In 1980, Roger Mear and I made the first ascent of the East Face of Mt Huntington in Alaska. Our base camp was next to the mountain’s fearsome north face, which had been climbed two years earlier by Jack Roberts and Simon McCartney. Constantly swept by avalanches, their route looked so difficult and dangerous that I couldn’t believe that any sane person would want to do it.
I’d met both climbers before: Jack in Chamonix’s Bar Nationale in 1977, and Simon in a pub in North Wales in 1978 when he beat me in a game of pool. This was before their Huntington climb, and although they already had ‘hard man’ reputations, neither of them seemed crazy enough to play Russian Roulette with those avalanches. To my mind, venturing onto Huntington’s north face was tantamount to suicide; the fact that no-one else has done so since Roberts and McCartney’s ascent in 1978 suggests that other mountaineers agree.
Alaska challenged me more than any other experience before or since. It wasn’t just the climb, it was the whole situation – the remoteness, the hardship and the danger. Roger Mear and I lived on the glacier below Mt Huntington’s north face for three weeks, and it seemed alive with menace. All the time, I’d look up and think, Jack and Simon climbed that. They must have wanted to die. Yet I envied their strength and commitment because I was struggling so much with mine. Roger and I completed our climb, but the experience shredded my brain and I went off in search of meaning with a religious cult. While I was being indoctrinated in Colorado, Simon and Jack were throwing themselves at an even more challenging climb, and they only survived by a succession of lucky breaks. I didn’t hear about their epic ascent of Denali’s South West Face until I’d returned to the UK. Soon after, they both disappeared from the pages of the climbing magazines and the decades rolled by.
While looking for a publisher for my memoir, I sent the first draft to Jon Barton at Vertebrate. I didn’t know that Jon was already working on a book about climbing Mount Huntington, by none other than Simon McCartney. Now we have read each other’s books, and the parallels of our early lives are striking: the impatient apprenticeship, epics the Alps, the Eiger in winter, the Bar Nationale in Chamonix, a first ascent on Mount Huntington, and the intense relationships with those whom we climbed with. In other respects, our stories are very different.
My book, Virgin on Insanity is a coming of age story with an individual brand of madness, while Simon’s book, The Bond, is about the madness spurred by a unique climbing partnership. It vividly describes the unshakable self-belief of two climbers who venture into ever more dangerous situations, until their faith in their invincibility is crushed by the height and scale of Denali. Extreme difficulty, freezing storms, altitude sickness and hunger eventually wears down their resolve, but still they’re determined to survive. In the end, it’s this determination that opens the door to the luck that saved them. The bond of shared adversity is unbreakable, and what Simon and Jack shared and survived defies belief.
It’s incredible that Simon McCartney nearly didn’t write his story. Had he not done so, mountaineering literature would have been deprived of one of its greatest adventures. Sadly, Jack Roberts didn’t live long enough to read it – he died in a fall in 2012.