The Bond by Simon McCartney is a remarkable work of mountain writing that illuminates two legendary first ascents on Alaskan great walls: the North Face of Mt. Huntington and the Denali Diamond. McCartney and Jack Roberts established these routes together: impressive coups in 1978 and 1980. The Huntington effort was so dangerous and difficult that it is still unrepeated today. After nearly dying on the Diamond, McCartney lost his drive for alpine first ascents, and within a year, he stopped climbing completely. He was not heard from in the climbing community again for thirty-six years.
In the prologue, McCartney says he “put these [climbing] memories away” and moved on. But we learn that despite his efforts to compartmentalize this portion of his life, he never stopped thinking about the Denali climb, revisiting it in his mind once a month for thirty-six years. After a blow-by-blow description of the two climbs, including McCartney’s harrowing Denali descent, the reader begins to understand McCartney’s contradictory feelings. McCartney achieved climbing glory, but at a cost to others, and he reveals, to his own psyche.
McCartney, a Brit, and Roberts, a laconic Yosemite big wall expert, met in Chamonix’s Bar Nationale in 1977, where they compared notes on their separate, recent ascents of the North Face of Les Droites (a prerequisite for aspiring alpine hardmen in those days). Part of the allure of the book is the connection between the unlikely, yet effective, climbing duo. McCartney describes their relationship as the Odd Couple of alpine climbing: a reference to a 1970s television series featuring two old bachelors living together, bickering and needling each other, but with an undercurrent of deep affection.
Another literary delight is McCartney’s style, a sort of alpine Bill Bryson: witty, stiff-upper-lipped and alternately amused and bemused to be observing Roberts in his home environments, Yosemite and Alaska. He draws vivid descriptions of Talkeetna of the 1970s, its feral, frontier atmosphere surpassing even what McCartney had come to expect from Hollywood westerns.
On Mt. Huntington, already out of food and anxious to summit, the climbers felt their nerves begin to fray. Roberts took a dangerous leader fall on a steep section near the summit after McCartney had warned him to try an easier way. After it is clear Roberts is uninjured, McCartney is livid. “You bloody Americans have a far too lax attitude to falling, why the hell didn’t you listen to me!” he tells Roberts. Later, on a hazardous descent, it is McCartney’s turn to punch through a cornice and take a serious fall that injures his ankle. After they recover, Roberts gets the last word: “Man, before we go, I just want to say one thing…. You bloody limeys have a far too relaxed attitude about falling, don’t do it again!”
The exchange is typical of their relationship. After a precarious descent, the pair had to make a laborious climb up and over a different ridge to reach the glacier and their base camp. When they were finally in sight of their camp, their emotions ran high, McCartney recounts: “Any attempts to keep it light, British-decorum-style, are futile: Jack is going to hug me no matter what. Neither of us actually cries, but we hold hands for a very long minute while neither of us can talk.”
The book’s emotional impact derives from the brutally frank style of both Roberts (posthumously through his diary) and McCartney, and the emotions that these arduous climbs gave rise to. After McCartney and Roberts completed a new route on the Denali Diamond, just below the summit, McCartney was struck by the onset of cerebral edema. With McCartney’s health deteriorating, the pair was marooned in their tent, unable to go up or down. Roberts’ journal entries reveal his tortured circumspection as he weighs preserving his life against leaving his fallen partner.
But, as McCartney describes, they benefitted from two great strokes of luck, a kind of high-altitude deus ex machina. First, two climbers who were close to completing their own ascent of the adjacent Cassin Ridge, Bob Kandiko and Mike Helms, appeared unexpectedly, ready to help. They abandoned their own summit attempt and devoted themselves to saving McCartney. A plan was jointly developed: Roberts and Helms would go over the summit and down the West Ridge to start a rescue, while Kandiko stayed with McCartney. The other luck stroke was that after Roberts and Helms left, McCartney recovered somewhat and in an amazing effort, Kandiko got McCartney down the Cassin Ridge almost single handedly.
Years later, Roberts showed little interest in revisiting these Alaska climbs with McCartney. Over time, experts in the alpine climbing community questioned whether McCartney and Roberts really completed the Mt. Huntington climb. Even though Roberts had summit photos in his possession that could have quashed any doubts, perhaps he still second-guessed his decision that the only way to save his partner was to leave him in a tent at 19,000 feet on Denali in order to start a rescue.
Tragically, McCartney missed re-connecting with Jack Roberts. Roberts died leading difficult ice on Bridalveil Falls in Telluride, Colorado, in 2012, not long before his sixtieth birthday. But this book is a tribute that Roberts surely would have loved: a last, full measure of the devotion from one climbing partner to another.
Last week, I caught up with McCartney, whom I had gotten to know when he resurfaced a couple of years ago, to talk about some recent developments to the story of The Bond.
Accomazzo: I understand that at the mountain book festival in Banff this month you were reunited with some of the main characters involved in your rescue on Denali?
McCartney: Yes. It was the first time that Bob Kandiko, Mike Helms, and Pam Ranger Roberts–Jack’s wife, and I were all in the same spot at one time. After the rescue, we all disbursed and went our separate ways. I saw Jack Roberts once more in 1981, but never again. Bob and Mike, who did not know each other before they climbed the Cassin Ridge, had not spoken to each other for thirty-five years after they parted at 19,500 feet on Denali until that day in Banff.
Accomazzo: How did it feel?
McCartney: Let’s just say that emotions were running high. Bob said he thought about the rescue every month of his life since then, but Mike had tried to put the whole thing out of his mind, and like me, quit climbing completely. As for Pam, she loved that Jack was finally getting recognized for our climbs, but it was so hard that she couldn’t share it with him.
Accomazzo: Tell me what it was like to win the Boardman Tasker prize in Kendal.
McCartney: It was terrifying and gripping. The only way I dealt with it was to convince myself that we had no chance of winning. So I was not prepared to say anything when we were called up to accept the award in front of what seemed like the whole British climbing community. Luckily for me, Pam was there to do most of the talking.