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Author Interview: Roger Hubank, North Wall

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Vertebrate is very excited to be releasing a new edition of Roger Hubank's classic climbing novel North Wall. North Wall's premise is one familiar to those with a thirst for adventure at high-altitude: two men attempting to climb one of the world’s most challenging peaks; yet at its core this is a story that examines the nature of climbing itself: trading familiar earthbound comforts for the allure of the mountains and risking it all to achieve the extraordinary. 

Our Digital Assets Editor, Sarah, talks to Roger about the relationship between writing and climbing, the psychological impact of dedicating one's life to a sport such as this, and the legacy of North Wall.

North Wall is your first novel. What are your memories of writing it, and how, if at all, has your writing method changed over the years? 

It was a slow, slow business and so took a long time. It might have been quicker had it not been for my little daughter. The work-in-progress was typed, the typescript cut up, then the bits laid out on the floor so I could try out various juxtapositions. Then Sarah would open the door and all the bits would fly up into the air.

Regarding ‘method’ I think you learn as you go on. At various points in the work-in-progress questions present themselves which one can’t answer. I learnt the important thing to do was not to try to force an answer, but simply to leave be, and push on. Very likely the answers will declare themselves as the work proceeds. Either they will or they won’t.

One of the crucial things to pick up over the years is what Hemingway called an ICD – an inbuilt crap detector. I didn’t have one when I started, as North Wall makes only too clear. There are bits I shudder at these days. I hope I’m now better equipped in that respect.

Has writing about mountaineering altered your relationship with it? If so, how? 

It’s led me to look more closely at the contexts within which climbing takes place, the lives of parents, wives and families as well the larger cultural, social and political world - matters all too often left out of mountaineering books. Thus, Hazard’s Way is set against the Boer War, and reflects its disruptive impact upon the climbing community. 

Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist, has spoken recently of the need to look beyond the notion of climbing as a kind of isolated sport, quoting the late Dave Cook on the need to ‘fling wide the doors and let the rest of life flood into the world of climbing literature ...'

The novel explores both the psychological and physical impact of the ascent of Piz Molino. In your experience, do you think climbing is more physically or psychologically demanding? 

I think it’s both, though the measure of it will depend to some extent on the physical attributes of the climber and the character of the climb. I remembered years ago being very conscious, resentfully so, of a lad on Stanage whose legs seemed to go right up to his armpits (I’m very small myself) stepping up onto a hold that it took me three moves to reach.

I remember, too, my first visit to Cloggy on a hot summer day plodding along the Llanberis path with the walkers bound for Snowdon. Then dropping down to Llyn Du'r Arddu, deep in shadow. There was a distinct chill in the air down there. No sunlight. The few climbers standing about seemed to speak in hushed voices. You knew this was a serious place. It told you so in no uncertain terms.

Speaking of psychological demands, in the foreword you discuss the price climbers often have to pay when attempting extreme feats such as this – including a loss of innocence, and, on a level, ‘self-estrangement’. Why do you think this occurs, and would you say it is unavoidable? 

The circumstances which make for it are likely to be almost inevitable in the experience of most serious climbers. Friends killed, relationships destroyed. The extent to which they are affected by it is not for me to say. I cannot speak for others. They must speak for themselves. And some have done so.  The young David Roberts (The Mountain of my Fear) breaking the news of their son’s death on Mt Huntington to the poor, bewildered parents of Ed Bernd discovers it’s not only climbers that must pay the price but those who never bargained for it in the first place: ‘Never such innocence again.’

As for ‘self-estrangement’, Andy Kirkpatrick has written compellingly of the conflicted state of mind of the driven mountaineer: on the mountain longing for home; at home longing for the mountain. Nick Bullock’s Tides is troubled by it. Robert MacFarlane sees it at work in the obsessive, stop-at-nothing commitment of George Mallory, an instinct so ruthlessly compelling that Mallory himself was scarcely conscious of it, though an egotism deeply antagonistic to ordinary human experience. If I’ve been aware of it perhaps it’s because I’m conscious of something very like it in myself, an ambivalence which has pursued me into my work as a writer, struggling to free myself from old allurements, all the while dependent upon an imagination cherishing what it seeks to cast away.

North Wall examines the climbing partnership between two very different characters – Raymond, an experienced and practical mountain guide, and Daniel, an amateur climber torn between the allure of this ‘other world’ and the familiar: his young family back home. Why did you decide to make the two main characters so different? Do they each represent different aspects of your own relationship with climbing?

I needed to distinguish between two sharply contrasted characters who, at a deeper level, are linked in some fundamental way.  Raymond is what I was not, and never could be. He is Walter Bonatti or Cassin or Lionel Terray. Mark Twight, that archetypal hard man of extreme Alpinism, clearly saw him as a Promethean figure, for he chose this passage to include in his Kiss or Kill:

Daniel saw him squatting perpetually on some north wall, enduring the storms and terrors of the great faces, a contemptuous eye cocked at his malignant gods. You cannot starve me, he would say to them, more than I’ve always starved – nor cause me greater pain than I’ve always suffered - nor make me any lonelier. And there he would preside for ever.’

Raymond understands what Bonatti discovered during the Freney disaster. He learnt it on the north face of the Plan. A mountain is a place of chaos. On a mountain, to borrow Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, ‘God does not exist and all things are permitted’.

