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The Bond by Simon McCartney Review

Aworthy winner of the 2016 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature , The Bond is probably the best book about extreme alpinism to have been published this century. It’s certainly the best I have read, and I believe it’s destined to become one of the all-time classics of mountain literature.

The Bond cover shot , 122 kb

This is a book about the complex relationship between climbers and the mountains they choose to climb, the limits of human endurance, and the bond between those who share these experiences in the world’s high places.

At its heart, this true story is a simple one. Simon McCartney – a name forgotten until very recently in climbing circles – comes out of obscurity to tell his remarkable tale of cutting-edge alpinism in the mountains of Alaska in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To get an idea about what the young Simon was like, this is a guy who spends his time between jobs climbing the North Face of the Eiger and dreaming about unclimbed extreme faces in more remote mountain ranges.

"I’ve rarely seen such effective writing about climbing, yet it remains raw and simple, without ornament or ostentation"

The other main character in this book is Jack. Jack and Simon get to know each other during an escalating epic on Mont Blanc, and perceive that it’s the start of a great climbing partnership. Grand plans are drawn up; they find their way to Alaska, and make the incredible first ascent of Mount Huntington’s North Face.

Even by this early point in the book, I knew it was something really special. Many books about alpinism focus on challenge and disaster on a north face, but The Bond always gives more, always goes one step further than you would believe possible – and the writing is absolutely exquisite too, with a strong focus on the characters and what they are going through in their self-inflicted ordeals. Journal extracts are interwoven with vivid, present-tense narrative with just the right blend of description and introspection. I’ve rarely seen such effective writing about climbing, yet it remains raw and simple, without ornament or ostentation. True stories told in the style of a novel can approach this quality but I’ve never seen it done anywhere near so well as in The Bond. This is climbing writing at its absolute best.

Vertebrate Publishing, 146 kb

"I won’t waste any more time trying to analyse the deeper meanings and themes in this book, because I need to read it once or twice more to gain a full appreciation. I’m full of questions and awed at the experience of reading it the first time. If you enjoy mountain literature, read this book"

Vertebrate Publishing, 197 kb

Mount Huntingdon, which would be a fitting climax for a lesser book, is just a stepping-stone to greater things in this one. Simon develops an obsession with the North Face of the Eiger. His attempts are bold and risky, plagued by disastrous equipment failures, bad weather, and sometimes bad planning too. Once he gets the Eiger out of his system he calls Jack and they make plans to return to Alaska.

The final stage of the book, on the unclimbed South West Face of Denali, is both harrowing and deeply touching. Their bold attempt at an alpine-style ascent of this face, many years ahead of its time, begins to unravel and both characters come closer to their deaths than at any point before. It scars them both deeply. Although only the very end of the book is concerned with the long aftermath of these events, in many ways this is really what the book is all about – how the bond between climbers can be tested to its limits, but never completely severed.

I won’t waste any more time trying to analyse the deeper meanings and themes in this book, because I think I need to read it once or twice more to gain a full appreciation. I’m full of questions and awed at the experience of reading it the first time. If you enjoy mountain literature, read this book. I can’t praise it highly enough and I think it will come to be seen as one of the crowning achievements in this genre.

The Bond has won the 2016 Boardman Tasker, and was recently named the winner of the Mountain and Wilderness Literature category in the Banff Mountain Book awards. It’s also shortlisted for the TGO awards this year. Although it has been a very good year for outdoor literature, I have no doubt that The Bond deserves to scoop all of these awards.

Vertebrate say:

Simon McCartney was a cocky young British alpinist climbing many of the hardest routes in the Alps during the late seventies, but it was a chance meeting in Chamonix in 1977 with Californian ‘Stonemaster’ Jack Roberts that would dramatically change both their lives – and almost end Simon’s.

Inspired by a Bradford Washburn photograph published in Mountainmagazine, their first objective was the 5,500-foot north face of Mount Huntington, one of the most dangerous walls in the Alaska Range. The result was a route so hard and serious that for decades nobody believed they had climbed it – it is still unrepeated to this day. Then, raising the bar even higher, they made the first ascent of the south-west face of Denali, a climb that would prove almost fatal for Simon, and one which would break the bond between him and climbing, separating the two young climbers for over three decades. But the bond between Simon and Jack couldn’t remain dormant forever. A lifetime later, a chance reconnection with Jack gave Simon the chance to bury the ghosts of what happened high on Denali, when he had faced almost certain death.

The Bond is Simon McCartney’s story of these legendary climbs.

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