On the Cover:
The Bond by Simon McCartney
An incredible personal account about the unending power of friendship and sacrifice on the most challenging peaks on the planet.
Cover Date: June 10th, 2016
I recently had the chance to interview British climber Simon McCartney, and the story he shared was absolutely gripping and powerful. He has put his incredible experiences into a book called The Bond, which will be out next month and available on Amazon.com and also in England.
Simon was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book he authored, and I wanted to present it to the readers of my magazine. It truly touched my heart. It is a story that applies to all of us, a story about the love of mountaineering, about the allure of a first ascent, about the unending power of friendship as well as the desire to tell a story and honor those who are worthy of great honor.
Editor: Thanks for your time. What were the some of the reasons you wrote The Bond, Simon?
Simon: There were very strong emotional reasons that I wrote the book and its success means a lot because I wanted to set the record straight for Jack Roberts and I. I wanted to celebrate the two first ascents we made in Alaska, because very little was said or written about them at the time or ever since. Those two climbs were ahead of their time (I am reliably informed) and were never recognised at the time for what they were.
Our ascent of the North Face of Mount Huntington has never been repeated, it was so dangerous. Actually, I am glad about that. Today, a modern pair of alpinists might get up it in half the time if the conditions permit, but the unlikely random survivability make it a lottery. At the age of 22, I believed I was immortal. The first and only ascent of Huntington’s north face is testimony to the arrogance of youth.
Does that matter to me now that I am sixty? Yes it does. Second ascents were like a magnet to me in the European Alps in 1977. It was an opportunity to measure oneself against the cream of alpinists by testing their achievements. Now, I would be grief stricken if somebody got killed trying to repeat our ascent. Technically, a modern pair should do better than we did but the risks are the same. This is why the chapters that refer to that climb have gaming connotations, ‘craps’ and ‘roulette’.
Editor: What type of connection did you share with your climbing partner, Jack?
Simon: The bond that Jack and I shared was forged on that climb. The near tragic circumstances that surrounded our ascent of the SW Face of Denali in 1980 and my rescue was something that all of those involved would carry with them for the rest of our lives. It also meant the end of my climbing career and sadly Jack and I lost contact with each other.
I last saw my old friend alive in 1981 and for three decades it seemed that each thought the other had passed away, certainly if Jack had continued taking the extreme risks that we did, it was not a survivable path. I had severed all contact with the climbing world because I found that being reminded of it saddened me. As a consequence, I was very difficult to find and I had moved continents twice. I made no deliberate attempt to camouflage myself but there was no internet then and I left few clues.
Editor: How did you both reconnect?
Simon: Almost three decades later, through a chance re-connection I discovered that Jack had been looking for me via a climbing website forum. For an hour I was swept up in a storm of joyous emotion. Jack was alive and looking for me after thirty years. My joy was murdered a few hours later, digging a little deeper on the web I found the message ‘Jack Roberts RIP’. He had found a way to live his life in the mountains all his life. In 2012 he had inexplicably fallen whist leading the Ice Climb Bridalveil Falls in Telluride. He died from his injuries. I made contact with a climber who knew Jack well, Mark Westman.
Editor: That is deeply saddening. Please accept my condolences. How does Mark figure in your story?
Simon: Mark helped me enormously and I realised that with his help that I could write a story of some kind. One by one, I set about tracking down the surviving cast.
Editor: Tell us about the climb.
Simon: During our epic first ascent of the south west face of Denali, Jack and I overcame all the technical difficulties only for me to collapse with high altitude cerebral edema at 19,400 feet. Four days without food, Jack with frostbite and me in a coma, we were lucky to be spotted by another pair who had climbed the Cassin Ridge, Bob Kandiko and Mike Helms. Mike went with Jack over the summit to get a rescue for me, and Bob volunteered to stay and care for me. Bob and I actually wound up descending the Cassin Ridge until we ran into some other climbers after 6 foodless days for him and 10 for me. Bob saved my life, another Bond is formed.
Editor: How did you reconnect with Bob?
