The unexpected consequences of giving without expectation.
I’ve written a memoir about Everest. In fact, I’ve written it three times—three iterations of the same story, none of which have made it beyond publishers’ slush piles or agents’ polite pasted-in rejections. Months of research and submissions for naught. So I thought, stuff this, and wrote a novel instead. It was fun, and it filled a year of Covid, but the novel is now stuck in the same place as the memoir. Not for the first time I wondered why I ever tried to be a serious writer; it was easier to be a serious mountaineer.
There was no compelling reason to go to the UK. I didn’t even want to go, even though it was four years since I was last there, the usual two-year interval having been extended by knee-jerk lockdowns. Four years is a long time when your loved ones are getting old—miss this chance and I might never see them again. So I gathered up all my excuses and put them on hold, massaged a three-week gap between speaking gigs, and found I had just enough air miles to buy a ticket on the non-stop Perth to London Dreamliner. I told my mother I would be seeing her soon.
I also told my friends, including one who’s a partner in Wilderness Lectures in Bristol. I asked if he had any speaking slots and, by chance, he did—the night before my flight back to Australia. I also offered to give a talk at my old school in Exmouth where half a century ago a teacher set me on a path into the hills. The only date they could get four hundred Year 11’s in one place at the same time was the day before the talk in Bristol. Perfect.
It was wonderful to see my mum. And so too my siblings, and a clutch of cousins I’d not seen for decades. We got together to throw my younger brother’s ashes from the rocks where we used to chase each other as kids and climb together as teenagers. I met up with old school friends and former Royal Marines colleagues and we swung our lamps over shared adventures. The time passed slowly, with joy and nostalgia and lots of lovely warm beer.
The school talk was uplifting. I went there to give, but I gained even more when I heard a boy say afterwards, ‘He makes me feel like anything is possible.’
On the way to Bristol I stayed with a friend who was living his last days. Were it not for wanting to see my mother, I wouldn’t have caught up with him in time.
The 1993 Everest team at Base Camp
The Wilderness lecture—My Everest Confession—was attended by many long-time friends and several members of my 1993 Everest expedition. They were the most appropriate audience I could have wished for and the evening sizzled with reconnections. After the talk, a friend introduced me to a filmmaker called Nick who asked if I’d be interested in making a film about it. It wasn't a difficult question. The next day I flew home on the Dreamliner, my mind awhirl.
Nick set to work raising interest from his film industry contacts and was introduced to a literary agent who’d had considerable success in getting stories into film. Intrigued by Nick’s well-crafted proposal, the agent said, ‘I need to see the writing behind it.’ So with considerable trepidation I sent my manuscript to him. Happily, he approved, and he’s now helping me with both the Everest memoir and the novel.
Joe Simpson, author of the celebrated adventure story, Touching the Void, once told me, ‘Every writer has their own journey’. Some journeys are smooth. Others are tortuous. And some journeys—like the Dreamliner’s seventeen-hour hop from London to Perth—are so long and tedious you feel you’re never going to get there. The journey of life isn’t predictable. Stuff happens. Events rarely conform to our self-serving wants. But sometimes, when we've no expectations, they can surprise and delight us.
I went to the UK to see my mum. That was all. Everything else flowed from that.