From Raymond’s point of view Daniel, to use a French term, is a petit bourgeois.  ‘A pious domestic man who went to mass on Sundays with his family, he had no business here. Then he remembered. Daniel chose to climb…’  The petit bourgeois life was not enough. Perhaps Daniel cried out, as some of us may have cried despairingly at some point in our lives, ‘There must be more than this’. So, in a sense, both men are drawn in the same direction, suffer the same longing.  

Despite their differences, Raymond and Daniel form a strong bond on the mountain. Would you say bonds between climbers come easily on the mountains? And what, would you say, is the key to a strong climbing partnership?

Obviously it helps to have certain things in common so that you have something to talk about while huddled under a boulder sitting out the rain. Though trust is the crucial thing. A bond won’t last long without it. My novel Hazard’s Way is dedicated to my climbing partner of many years. Under the dedication I wrote, ‘To J… who would not suffer my foot to slip.’ For my part I knew I mustn’t let him down. It’s a loyalty which, as I understand it, soldiers in combat feel, not to ‘Queen and Country’, but to their comrades.

Perhaps it’s best put in a line from David Wilson’s poem ‘Gritstone Solo, Sudden Rain,’ from his 2019 collection The Equilibrium Line: ‘Now the climb demands you be The self you always sought.’

North Wall uses an omniscient third person point-of-view, allowing us to experience both Raymond’s and Daniel’s perspective. Was this always your intention, or in the earlier stages of writing, did one character’s ‘voice’ predominate?

From the outset I knew I had to keep my distance, not wishing to be too closely associated with either of them. In spite of that I’m afraid the novel suffers from that self-dramatizing quality which is the besetting sin of so many writers. ‘There is no end,’ as Auden puts it, ‘to the vanity of our calling.’

There is a striking quote in the novel: ‘Nothing moved. Even the noises were distant and muffled. Like the wind that brushed against his face. Sitting on the slab, over 400 metres above the glacier, seeing everything spread out below him, he felt as if he were looking out from a secret place upon an unsuspecting world. The stillness and the great distance and the difficulties which now lay behind him contributed to his tranquillity. I have come from down there, he thought. After all these years, it still seemed remarkable ...’ - Can you expand some more on this? Do you believe it is the allure of this tranquillity and thrill of experiencing a ‘secret place’ so untrodden by others that inspires people to discover the mountains? 

Once again it would be presumptuous of me to try to answer for others.

For Daniel certainly that is the case. In this moment of fullness he has become himself. ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’ That is transcendence. He has become, if only momentarily, ‘the self he always sought’. It is perhaps what we all truly seek. Yet it springs from a solitary longing – an egotism some might say – to embrace more than we can grasp as to the proper end of life, one which is deeply antagonistic to ordinary life ‘down there’.

In a talk I gave at the 30th Boardman Tasker anniversary celebration I spoke of the antagonism that exists between serious mountaineering (where the objective hazards are high) and the domestic, the lives of wives and families with all that that entails.  Daniel made his choice. And, as we’re inclined to say on these occasions, it was his to make.

But in choosing for himself he was, in effect, choosing for others whether they would or no. Because a life is not like a possession, to do with as one pleases. It’s more like a story. And as such, part of other larger stories. Daniel is only too conscious of it. That knowledge comes to haunt him as tragedy unfolds on the Piz Molino.  

The last word is given to Raymond: ‘Ich habe es nicht gewollt.’ ‘I didn’t want it to be like this.’ He might have spoken for them both. Indeed, for all those whose story would never be the same again.

Though North Wall was originally published in 1977, it remains a classic of mountaineering literature. What do you think it is about the novel that continues to captivate readers?

It’s difficult for me to answer that. Perhaps it might have to do with whatever it was that led John Sheard to recommend it (in On the Edge) for ‘those with sufficient Alpine experience to imagine what a major route might be like, and sufficient sense not to put it to the test.’ Or perhaps what Harold Drasdo, writing in High, called ‘the grip factor’. Or else for whatever quality impelled Mark Twight to quote passages from it in his Banff prize-winner. 

For me it remains a kind of homage to the Alps, a celebration of the great names (both of climbs and climbers) associated with them, and all they stood for, an unashamed romanticism ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’.

Finally, at one point in the story, Daniel recalls his wife asking, ‘Why do you have to climb?’  This is a question which will no doubt yield myriad different answers from climbers as it is so personal. What is it about climbing that first attracted you to the sport, and did your answer to this question change over the years as you developed as a climber and reflected on climbing through your writing?

In a word, excitement. The adrenaline rush. A fix in which everything around me, hills, woods, rock, green fields and stone walls, the gritstone stretching away...

                         ‘ me did seem 

                     Apparelled in celestial light, 

                    The glory and the freshness of a dream.'

For Wordsworth, of course, it didn’t last. ‘The things which I have seen,' he wrote, ‘I now can see no more.’  For me it did last, though sufficiently damaged by the damage I inflicted on others to sink from sight for a number of years until Hazard’s Way took shape in the story of another young man, 'the way he went,’ as Jim Perrin put it, ‘and what he learnt along it’. That it was still as I remembered it. That there is no peace like the deep peace of wild places. That wildness can survive in the place we make within ourselves. And that, for all of us, death waits in the wilderness, whether of the high mountains or the hospital ward. 

So writing and climbing became inextricably linked, the one feeding off the other. And so it has remained.  



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