Simon: I found Bob alive and very well, 30 years might have passed but we have become close friends again instantly. I found Pam Roberts at the height of her grief walking and scattering some of Jack's ashes on the mountains of Spain. We have become fast friends and she became an enthusiastic supporter of the book. Pam had heard all about the climbs I did with Jack, she married Jack a few years after I last saw him. Pam is a partner in the success of this book. She found Mike Helms and another joyous reunion ensued at the AAC dinner in Washington DC last year at which Bob and Mike receive the Sowles Award for heroism for their part in saving me!
An article on the rescue.
What is the Sowles Award? Find out here.
Editor: Let’s chat about your book a bit more. With the content being so personal, how did you go about putting it together?
Simon: I wrote it just the way it happened. The book starts in the near present in 2012, I am in Hong Kong where I have worked for the last 12 years. A friend googled me and found that I appear in Jon Waterman’s book ‘Surviving Denali’. I had not spoken to anyone about my climbing for nearly three decades and I am shocked that he knows about what happened on Denali. I am reminded of what happened on Denali in 1980, whether I care to be of not.
Al is a good friend so I tell him a little of tale. He asks the obvious question, “What happened to Jack?” I tell him I really don’t know and I feared that if he went on climbing the way we did, he might not have survived. I am left wondering, taken back to the crucible of that climb. Flash back to 1977 and the middle chapters tell all of the climbing history up to 1981.
We then travel back to Hong Kong via Australia and in 2012, I discover that Jack has passed away. In the last chapter of ‘The Bond’ Pam, Bob and I go back to Alaska and revisit the ‘scene of the crime’ as it were. We actually land on the Ruth Glacier where Jack and I spent a month in ’78 and scatter some ashes.
Editor: How did you come upon this title for your book?
Simon: The title emerged long into the project. I wanted the book to appeal not only to climbers, and I was desperately trying to avoid any hyperbole. During my research, I had many wonderful re-connections and it made me realise that the bonds I had formed in my twenties were as strong now as they were then. For me this came to symbolise all that is best about my experiences in extreme climbing. The climbs are littered with examples of selfless heroism, either in defending the life of your climbing partner, or in the case of the Denali incident, selflessly risking one’s own life so that another might have a chance of survival. I see that in climbing, self aggrandisement and the vacant pursuit of fame and attention is common. All of that is fine, I was guilty of it myself as cocky young man. For me now, the important things are the unshakable bonds that I have formed because of climbing and the new connections that I continue to make.
Editor: The readers are glad you agreed to share your story, many will identify with it immediately.
Simon: It has been such an emotional roller coaster, I simply had to write it down. It also means so much for Pam to see Jack get the credit for the great climber he was. It has been a catharsis not only for me but all of the survivors.
Editor: How long did it take to put it together?
Simon: Three years, unfortunately, I wish it could have been less. I have more than a full time job as one of the two partners in a specialist lighting company with offices on four countries. I wrote it in snippets of spare time. After a year and a half, I had enough of the story written to present it to Jon Barton, the owner of Vertebrate Publishing in the UK. He took me on and with the help of his editor Susie Ryder, we cut down more than 300,000 words to a more succinct and focused book, which has a surprising ending.
Editor: Where did your research take you?
Simon: Work on the book required me to travel to Bellingham WA, Washington DC, Talkeetna Alaska and Boulder, Colorado several times. I like Boulder immensely, by the way.
Editor: When and where did you begin your climbing career?
Simon: I am British by birth and I started climbing young. My father introduced me to the joy of the mountains when I was 12 in Scotland and I took up rock climbing with an adventure group that year. I spent my teens climbing all over the UK and started to visit the European Alps each summer. In the summer of 1977, I was the sorcerer’s apprentice to the vastly experienced Dave Wilkinson. That summer changed my climbing irreversibly. We made a serious first ascent and a string of second ascents. This changed my mind about what was possible.
Editor: How did you meet Jack?
Simon: I met Jack Roberts in what was then the social climbing centre of Europe, The Bar National in Chamonix. He was one of group of Americans in France that summer, Rick Accomazzo, Steve Shea, Tobin Sorenson and others. The weather was crap and the season was over, so Jack and I went back to the UK and went rock climbing in Cheddar Gorge. In a pub one night, he talked me into going to Alaska in 1978.
