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Reaching for the highest fruit.

Metaphors, it is said, should grow like fruit from a tree. I like the organic nature of this metaphor for metaphors, for the best metaphors are indeed organic, even if they are mineral — like mountains, for instance.

Mountains make memorable metaphors. They appear in speeches and stories and songs, but apart from the low-hanging fruit exemplified by the final scene of The Sound of Music — the Von Trapp family escaping the Nazis by hiking over a mountain range to the soundtrack of a nun singing ‘Climb every mountain till you find your drea

m’ — I was unaware of the heights of their metaphorical reach until, through an unforeseen unfolding of fate, I became a mountaineer.

Like other areas of threatening vastness, mountains have been subsumed — in the form of religion, legend, and myth — into the cultures of those who live among them. To this, the advent of mountaineering has added another layer of folklore, fuelled by adventurers with climbing skills, physical fitness, and a good head for heights, many of whom choose to write about it. The unavoidable dangers and hardship of the activity open the mind to regions inaccessible in everyday life, and it’s here, in the highest and frailest branches of the tree, that the richest metaphorical fruit can be found.

How It Started

By coincidence, my first climbing experiences were on trees. With their ridged bark, conveniently spaced branches, and a summit determined by how high you’d dared to go, it seemed like trees were made to climb. The activity demanded courage and strength and skill, which was a heady combination for a boy anxious to prove his worth — even if it was only to himself. Through climbing trees, I cured my childhood fear of heights without knowing how the cure would serve me as an adult, nor that one day I’d climb to the highest places on Earth.

Early reading

Writers are readers first. In between climbing trees, riding my bicycle and collecting scars that I wore like medals of honour, I read books. I’d spend hours hunched over adventure stories such as those written by Enid Blyton or Robert Louis Stephenson, lost in a distant and dangerous place, my imagination running wild behind my nerdy bespectacled eyes. Those books set me on track for a life of adventure.

Novels also sparked an interest in writing. I wrote my first story when I was twelve for which my English teacher gave me a special commendation (I had to look that word up!). Later, after notching up some note-worthy ascents in the European Alps and Alaska, I punched out articles on my old Olivetti typewriter for climbing magazines for which, unbelievably, I was paid.

To the Himalaya

I first went to the Himalaya when I was twenty-two as part of a three-person team attempting an unclimbed ridge on a 7555m peak called Annapurna III. It was my first and most devastating failure. I returned home with nothing to show for the two months of toil and the year of preparation that preceded it; and without a success to brag about, there was little incentive to invest yet more time into the failed venture by writing about it. I had yet to learn that failure is a better teacher than success. Three decades passed before I was ready (now on a laptop rather than a typewriter) to exhume the experience and extract its priceless lessons.

After Annapurna, I took a break from mountaineering and dabbled in other things including a stint with the British Antarctic Survey. Storm-beaten, tent-bound days were pleasurably passed in the varied company of books such as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Hemingway’s Men Without Women, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Falling – books chosen for their titles as much as their content. A short service commission with the British Royal Marines returned me to the mountains, now as a soldier-climber, and my first attempt on Everest in 1988. Later, I set up a travel company, trained as a Mountain Guide and led climbers up mountains all over the world, culminating in an ascent of Everest long before there were any queues. Everest has since become a tourist route, its standing as a mountaineering challenge diminished, ironically, by its status as the world’s highest mountain and its ensuing collectability.

Writing Everest

As one of the few ultimates, Everest has spawned an entire genre of books, the majority of which tap into the mountain’s symbolism of aspiration, achievement, and triumph over tremendous odds. There are more than twenty routes to the summit, but most choose the easiest path. The same is true with its writers. Everest’s metaphor tree is laden with low-hanging fruit which is easily gathered and too often cooked to the point of cliché — not that there’s anything wrong with this, for clichés often start life as excellent metaphors, but just as a climber can avoid the summit queues by taking a harder route, the imaginative writer can climb above the clichés and reap the rarefied harvest of the tree’s higher branches.

I don’t need an imagination, for I know what it’s like to fall, to be cold, to be trapped by storm, to be hit by rockfall, to run out of oxygen on the summit, to have the air sucked from my lungs by wind, to sit next to a dead man and listen to his warning, to feel the friable edge of life crumbling in my frozen fingers. Each experience is a rung in the ladder I can lean against the tree — and if I have a ladder, why not reach for the more succulent higher fruit?

Just as a fruit tart is more than its ingredients, a book is more than a collection of words. One hundred thousand of them masquerade as a manuscript on my hard drive. It’s been seen by a dozen or so agents and publishers but rejected because ‘There’s no market for it’. They know their business, so I guess they’re right. The ingredients are all there, but I need to make something else with them; something altogether more compelling, something sweet and sour that keeps the pages turning and ends with the reader sated yet wanting more. It’s taken me five years to work out how to do it.

The Risk

Risk-taking has always been an ingredient of my life choices, and so it is with writing. I could take the path of self-publication but without the filter of a publisher’s benchmark it’s too easy and the reward unsatisfying, so I choose to scale the face of the unsolicited submission, to be an anonymous rock in the slush-pile mountain, to be determined enough to keep going even though I may fall from its precipitous face or be buried in an avalanche of slush. There’s no point climbing a mountain if it’s easy.

At least I have a ladder. Diaries and logbooks of my expeditions fill half a shelf of a bookcase. I dip into them occasionally, when I want to remember what it was like to be young and strong and scared out of my wits — a warrior on a campaign I feared I might not return from; when I, in the comfort of my home, want to climb up to the highest and thinnest branches of the tree and reach for the rare and exquisite fruit that few others have been fortunate enough to taste. If I fall off trying, it’s nice to know that I won’t die.

(Article first published on )


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