To Fail in Style, or not to Fail?

A perceptive piece on Brits and the art of failing, through the eyes of a Frenchwoman.

"Heroic failure” is apparently a very British term that (surprisingly or not) hasn’t exported itself very well. At least that is the observation of Norwegian adventurer Erling Kagge¹, who notices that only British people have an expression for failing in style.

The British and their eccentricities, one of my favourite topics (I’m French by the way).

The morning after a failure.   The day after an attempt on the W Face of Aig Blatiere.  © Mike C
The morning after a failure. The day after an attempt on the W Face of Aig Blatiere.
© Mike C, Jul 1979

That all reminds me of another expression that anyone climbing in Britain will quickly get accustomed to… “The Epic”.  That time when something unforeseen happens, things go slightly wrong and a pretty ordinary day out turns into a full-blown adventure. Admittedly the epic is often facilitated by a dose of over-ambition and / or slight under-preparation.

Climbers and outdoor adventurers on this side of the channel (The British one) indeed often seem incredibly resourceful and creative at provoking those unexpected moments. They also display great talent at narrating them back with their usual self-deprecating humour. There is an entire bibliography of it and I have found myself confused as to whether I was at a stand up comedy show or adventure night on more than a few occasions.

Gordon apparently finding failure on Thin Lizzie (HVS 5b), Cheedale, hilarious
© Steve Dean, Jul 1994

There were Mick Fowlers’ (The Taxman) “esoteric” climbs, one of which was the first winter ascent of Kings Cross Saint Pancras (one has to grab an ice line when it presents itself!). I have also listened to Eric’s (The Welsh Tea Maker) many wonderful tales including finding oneself on a hot air balloon on fire on top of Everest. I have learnt from Andy Kirkpatrick that Everest is not a climb because “If you have to step over a dead body half way up then it’s classed as walk. On real climbs the bodies fall to the bottom.” More recently, I have seen Robbie Phillips scaring himself silly and carrying on going. 

Failure !  © Al Todd
Failure !
© Al Todd, Dec 1985

Of course, all these people know what they’re doing to start with and risks are always more calculated than we imagine. But I love this British pragmatism – just giving it a go, (kind of) enjoying the ride whatever it might bring, and savouring the success when it finally comes along.

It resonates well with all the things we hear nowadays about failing and difficulties as source of joy and fulfilment. Nobody puts this better than Dave MacLeod, who was recently in London giving a talk. He was telling us about how he only finds fulfilment after a climb if he’s failed on it before. Add to that a dose of negative realism as Dave admitted that it works better for him when he assumes that not everything will go well instead of using a more positive philosophy of being the best ever and never failing. He finished his talk by encouraging everyone to “cultivate an enjoyment of the unknown”, admitting that this might be “an acquired taste”

Failure on Razor Roof  © StuM
Failure on Razor Roof
© StuM, Nov 2006

Now that may be a motto to go with. And if the French have somehow adopted the expression of “epic fail” it doesn’t capture all the subtle eccentricities of our good old neighbours. So here’s to the British, failing AND succeeding in style, with a good touch of creativity, and of course as much laughter as possible along the way! I know, I know, you’ve also taught me that it is all type 2 fun and only meant to be enjoyed afterwards…

¹  in Jeffrey Bowman, Sven Ehmann, Robert Klanten. The Outsiders. New Outdoor Creativity. March 2014. Preface: “We are all born explorers”.

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20 Apr, 2016
Fantastic puts a tear to my eye * waves miniature British flag*
20 Apr, 2016
See #4 of Mick Fowler's principles of alpinism (apologies if hazily remembered from a talk in Sheffield many years ago). Success is actually failure: 1. If you weren't cold, you took too many clothes 2. If you weren't hungry, you took too much food 3. If you weren't scared, you took too much gear 4. and if you got to the top, it was too easy
20 Apr, 2016
I'm not sure how this fits in with the British theme, being by an American, but maybe this phenomenon has crossed the Atlantic now, too? That'd surely be a decent export:
20 Apr, 2016
love it
20 Apr, 2016
I think I will print that out and stick it above the door so I see it every time I go out.
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