Editor: That’s wonderful. Where did the first ascents take place and what were the route names?
Simon: The important first ascents are only two and both were in Alaska. The north face of Mount Huntington in 1978, unrepeated, it has no other name from me but Jack later took to calling it the ‘Timeless Face’. I have to say that I quite like that. It is better than the ‘Wall of very likely death if you are stupid to try it’.
Editor: Indeed! Well said. And the other one?
Simon: The SW face of Denali in 1980, also unrepeated although this climb shares the first 2/3 with what is now called the Denali Diamond. Jack apparently took to calling it the ‘Tuckerman Route’ but I don’t think the name ever really took hold. The fashion of giving alpine climbs subjective names was foreign to me and not yet in vogue, at least for me. I think of it in European nomenclature, it is simply the Roberts-McCartney route.
Editor: Why were these routes chosen, Simon?
Simon: Sheer arrogance really. A photo of the north face of Mount Huntington was published on the cover of Mountain Magazine in the UK in late 1977 or early 1978. Ken Wilson the owner and editor wrote ‘The unclimbed north face of Mount Huntington’ and then went on to quote Bradford Washburn as having said that it never should be attempted because of the objective dangers. For me at 22 years old, believing I was immortal, this was a red flag to a bull. Washburn was right actually, but we survived the climb and it made us bolder.
Editor: Tell us about yourself and the great Eiger.
Simon: In the winter of 1979, I finally dealt with my lifelong fascination with the Eiger and making a winter ascent. I was lost for inspiration at that point, I needed a new, bigger project. Whilst Jack and I had been saying our farewells in Talkeetna in 78’ we had seen a picture of the south face of Denali in the ranger station. Only the Cassin Ridge had been climbed in the middle of this vast massif. Dougal Haston and Doug Scott had climbed a line on the SE face but it had avoided the main issue of the 4,500 feet rock band that is the first defense on both sides is the Cassin Ridge.
Editor: What did the two of you decide to do?
Simon: We knew then that the SW face was the first of the huge faces on Denali that should be climbed in alpine style (just coming in vogue), still unclimbed in 1980 it was a major prize. Jack called me in London in 1979 after my Eiger ascent and asked me straight out if I was up for it. The idea was perfect and I said yes immediately.
Editor: Give us your personal opinion on why this book is significant, which it most definitely is.
Simon: I think The Bond is something important. Climbers go into the mountains for different reasons. I went there to set arrogant new standards. Softened by age, I have realised that the ‘standards’ are always going to change, they are transient. It is more important to measure how your adventures shape your life and the bonds that bind alpinists. My father found similar solace in his connections with other old soldiers after the war. I have never been in a war, thank God, but I have been in situations of grave risk in the mountains. They have shaped my life regardless of whether that was my intention or not.
Editor: Are collector’s editions of the book available?
Simon: The collector’s editions are available through this link.
Editor: Thank you for sharing your poignant story with the climbing community, it is sure to be a success. We appreciate your time, Simon.
Simon: Thank you, Vera.
Climber bio: Simon McCartney was a cocky young British alpinist climbing many of the hardest routes in the Alps during the late seventies, but it was a chance meeting in Chamonix in 1977 with Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts that would dramatically change both their lives – and almost end Simon’s.
Inspired by a Bradford Washburn photograph published in Mountain Magazine, their first objective was the 5,500-foot north face of Mount Huntington, one of the most dangerous walls in the Alaska Range. The result was a route so hard and serious that for decades nobody believed they had climbed it – it is still unrepeated to this day. Then, raising the bar even higher, they made the first ascent of the south-west face of Denali, a climb that would prove almost fatal for Simon, and one which would break the bond between him and climbing, separating the two young climbers for over three decades. But the bond between Simon and Jack couldn’t remain dormant forever. A lifetime later, a chance re-connection with Jack gave Simon the chance to bury the ghosts of what happened high on Denali, when he had faced almost certain death.
The Bond is Simon McCartney’s story of these legendary climbs.
Images supplied by Simon McCartney.