Mountaineer Simon Yates’ life-or-death struggle on the Siula Grande mountain in Peru was brought vividly to life in the award-winning movie Touching the Void, which told how Simon and his friend Joe Simpson came so close to perishing after a devastating series of accidents and failed rescue attempts. Thankfully, both men lived to tell the tale, and Simon now takes breaks from his continued, successful climbing career to share this and other stories in talks across the country. We caught up with Simon ahead of his appearance at the Key Theatre in January, to discover a bit more about the mountain life...
Mountaineering sounds like the most exotic and exciting job – I certainly don’t remember my careers advisor at school mentioning it at any point! How on earth do you become a ‘professional mountaineer’?
(Laughing) I made it up myself, really! There was a definite start point, though – when I was 15 I went on one of those school trips, you know, outdoor activities, and we went up to the Lake District to do canoeing, walking and whatever. The evening before the last day, one of the instructors obviously wanted to go climbing and said, ‘I’m going to go climbing tomorrow, I can take two people who wants to come. I stuck my hand up – and that action basically altered the entire course of my life.
Your mountaineering CV has a lot of firsts on it and I’m really interested in how you’ve prepared for those over the years, not just all the practical eventualities that might crop up but emotionally and mentally, as well.
In the past there was more apprehension involved, because I was going into the unknown, I was going to places I wasn’t familiar with so there was often a big culture shock, going to these very different countries and often very rural areas. On top of that, you’re attempting to do something logistically complicated in remote places. But as time has gone on a lot of the countries I visit have changed, they’ve made transport links much better, for example – you can actually go in and out of them much quicker and more efficiently than you could in the past, you don’t have to get people to carry stuff as much, and that does take away some of the nerves.
Tell us a bit about the friendships you’ve made over the years in these countries.
I’ve worked with a family in Nepal for years – I started working with the father and then worked with one of his sons, and now I’m working with his youngest son. It’s a lovely feeling of continuity. Similarly, in South America I made a great friend with a Belgian guy who had a yacht, and he would use that to take me to the mountains there on Tierra del Fuego, which are only accessible by boat. He now lives in Spain – but we’re still friends and we keep in touch!
What have been your favourite climbing locations?
The two places I’ve been that really fired my imagination and inspired me have been the mountains in northern Pakistan, and these mountains down in Tierra del Fuego that I mentioned. They’re very different places but they’re both extremely remote. I especially enjoyed climbing in Pakistan because that’s where I learned the nuts and bolts of expedition mountaineering – I’d go there every summer and spend several months for a number of years. Then there’s the Cordillera Darwin in Tierra del Fuego, and those have been magical trips for a whole raft of other reasons – the mountains are not as big but they’re incredibly remote, and there’s a real charm about accessing mountains at sea level and then working your way up, literally from the beach. It’s a special thing about that place, being in an environment where people have had an absolutely minimal impact on it. In a place like in Pakistan or in Nepal, for example, although you’re in these wild, remote mountains, people still have had an impact there. So being among the first in a place, it’s a great privilege – it takes you back several thousand years ago to when the whole world was probably like this; there were a lot fewer people, it was full of trees, animals, and the sea full of fish…
Finally, I’ve got to ask about yetis. David Attenborough has said he thinks the Abominable Snowman could be real – have you ever seen one?
No! But what I did see one time, in eastern Nepal – I’d been walking through a forest and come out into a clearing, and on the other side of it was a red panda! They are really quite wacky-looking animals, very bright and colourful. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, and only found out later that I was really lucky to see it, because there aren’t that many of them.
My Mountain Life
The Key Theatre, Peterborough
Thursday, 25 January 2024, 7.30pm
Tickets from £28