Skip to main content

Richard Gilbert introduced me to rock climbing. He took us out to places in North Yorkshire such as Peak Scar and Whitestone Cliff and as soon as I went out with him I knew I was good at it

Colonel Douglas was the teacher at my prep school who gave me a lifelong love of history. At the end of every lesson we would have to recite: "learn from the past, live for the present, prepare for the future". He's 82 now and I sent him one of my books recently as a thank you for inspiring me. I heard that he had the Military Cross, something he kept to himself, never boasting about it.

Richard Gilbert was the teacher at Ampleforth who introduced me to rock climbing. He was a chemistry teacher but wrote books about walking. He took us out to places in North Yorkshire such as Peak Scar and Whitestone Cliff and as soon as I went out with him I knew I was good at it. After that I started climbing a lot on my own or with friends. We would sneak out from school with crap gear.

Ampleforth was one of the first schools to organise a pupils'

mountaineering expedition but they didn't invite me, even though I joined the Venture Scouts to show willing. I was the best climber in the school but I didn't like authority so I wasn't taken along. I was distraught, particularly as it was a great success and made the first ascent of an unclimbed mountain in the Karakoram (a mountain range in northern Pakistan). But then I got angry and thought, "If you can't see I'm a natural mountaineer I'll damn well go and do it myself". That rejection spurred me on.

By the time I left Edinburgh I'd been to the Alps climbing every summer. If you want to do something badly enough you do it. Ampleforth gave me an amazing education - we had very good teachers - but I hated not being able to get away from it. Also, although I was very religious as a youngster - at 14 I wanted to be a priest- by the time I was 16 I had serious questions that the monks couldn't answer and the whole thing fell down like a pack of cards. Losing my faith left a big hole in my life and I felt angry. I felt I'd been conned.

When I fell down the crevasse on Siula Grande I think I'd have accepted my fate and probably died if I'd been a good Catholic. But it was so clear to me then and there that you only have one crack at life, and I didn't want to die like that, so I kept going. It's also part of my Simpsonesque stubbornness. My father fought the Japanese in Burma with the Gurkhas, so he's pretty tough. And I'm one of five children and we're all pretty strong-willed and opinionated and tend to do what we say we're going to do.

Extreme Alpine climbing is based on a meritocracy; nobody cares about your accent or who your family is or what job you do, and that's so refreshing.

If you screw up, there's no rescue, you can die. I have lost 20 friends in 20 years, 10 of them very good friends. Strangely, that's life enhancing.

The White Spider (Heinrich Herrer's classic account of the ascent of the Eiger) and writers such as Walter Bonatti inspired me to climb, but it was my editor at Cape, Tony Colwell, who saw the writer in me. He was a brilliant editor and I wrote five books with him before he died in 2002. I started writing Touching the Void as a technical climbing book. I'd written 40,000 words of rubbish before I tore the whole thing up and started again, which is an enormous step when you've never written a book before. But Tony saw the whole thing as the story, not of climbing, but of psychological trauma; the story of Simon trying to save me when I fell and broke my leg and then of having to cut the rope and kill his friend and then of me turning up at base camp and making him feel even guiltier because he had left me for dead. Tony saw it as a tale everybody could relate to. That's why it sold well over a million copies, largely to people who had never read a mountaineering book before. They read it because it deals with the big questions of friendship, betrayal, trust, dying - things we all face.

Rock climber and author Joe Simpson was talking to Elaine Williams

The story so far

1960 Born in Malaysia

1968-78 Attends St Martin's prep school, North Yorkshire, then Ampleforth College

1980-84 Graduates in English literature and philosophy from Edinburgh University

1985 Left for dead by climbing companion Simon Yates during descent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Falls into crevasse but survives

1988 Touching the Void, book about the Siula Grande incident, published, and later becomes a set text for key stage 4 English. Followed by This Game of Ghosts (1994), Dark Shadows Falling (1998), The Beckoning Silence (2003) and Storms of Silence (2004)

1991 First novel, Water People, published

2004 Film of Touching the Void wins Bafta for outstanding British film of the year

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you