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Ron Fawcett Rock Athlete

Ron Fawcett Rock Athlete. Ron Fawcett, with Ed Douglas. Vertebrate Publishing, 2010. 256 pages. Color photographs. Hardcover. £20.00.

Strawberries, Lord of the Flies, The Cad. These routes are synonymous with bold standard-pushing and with Ron Fawcett in the 1970s and early 80s. In this autobiography, Fawcett depicts his beginnings as a cad making the first ascent of England’s Mulatto Wall to his years working in the entertainment industry. Along the way, Fawcett pioneered the life of a professional climber.

“I just wanted to find the edge Id felt that Id lost,” Fawcett writes in the opening chapter, “A Century of Extremes.” Fawcett planned to climb 100 extreme routes in a day. After a lifetime on the rock, his lost edge was still sharp somewhere inside him, and his ability remained strong through an epically long day, as he ascended 3,957 feet and traveled 12 miles on foot between crags. “For almost twenty years I'd spent every waking moment either climbing or thinking about it.… I'd given pretty much everything I had to the sport. What did I have left?” He lived and breathed climbing, an obsession that comes with its costs. His lifestyle contributed to breaking his marriage. When his wife moved away from the outdoors, toward dinner parties, theater, “situations that were not my natural habitat,” Fawcett couldn’t move with her. “She was becoming connected to a world that filled me with dread.” These difficulties are what transformed him into the Rock Athlete.

For the filming of Rock Athlete, a movie watched by millions on BBC, Fawcett walked away with a new pair of EBs and the paltry sum of 80 pounds. His life as the star of the landmark documentary was not an easy one. He put himself in dangerous positions not just for himself but for his livelihood. He felt at odds with his role. More than that was the shy man's ego in the public view. While climbing Lord of the Flies for the film, Fawcett uttered, “C’mon arms, do your stuff’ The phrase was heard at pubs across the world, and climbers emulated Fawcett with their talk of “crozzly pockets” and other Fawcett-speak. “I felt deeply self-conscious at the best of times, and found generating media interest embarrassing,” he writes about his film life. Fawcetts life in the public eye seemed more out of necessity than desire. “I felt confident in my own ability, but putting myself on a pedestal made me uncomfortable. I had too thin a skin for the flak it drew” Fawcett loved the climbing, though, and the experiences. It wasn’t about the job or the fame but about the experiences and the friends.

The absurdity of his climbing life, of traveling across the globe to meet fellow climbers, comes out in his dry wit. At Camp VI on the Nose, John Long and Fawcett dangled their feet off the ledge. The pair climbed the route in a speedy day and a half, stopping to rest for the night on the ledge, where they stuffed themselves with hard-boiled eggs. In a wild attempt to stave off dehydration, Long added salt to their water. “A lot of salt,” Fawcett emphasizes. Early in his climbing life, young friends of Fawcett’s rappelled off the ends of their ropes. The first broke his legs. The second broke his wrists. The pair struggled to a nearby farm, where the fellow with the broken wrists knocked on the door with his head. With subtle humor Fawcett describes the climbing life and takes a bit of the edge off the danger and stress of his lifestyle.

Fawcett’s life on the rocks was a remarkable one. Later he shifted toward running. “When you’ve been very good at something, when it’s been the purpose of your whole existence, it feels odd carrying it on at a lower standard.” Fawcett’s move toward running was a way to fight off depression, to numb his mind. After his daughter’s mother left him, running became the only time when he could forget his pain. Ultimately, both climbing and running provided a deeper fulfillment in his life. “But through it all I needed that sense of space and freedom to be myself, and that’s as true now as it was then,” he reflects. Fawcett’s autobiography depicts a man in constant search of space and freedom. As much as he finds them, he continues to search for more. His constant search made him a great climber and, more than that, a great man.

James Lucas