Virgin on Insanity by Steve Bell Review

To most UK based climbers the name of Steve Bell will not be a familiar one – however look at the founders of the UK’s pre-eminent high-altitude guiding companies Himalayan Kingdoms and Jagged Globe and it is Bell’s name that is central to them both. 

Roger Mear on Mount Huntington, 201 kb
Roger Mear on Mount Huntington
© Steve Bell Collection

Virgin on Insanity is the autobiographical account of Bell’s early years as a young emerging climber, moving from provincial newbie to world stage player. His exceptionally well-crafted writing is a gripping, frank and uncanny journey through his extraordinary early life that ranges from winter alpine north faces and Alaskan and Himalayan giants to joining the cult of the Moonies in the US.

Growing up in 1970’s deepest Devon and embracing one of only a few opportunities at Europe’s largest school – namely the walking and climbing club – Bell’s rise to rock athlete and then on to itinerant super-alpine wanderer is a tale worth taking in on its own merit – but there is so much more to be had in this book that puts it well above the ‘this is what I did where and with who’ style of bio’s.

Steve Bell looking cool on Call to Arms (E4) at Anstey's Cove, 129 kb
Steve Bell looking cool on Call to Arms (E4) at Anstey's Cove
© Steve Bell Collection
Steve Bell looking cold after 8 days on the Eiger's North Face, 176 kb
Steve Bell looking cold after 8 days on the Eiger's North Face
© Roger Mear

Bell tackles one of life’s great thresholds full on (the loss of virginity) and, in a surprisingly drawn out epic which is both excruciating and fantastically honest, provides a marvellous thread that runs throughout the book.  Bell’s tribulations seem to dominate his being and perhaps hold some of the psychological reasons that underpin why some climbers perform so well no matter how high the stakes? In fact, this book would be a fine case study for any psychologist, pro or amateur.

Whilst on his epic journey to ‘pop his cherry’, Bell moves from his initial quest to conquer his desire in a tent on Dartmoor, before drifting through the Bristol and Sheffield scenes, and eventually taking his ever burgeoning load (pun intended) to the Alps and the U.S.A. I will leave out identifying the final climax, as it is a bitter sweet ending that provides the springboard for Bell’s later (as yet untold) exploits in life.

"As for the climbing – it does not get much more gripping; success, frustration, near death, death itself, 1970’s culture or lack of it, suffering and a bit of fun all come together (pun intended) and for most will horrify as much as inspire."

Some of the most interesting aspects covered in the book are the climbing relationships – that, with the obviously hardcore Roger Mear, being very much the master and apprentice, Mear’s mature musings on suffering and choice with respect to climbing and non-imposed life choices being particularly searching. Many other close and not so close relationships and acquaintances are explored but the breaking point that finally does for Bell is after he fails to keep to the late Al Rouse’s advice on ambition and how much to bite off at a time. This error sets up the story's big unresolved question - High on Annapurna III with Nick Colton and Tim Leach it all collapses and Bell chucks in the towel totally ashamed. Colton and Leach continue a little higher but turn back and the expedition fails, with neither Colton nor Leach, two exceptional super alpinists, ever heading out to the Himalaya again.

Tim Leach near the top of the Aiguille Verte, December 1977, 104 kb
Tim Leach near the top of the Aiguille Verte, December 1977
© Steve Bell Collection
The Annapurna III Team: Nick Colton (standing), Tim Leach (left) and the author (right), 138 kb
The Annapurna III Team: Nick Colton (standing), Tim Leach (left) and the author (right)
© Steve Bell Collection

Prior to the Annapurna saga and back in the real world after a harrowing trip to Alaska he finds himself living in a drainage culvert on the edge of Boulder in Colorado where he is picked up by the cult of the Moonies. Bell’s following experience provides some disturbing background on the vulnerability of young minds and Bell’s admission that with hindsight it is easy to see how extreme fundamentalism can be shaped and moulded even going as far as to say that at that time he would have put his life on the line for the cause.

And so there you have it – a life lived at full speed and all done before he hit his 22nd birthday – I am sure there is more to come from the intervening 30 plus years – but a better linking thread will be hard to find.


A well-written account of a brief period of tough times on rock and ice anchored in the late 1970’s, that although reflecting very different times and culture is gripping and worthy. However it is the brave back-story of the drive for first coitus that makes this a book worth buying.

About the author:

Virgin on Insantiy, 194 kb
Steve Bell started climbing in 1975 at the age of sixteen. He soon became one of Britain’s up-and-coming young mountaineers, notching up winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Eiger north faces before he was twenty-one, as well as numerous first ascents of rock climbs in the south-west of England.

He spent a season with the British Antarctic Survey and four years as a Royal Marines Officer, before co-founding Himalayan Kingdoms, a trekking and mountaineering company. He pioneered the concept of commercial high-altitude expeditions in the UK and in 1993 became the first Briton to guide clients to the summit of Mount Everest.

In 1995 he founded Jagged Globe, which is now one of the world’s leading mountaineering companies. With JG he has led expeditions to all of the coveted seven summits, the highest point on all seven continents. He edited the book, Seven Summits (Mitchell Beazley, 2000), which was published in five countries in four languages.

In 2004 Bell emigrated to Australia with his wife and three children. Divorced in 2009, he was diagnosed with a chronic back condition the same year. He is a writer, public speaker and entrepreneur, and lives near Melbourne with his wife, artist Rossy Reeves.


For more information visit Vertebrate Publishing
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