Death On The Eiger - Joe Simpson

Blood and tragedy sell, but why don't the press check the facts as well?

Posted: 19 October 2000
by Joe Simpson

Chances are you're reading this feature because of the title. Death sells, the Eiger sells - death and the Eiger in one article hits the jackpot. And that, of course, is why the popular press covers climbing accidents - to sell more copies, make more profit. But that's no excuse to play fast and loose with the facts.

When Joe Simpson recently set out to climb the Eiger North Face, his attempt was interrupted when two unfortunate climbers fell past him to their deaths in a tragic accident captured on film by a Channel 4 TV crew. The crass inaccuracies of the ensuing media coverage left Simpson saddened, bemused and wondering how much else of what we read is accurate.

Recently I was interviewed by a journalist writing for GQ Sport. It was soon apparent that he was a knowledgeable climber and an articulate professional writer. It therefore came as some surprise when he said, 'In your recent book 'Dark Shadows Falling', you had a go at journalists. Why was that?'

Why did I have a 'go' at the press? Because I was sick to death of reading woefully inaccurate accounts of climbing accidents. Some were so bad that you didn't even need to know the real story to realise that the report was fatuous, unchecked speculation on a subject that the reporter clearly knew nothing about and - assuming his readers were just as ignorant - was happy to present as fact.

The nasty suspicion that the same lax standards were applied to every other piece I read was inescapable. Every year smoking-related diseases kill thousands, yet the popular press would rather demonise Ecstacy, author of far fewer deaths? Or what of the media response to paedophilia? Selling papers rather than the truth seems to be the name of the game. People might not like the truth, but without it no coherent and effective response to either of these issues can ever be achieved.

To my mind it seems that journalists should hold an exalted position in the affections of this country's citizens. It could be argued that they are the most vital element in a working democracy. Without them who would rein in the politicians? Who would keep the Establishment on its toes? Look at eastern Europe where governments are at last waking up to the media as a potent force that they can no longer ignore, as illustrated by its part ion the fall of Milosovic or the recent Russian submarine-sinking debacle.

Yet the UK press seems driven by a short-term agenda not concerned with informing, educating and leading, but desperate to win the ratings war, to sell copy, at all costs. Journalists no longer report the news but make it. Stories are head lined not because of their import but because the press believes that is what people want to read - because it sells copy. If accuracy and journalistic integrity have to go by the way side then so be it.

I admit, climbing accidents however tragic, are not world news. A few more deaths to add to the millions that occur every day. In truth their significance barely warrants publication. Yet they are often dramatic, tragic, even grisly stories - good for sales.

Recently I returned from an attempt on the North Face of the Eiger, which was marred by the sad deaths of two climbers, Matthew Hayes, 31, (UK) and Phillip O'Sullivan, 26, (NZ), who fell from the second ice field past Ray Delaney and I who were sheltering at the Swallows Nest bivouac. We saw nothing at the time and only found out what had happened when a helicopter appeared on the scene, though we later viewed horrifying footage of the accident captured by a Channel 4 film crew.

It was a sobering and distressing experience and I felt immensely sad for the loss of these two men who after all were simply indulging in their love of adventure on one of the world's greatest mountaineering lines. As soon as I returned home a journalist from The Times rang me to ask me about the accident.

It quickly became obvious that she had little or no knowledge of the face, its geography or history. She hadn't thought it necessary to arm herself with a little knowledge before asking me a series of questions on a subject about which she appeared to know next to nothing. With weary resignation and I'm sorry to say, a little irritation, I repeatedly asked her to check her story with Peter Gilman, a renowned mountaineering writer and journalist. I believe she did and perhaps I was a little harsh on her because her report next day was one of the few mainly accurate ones that I have ever read.

She did add that three other climbers had already died on the face this summer despite my repeatedly telling her that the deaths of Hayes and O'Sullivan were the first fatalities in ten years. But hey, let's not get too picky. The Independent, The Guardian and The Telegraph all got it wrong. I didn't bother to read the tabloids.

In fact The Telegraph appeared to invent whatever story it thought might fit the scant details they had.

• They said the pair had fallen into a valley beneath the mountain. Wrong as well as wildly improbable. Their bodies were recovered from the face.

• They said the pair had fallen from the upper ice field on the last part of the climb. Wrong. The climbers that were filmed were not on the 'upper ice field' but on the Second Ice Field - a point just over halfway up the face but below many of the most difficult sections of the climb. The lead climber was not held by the rope at all. As soon as the tension came on the second climber, he too was dragged from his position.

• They said Kleine Scheidegg was a mountain. Wrong. It is a small hamlet beneath and slightly west of the North Face of the Eiger, where the trains from Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald connect with the train to the Jungfraujoch.

• They reported that Channel 4 had refused to hand over its original film of the fall taken from Kleine Scheidegg. Wrong. The Channel 4 team did everything possible to help the police and guides immediately providing them with copies of the film. Ray and I who had seen the film also helped with the investigation providing them with an eye witness account of the conditions on the face.

• They reported that I had survived an accident on the face 15 years previously and that I had witnessed the fall first hand. Wrong. Fifteen years ago I survived an accident on the west face of Siula Grande in Peru - not, as reported, on the North Face of the Eiger. I wrote about this experience in a widely available book called Touching the Void that is known throughout the climbing community both in Britain and overseas. Before September this year, I had never previously been on the North Face of the Eiger. Although I was in close proximity to the accident that occurred on the North Face of the Eiger on Tuesday 12 September this year, I did not personally witness the fall. I did however review the film footage prior to being questioned by police and guides.

