I've just finished reading 'Ron Fawcett - Rock Athlete', the ghosted autobiography of one of British rock climbing's all-time legends. I'm in awe of Ron and have been since reading 'Fawcett on Rock', a lavishly illustrated 1980s climbing 'how to' littered with black and white photos of Ron dangling nonchalantly from one-finger pockets and laybacking up blank aretes.
Most of the pictures look so unlikely that they might well have been taken on flat slabs then photoshopped through 90 degrees of verticality. Except that Photoshop didn't exist back then. The problem with Ron's book, engaging though it is, is that he's so nice and decent that everything seems a bit inconsequential.
Ron comes across as the sort of guy who'd fall from the top of the Eiger Nordwand, limp down to Kleine Sheidegg with two broken legs and arms, and describe it as a 'minor scrape'. Which judging from the book is simply how he is.
The problem is that all the great mountaineering literature seems to be about epic disasters and near death drama. Joe Simpson crawling down Peruvian glaciers, pre-war teutonic climbers edging desperately up the Nordwand with death hurling missiles at them from the top, Andy Kirkpatrick embracing suffering like a rigomortic - is that a word? - teddy bear.
Yep, if you want a really gripping climbing book you need epic suffering, disaster, the odd death and, preferably survival against overwhelming odds so you can, at least, write the book. There are exceptions of course, I count Andrew Greig's two climbing books as triumphs of writing brilliance over events, though even that isn't quite true, but mostly great climbing literature is the story of dysfunctional people dealing with things going horribly wrong.
I bet if I asked you to name five top climbing books, most of them would be just that. Touching the Void, The White Spider, all the Boardman Tasker stuff, anything by Mark Twight, Conquistadors of the Useless, Learning To Breathe, the list goes on and on. I'm part way through Steve House's book and the introduction, yes, near death, tells you everything you need to know.
It's not that Ron's book is dull, it isn't. It's immensely readable in fact and engaging and very much a climber's book. It's just lacking in epic disasters. That's good news for Ron of course, but bad news for his book. I'm not saying you shouldn't read it by the way, anything written with Ed Douglas is going to be readable, but don't expect exploding fireworks, more of a slow-burning roman candle sort of thing.