Echoes - by Nick Bullock

Echoes front cover. Nick Bullock downclimbing the North Face of Quitaraju, Peru, after making the first ascent of the Central B  © Assorted photographers/Vertebrate Publishing 2012
In this review, UKC Chief Editor Jack Geldard takes a look at the long-awaited debut book from Nick Bullock; Echoes.

The book, published by Vertebrate Publishing , is available from their website. An exclusive extract is here on UKClimbing, and a video portrait of Nick, discussing his life, his book, and also featuring him riding a bicycle quite fast, is here: UKC Video.

I finished the final page, closed the book, wiped a tear from my eye and turned to my computer, ready to make notes. A solitary email sat waiting in my tray, From: Nick Bullock. Subject: Marmite.

Nick had previously described a conversation where writer, journalist and the seemingly go-to person for all things to do with climbing literature - Ed Douglas - had joked that Nick wanted a 'Marmite book' - a love-it or hate-it affair. Consequently I assumed this email would be about Nick's book, and I was a little taken aback at the timing.

"Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage"

Robert Lovelace

As it turned out, the email had nothing to do with the book, but instead was the only correspondence I had had from Nick about a looming Himalayan trip, on which I would be camped in the same remote valley as him for weeks on end. It outlined that he was taking a large jar of Marmite, that no-one else was welcome to share it, and so, if anyone heading to that region had a penchant for the brown and sticky, then they had better take their own. It was a short email.

I don't like Marmite, and it's not a word I would use to describe Nick's book; a more mellow, steady-paced journey than I had expected, focusing on Bullock's climbing and prison-service life up until the time he left his job as a jailer to pursue climbing more full time, around eight years ago.

Mid-epic, lost, soloing in the Alps. "I took this self portrait to remind myself never to do this sort of thing again&quot
© NIck Bullock

This book, an important book, a real book, captures a period in modern British climbing history. Reading Echoes, I felt more than anything else an overwhelming sense of connectedness. The characters on the pages, some of whom I know or knew well (mainly climbers, not inmates, I must add, although there's not much to distinguish between them!), are described honestly and beautifully.

I was moved to tears reading a simple line describing a climb with the late Jules Cartwright.

"You feeling okay?" Jules looked in to my face. At first I thought he was concerned, but then I realised he was just worried I may turn around and climbing would be put on hold.

And I laughed out loud at the plain, ridiculous, yet all too familiar; "My life depended on frozen moss."

I could comment on how, just occasionally, the flow of the book is confusing, how his efforts to snap back and forth between climbing and prison leave the reader in neither place, perhaps mirroring how Bullock himself felt at that time, living neither life, a state of beclouded limbo. But in the main, the writing is captivating, intelligent, gentle, inquisitive. Bullock has moved on from the machine-gun-short-sentences that ripped through his early writing, and thankfully left behind his accidental ability to come across as an 'elitist wanker' and produced a sometimes terrifying and always honest account of his own haphazard journey upwards through life, and downwards, often at high speed, from just about every classic rock climb in the UK.

Nick Bullock (front) and Guy Robertson.  © Bayard Russell
Nick Bullock (front) and Guy Robertson.
© Bayard Russell

The pace and the feel of the book lift, just ever-so-slightly, as Bullock finishes introducing his early years, and his first steps in the prison service, and finally gets around to talking about climbing, giving a sense that this - climbing - is what Nick is keenest to share. His description of The Orion Face on Ben Nevis was mouth-wateringly inspirational and saw me reaching for my copy of Cold Climbs, whilst a scene at Stoney Middleton was a classic British trad climbing mishap conveyed in a basic and fun style, and brought light relief amongst the pages of prison violence.

The theme that Bullock explores with this, his first book, is that of being trapped in a life that you don't want to live, but that you also don't want to leave. Of being lost in a world where you don't belong, until finally, you find mountains, friends and salvation.

"Psyched for the hardback rantings of Wales' most entertaining loon."

Charlie Woodburn

Within the pages of this book, Nick Bullock finds his escape, and perhaps begins to find himself. But with the publication of this book, Nick Bullock will find that he is part of something much bigger, of a community, and he can be sure that he has put something worthwhile back in to that community. Not only is this a historical record, capturing the characters of some now passed-away friends, but this book acts as a bridge between generations, and between climbing genres, as the diversity of Bullock's exploits touch many bases.

“A brilliant page turner from one of our most outstanding adventure mountaineers.”

Chris Bonington

Of course, whether or not this new life on the road has given Nick Bullock the freedom and the space that he craved, we do not know. Whether his quest for higher peaks, harder routes and stronger coffee has fulfilled him as he thought it might, we don't find out. And whether the prison bars that he grabbed and shook against were part of his unwanted career, or part of his inescapable personality, he doesn't say.

I have put Echoes on my bookshelf, but there stands next to it a space. What have you been doing these last eight years Nick Bullock? Is life on the road as trapping as life in the prison service? Have you questioned your choices? And not a word on the death of several of your friends, and climbing partners?

And so, on closing this book, I have questions. It seems that although I may not like Marmite, Echoes has left me hungry for more.

Jack Geldard  © Jack Geldard
Jack Geldard
© Jack Geldard

Note from the reviewer: Nick Bullock is a personal friend of mine. He has insulted me to my face on many occasions. He has even let me share a bottle of his cheap red wine. I am mentioned in the acknowledgments of his book (along with hundreds of others... one gets the feeling that he's listed as many folk as possible, in order to sell more copies - just like On The Edge used to do, by including all those dreary bouldering league results...). But I have tried my best to be fair and honest, as much as one can, in this review.

About Jack Geldard

Jack Geldard is the Chief Editor of Has has been climbing for eighteen years, from outcrops to big walls, all over the world.

His mountaineering book collection spans several decades, and genres, from guidebooks to mountain fiction.

For more information Vertebrate Website

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19 Sep, 2012
I just finished the book around an hour ago I think that is a fair review. I agree though that it has left me wanting to hear about the last few years of Nick's climbing career, what he has been up to whilst a 'full time' climber, and how happy & fulfilled he is now (or isn't)
19 Sep, 2012
Nice review- now on my list! Sounds as if it could be a little like Andy Cave's "learning to breathe", in which I found the social issues as interesting as the climbing.
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