• They reported that the first British Ascent of the Eiger was in 1977 by Doug Scott. Wrong. It was climbed between 29 and 31 August 1962 by Chris Bonington and Ian Clough. Doug Scott broke both his legs on the Ogre in July 1977. Eiger and Ogre mean the same thing but one is in Switzerland the other is in the Karakoram, Pakistan.

Simon Wells representing Channel 4 refuted inaccurate and poor journalistic coverage of the accident in The Telegraph. Kurt Amacher, who The Telegraph quoted as the 'head of the rescue team that recovered the bodies', was unknown to him. In the report, they say Kurt Amacher 'said he was angry that Channel 4 had refused to hand over its original film'. They then quote him thus: "They kept the original and I'm sure they are going to use this and make money out of this shocking footage. It's terrible to do this without any regard for the relatives."

• What actually happened after the accident was that Channel 4 were approached by the local police in Grindelwald who asked if they might see the recording of the accident for evidential purposes. Channel 4 showed them all the footage they wished to see and then offered to make a duplicate copy of the tape in digital format - an offer for which they were very grateful. Channel 4 co-operated fully with the investigating authorities in the aftermath of this accident and Simon Wells was extremely angry that the overall tone and implication of the article was to the contrary.

So what does this say about the standards of journalism in a supposedly respectable broadsheet newspaper. Not a great deal. All these facts could be easily checked. No-one thought it a good idea apparently.

Sadly such misrepresentation of facts has a distressing effect on the poor relatives of the victims who read conflicting reports on the deaths of their loved ones. As a result of the inaccurate coverage of the accident on the Eiger, I was telephoned by a representative of the BMC and asked whether I could call Matthew Hayes' relatives and describe what actually had happened.

I was willing but saddened to do so and also angry that people already suffering great grief should be put in this position. A little more time spent on accuracy and checking would have avoided this unnecessary and thoughtless hurt. If journalists care so little for individuals' emotional response to their shoddy work, well then so be it. But they should not expect respect back in return, or be surprised if they find they are held in the sort of contempt that much of the population has for them. Integrity is vital to good journalism. It's just a shame there seems so little around.

About Joe Simpson

Internationally renowned mountaineering writer and OUTDOORSmagic contributor Joe Simpson lives in Sheffield and is the award-winning author of five books including international best seller Touching The Void, which also won the Boardman Tasker award for mountain literature. The film rights to the book have been bought by Tom Cruise's production company.

For more information about Joe, his books and other activities click here.

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Discuss this story

I'm with Joe on this one. Every time I read a piece about climbing or mountaineering in the nationals, I'm struck by how little the journalist actually seems to know, with the honorable exception of specialists like Ed Douglas.

I've started to wonder how much else of what we read is utter crap. Was the Olympics really held in Sydney or was that just the name of one of the competitors? You can laugh, but I saw a piece about the Eiger accident in the London Standard (I was down south at the time) which had Joe working for Channel 4, in fact 'leading' the C4 team. Clearly they just couldn't be bothered to check their facts.

As a journalist it particularly shocks me because I make a considerable effort to ensure that everything we publish on OUTDOORSmagic is as accurate as it possibly can be. Anyway, what do you think, is this an isolated incident or typical?

Posted: 19/10/2000 at 13:43

I agree totally with the sentiments expressed by Joe Simpson in his "Death on the Eiger" article. Though I have very limited knowledge about the accuracy of "mountain expedition" stories I find the reporting of stories in my own field (biotechnology) equally as shoddy. Often what happens is that one trail blazing journalist will cover the story with a limited grasp of the issues and often an even weaker grasp of the facts and is followed by the "pack" of journalists who attempt to rehash the article, spicing it up wtih a few more powerful, attention grabbing statements (e.g. frankenstein foods is a good example).

I have found myself becoming very sceptical about most of the media outputs ranging from the tabloids to the utter rubbish Ann Robinson and colleagues spout each week. Most media outputs are motivated by sales whether copies of a newspaper or viewers, often catering for the lowest common denominator.

Surely their must be a market for fully researched,accurate and balanced reporting......or do I ask just too much??

Posted: 19/10/2000 at 15:07

I agree with you both to a large extent. I can understand how the race to publish accident stories leads to inaccuracies about the actual cause of the event as this often only follows after coroners' reports and the like. However, facts such as Kleine Scheidegg being a mountain rather than a village is just plain lazy.

However, in some cases I'd be tempted to argue that bad reporting actually opens the issue up to people who would otherwise never know about it. For instance (on science Rob) in Marcus Chown's book 'The Afterglow of Creation', which details how scientists found cosmic ripples in the universe and which I don't pretend to fully understand, they said the papers had published loads of pics of pretty coloured photos with 'holes' in. In fact, these pictures had been fairly inconclusive in the research, but they were far more interesting to the public than the text, which was way over their heads. The scientists viewed this as 'getting people talking'.

Moral: if the outcome is favourable bad reporting can be no bad thing (any PR is good PR). However, in climbing and biotech issues etc. it can be extremely irresponsible.

Posted: 19/10/2000 at 15:24

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