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The Flame of Adventure

The Flame of Adventure. Simon Yates. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2001. 220 pages, with 8 pages of color photos. $16.95

What’s with these Brits? They climb so well, yet drink so hard, smoke so much and hurt themselves so often you wonder how good they’d be if they ever got serious. Well, Simon Yates’s book, The Flame of Adventure, shows that they are serious, and that the whole package— the pubs, the motorcycle wrecks, the endless cigarettes—is the point. Life is meant to be lived in a headlong tumble from hasty decision to uncertain outcome. Yates is known for his knife work in one of contemporary mountaineering’s famous screw-ups (chronicled in Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson, 1988). This book says almost nothing about that trip with Simpson, but does give readers a fuller picture of Yates’s life and, more interestingly, the life of an un-sponsored, un-wealthy, full-time climber.

There is much to like in The Flame of Adventure. The book tracks Yates’s physical wanderings and his emotional develop ment over five continents and ten years. His peregrinations take him from the Alps to Pakistan to India to Australia to the Soviet Union and back for longer stays in Sheffield. Yates does some beautiful climbs along the way. The north face of the Eiger, Leyla Peak in Pakistan, and Khan Tengri are all summits reached, and the list of attempts is even longer. In short, there’s enough serious climbing in this book for anyone, and Yates’s climbing descriptions strike a nice balance between expert terminology and layperson descrip tion. The author, however, does not focus his narration in the detail by detail style of the “then the crack widened, but I struggled onto the ledge” school. Instead, he moves quickly from toe holds and frosted biners to the emotional impact of the climbing and the cultures and the con stant travel. It is, I think, in these conversations about culture and desire and adventure that this book distinguishes itself.

The Flame of Adventure follows Yates back down from mountain after mountain, and there in the valleys and the cities shows him achieving enlightenment outside climbing. It is the unusual climbing book that mentions work. In this one we get an extended description of Yates as a bicycle courier in Perth and, better, most of a chapter about his months on a London construction site. On one job Yates is accepted by the menacing workers when they hear of Touching the Void—they dub him “slasher.” After all the altitude, working life leads Yates to some thoughtful social analysis on 1990’s capitalism and climbing’s popularity:

“The shift from heavy industry and manufacturing into service industries had continued unabated. Now it appeared we all sold each other pensions, holidays, insurance and cream teas to have while we were on holiday. It seemed that Britain no longer made anything…. Perhaps climbing fitted into the thinking of the time, with its emphasis on the individual and risk taking in business.”

In these chapters Yates turns the climbers’ gaze on modern life and reveals some things about the Western world and some things about himself.

Clearly we’re not reading this book for the sociology, but Yates’s fascination here is not only with hard routes, but with the way climbing changes climbers and returns them to a home now strange and therefore thought provoking. There are many places where Yates applies his experience in the developing world to the comfortable West and draws useful conclusions. For instance, the relation between comfort and stifling entitlement:

“Many people in our society…behave as if living healthily to an old age is a right, rather than good fortune. When they or their families are adversely affected by what I would consider the normal risks of being alive, of being human, they seek scapegoats through the legal system.” In The Flame of Adventure Yates shows that in mountaineering and in life he wants the responsibility and satisfaction of an adventurous life, and he’s willing to take the risks to get it. And speaking of risks, there is a recklessness about Yates that borders on the antic. Indeed, Doug Scott shows up in the text long enough to observe, “you don’t look after yourself very well lad.” Let’s just say that if in Pakistan you form “The Dangerous Eating Club,” you get what you deserve. Injuries (just to the author!) include a foot smashed in a motorbike crash, a finger broken punching a Nepali, several untreated infections becoming septic, a sprained ankle, black eyes, dysentery and hepatitis twice.

At one point Yates wonders why he seldom summits, but the answer lies in the very lifestyle he celebrates as adventurous. But again, there is a charm to this wild ride. If you want an alternative to the culture of corporate organization and hyper-fit, hyper-prepared outdoor professionals, these impetuous Brits are for you.

There are some drawbacks to Yates’s book. He summons the ghost of Shipton to bless his spirit of adventure, but a lot of his behavior distances him from that great explorer. Sometimes Yates crafts his own blinkered selfishness into the higher principles of liberation. For instance, in need of money for his Peru expedition, Yates perpetrates fraud against the local bank and leaves the country. When he returns the bank manager insists he repay the money. Here Yates treats us to a tirade about the society that oppresses freedom fighters for adventure and humanity.

“I had wanted to scream at the man and the bank he represented. They seemed to stand for everything I hated, everything that was reduced to its rightful insignificance once I was in the mountains: authority, arrogance, rules and pettiness…. I had wanted to shout at the bank manager ‘What about passion? What about freedom? What about adventure?”’

What about self-examination? It is this sort of hypocrisy that gives climbers a bad name. To be self-centered and impetuous is one thing, but to dress it up as a moral imperative is at best narcissistic and is certainly a long way from Eric Shipton. That said, The Flame of Adven ture is a good book. I liked Yates’s first book, Against the Wall, and I like this one, too. Ultimately The Flame of Adventure succeeds because it examines the freedom of risk. In his epilogue he writes, “Many mountaineers struggle to come to terms with why they climb. I have never had such dilemmas. I know I climb because I love to have adventures.” For Yates adventure is more than entertainment. Adventure on the peaks and in the towns is, to grasp his chosen Shipton quote, “a philosophy which aims at living a whole life while the opportunity offers.” For Yates this means variety of experience, but also self-empowerment.

I feel some people recognize that by putting elements of danger, uncertainty, and challenge into their lives, they regain a feeling of freedom that they might not have even realized they had lost. Freed from the hold imposed on us by the state, employers, community, and family, people involved in an adventure can feel empowered and actually in control of their own lives.

In The Flame of Adventure we look back across one mountaineer’s wild times, desperate effort, joy, and uncertainty. We are privileged to watch him wrestle that variety of experience into a philosophy that explains, excuses, and inspires.

Jeffrey M. Mccarthy, AAC