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
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
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
• 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
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