To the uninitiatied, Simon Yates is your average Yorkshireman; he has no airs or graces, he has a young family and he’s most concerned with when he can next get out of doors. But to both the international climbing community and those who have read the bestselling ‘Touching the Void’, this unprepossessing Northerner becomes not just a well known figure, but an inspiration and an icon.
Joe Simpson’s 1989 book, and Kevin MacDonald’s highly acclaimed 2003 film of the same name, both document Yates’ ill-fated expedition to climb the 6,344 metre Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with Simpson. Despite initial success on the route, once the pair had reached the summit their expedition took a tragic turn when Simpson broke his leg in the descent. The two men endeavoured to complete the descent with Yates lowering Simpson down the remainder of the mountain. The moment around which the story revolves is when the pair run out of rope half way down a section, leaving Simpson hanging dangerously high above the next safe stopping point, and Yates bearing his entire weight and being slowly pulled from his position above.
Yates’ decision to cut the rope was one motivated by self preservation and has always been supported by Simpson, who managed to survive the fall and crawl back to the base camp before Yates and their support partner, Richard, pictured. It is a truly thrilling story of courage and human endeavour and one that has inspired a generation of mountaineers.
And, yet, despite this epic ordeal, when I speak to him, Yates is remarkably unfazed by the experience. He asserts that this was just one episode in a lifetime of successful expeditions, and claims he was too young for it to affect him too deeply at the time. He describes himself at that time in the same way any young climber would; driven by adrenaline to the point of recklessness and claims that it was only when he entered his thirties that his attitude to risk and danger changed sufficiently to alter the pattern of life he had created for himself.
He does admit, however, that his experience on the Siula Grande made him acutely aware of unnecessary risk, and while all climbers are aware of the inherent risks involved on the mountain, Yates says that it undoubtedly takes a first hand experience for a climber to genuinely acknowledge these risks.
I ask if his attitude towards there inherent risks has changed at all since he had children five years ago. His gruff Yorkshire accent softens slightly as he replies that he started taking fewer uncalculated risks when he grew up in his late twenties, but that it is time he is more aware of now, rather than risk. As a climber in his mid-forties, all risks taken are only ever going to be necessary, calculated risks, but as a father he is aware that any time spent climbing is time spent away from his children, and he therefore tries to strike a balance between being at home as a father and being away as a climber.
While it may seem a somewhat irrelevant, or obvious, question I ask what it is that inspires him to climb. The climbing community is peppered with mountaineers who climb for the fulfilment of ambition and sense of achievement at conquering nature but there are equal numbers who climb for the all round experience, for the mental and physical challenge the sport offers. Yates falls into the latter category, enjoying climbing for the experience of reconnecting with the natural world; he finds mountains uplifting places to be.
I ask about the often discussed connection between mountaineering and environmentalism, and he describes himself as one of many climbers who is not a great consumer of material things, with the exception of kerosene on craggy hillsides, and asserts that climbers can actively contribute to environmental issues, especially the protection of natural areas.
Yates talks passionately about individuals being able to make a genuine difference if they truly love certain natural places, as this raises the public’s awareness of such places, and their importance. He cites the example of the 1930s organised mass trespasses in the Lake District to alert the authorities to the importance of these places in the lives of ordinary people’s lives.
Later on in our interview Yates talks proudly of the British climbing tradition of passion and modesty for their activities. He says that, in contrast to the showmanship of many continental climbers, their British counterparts are understated and honest in their endeavours that makes them a pleasure to climb with and learn from. He is excited by the current popularity of the sport and its growing fan base, which he attributes to mountaineers, such as Sir Chris Bonnington, Joe Simpson and, I’m sure, himself, who have written books and given speeches passionately extolling the virtues of their chosen sport.
Yates has now written two books of his mountaineering experiences and gives regular lectures and speeches on the motivational aspects of the sport. He says he has never seen the appeal of a ‘normal’ job, and despite working as an access worker in his twenties it was always done as a means to fund his climbing trips. His lectures are also part of an income that now needs to satisfy not just his own adventures, but also a young family, although they do place him an the favourable position of being able to talk about the thing he loves in the name of work and he hopes that his talks spread the joy he feels for what he does.
Talking to Yates, his obvious passion and enjoyment for climbing is infectious and, as one of the most accomplished British climbers of his generation, his obvious skill is formidable yet he conveys it all in with characteristic honesty and modesty. While his experience on the Siula Grande was debilitating, within two months he was back in the Alps and back on the way to a lifetime of good experiences in the mountains he loves.
Simon Yates’ ‘Beyond the Void’ will be at the Oxford Playhouse on Friday 9 May.