this, his second book, Bullock has no job, no pension and lives with all his possessions in the back of a second-hand van. “Echoes” recounts the struggle of reaching a decision to abandon the security offered by a conventional life-style and become a full time mountaineer. “Tides” between making a variety of perilous moves from one climbing hold to another, examines the equally uncertain consequences of his earlier decision. These seem to be – on the one hand, the positives of doing what you want when you want – or as one climbing acquaintance put it “You’ve got it all” – on the other, the negatives of an often-shiftless existence without roots or a meaningful long-term relationship.
The contents of the book reflect this dichotomy. On the face of it, it is the author’s climbing diary from 2003 to 2016 covering exploits that range from the Himalaya to the more modest cliffs of the Anglesey coast. It is, as it were, Bullock’s public record of his mountaineering achievements and there is no doubt that these achievements are impressive. All the more so, as he appears to deliberately stack the odds against himself – completing difficult summer climbs under winter conditions, seeking out rock that is both friable and unprotected, even climbing for two weeks with a badly broken wrist. Or as he, somewhat laconically, puts it, you “need a scare to appreciate life”.
But a closer examination of the book shows it is more than a guidebook to very hard climbs. An important component is the detailed and revealing description of the varied array of companions who accompany the author on his travels. If the world of ice and rock is Bullock’s stage, then they are the players who make their entrances and (often fatal) exits and give necessary shape and substance to the space the author has had to create for himself. But it doesn’t end there. There is another world outside the climbing Utopia that Bullock has so determinedly constructed. It is the world of his childhood and recent past, a world of more intimate relationships and the responsibilities. The main climbing discourse is punctuated, arguably interrupted, by remembered scenes from these formative years, as if the author both in a literary and personal sense was trying simultaneously to connect and distance this other world from his present life.
Yet even the cocoon of climbing does not offer complete emotional safety. As the references to Facebook show, it is important to Bullock that the outside world is aware of his exploits. But advertising on social media has its downside – the tide of the title comes in and the tide goes out. Unable to ignore either public or peer group opinion he often seems to be left high and dry grappling with “the deadly combination of ambition and the fear of failure”. Even within his own inner self this tension is evident. At times throughout the book the question of climbing ethics arises - At what point is it permissible to replace a point of aid? Can you say you have completed a route if you use off-route protection? Were the holds you used the correct holds? The arcane even absurd nature of such questions is illustrated in the section entitled “death of paradise”. There is an argument between the author and Stevie Haston about a route the latter has put up on Craig Doris. This culminated in Haston screaming. “YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH YOU ARE NOT EVEN USING THE CORRECT HOLDS, AND YOU’RE USING THE LEDGE: ONE OF THE HARDEST MOVES IS CLIMBING PAST THE LEDGE WITHOUT USING IT.” Perhaps, as the title of this section suggests, this is Bullock’s moment of epiphany. In a world ravaged by suffering, poverty and loss, to feel guilty about using or not using a particular hold is frankly ridiculous.
As the book progresses it seems to be less about the author’s climbing exploits and more about the author himself. The self-examination becomes more intense. Questions begin to float nearer the surface. Questions concerning his responsibilities towards his ageing parents, his unwillingness to risk any form of personal relationship outside climbing, even the value of his own created world. In particular, the key question: what he will do when, like his Dad, he can no longer function within it? The book ends on a different note with a foot in each camp. The sub-title of Bullock’s book is “a climber’s voyage” and therefore the final chapter is ironically apt. Juxtaposed with a description of a new route in Tibet, is an account of the author helping his elderly and recently widowed father move himself and his home “Jasper” from its original canal mooring to their final resting place at Apsley Marina. Initially, he dreads the five-day journey that will force him back into his other world but as the journey progresses he begins to realise things are changing and perhaps he will have to change with them.
This is a powerful book both in content and style, describing not only the intricacies and dangers of the climb but also the innermost struggles of the climber. It may well take a brave man to retackle Omega on the Petites Jorasses, but it is an even braver man who confronts his own inner demons.