Hanging On: A Life inside British Climbing’s Golden Age by Martin Boysen, 2014
British climbing has had several golden ages, such as the 1860’s in the Alps and the Everest years of the past century. Martin Boysen is nevertheless justified in his subtitle. The time of his greatest activity, 1960 to 1976, saw many triumphs, as well as the inevitable fatalities.
Born in 1940, Boysen was a precocious rock climber and soon became one of the “hard men” of the time. In a relatively brief expedition career, he ventured to Cerro Torre, Latok, Ama Dablam, Changabang, and of course Everest.. He was a key member of Chris Bonington’s 1970 team on the South Face of Annapurna--a climb that changed everything in Himalayan climbing. It was the first time such a long technical route had been attempted--and achieved--at altitude.
Perhaps the effort that Boysen will most sharply remember is his struggle for the first ascent of Trango Tower, a daunting hunk of high-altitude granite in the Karakoram. Boysen was leading what should have been one of the final pitches when his knee become stuck in a crack--permanently, it appeared. Several hours of panicky effort, including sharpening a piton into a knife edge, set him free.The climb was over, but the story was not: Boysen returned the next year and led the crack, watching his knees carefully. This was a triumph, but one of Boysen’s last in the big peaks. In the late 1970’s he left the expedition world. The book nearly ends at this point.
Why did he stop? One reason was to spare his family his hazardous absences. Note: Boysen devotes more time to his wife than do most of his notoriously oblivious peers. Maggie appears in six photographs. Then there were the casualties--a long list of prominent climbers, some of them close friends. No amount of skill or caution can provide sure safety in mountains where the temperature drops, the wind rises with altitude, and avalanches are an abiding, unpredictable threat. And finally, perhaps, a major rejection, when Chris Bonington told him, “Martin, I’m afraid I haven’t picked you for K2.” K2, the second-highest mountain in the world and one of the hardest, had seen few ascents, none by a Briton. Boysen had every expectation of inclusion: he had performed well with Bonington on Annapurna and Everest. He might have had a foretaste of disappointment when effectively denied a summit attempt on Annapurna: “I felt angry and abandoned.” But K2 was altogether worse. Boysen comments with uncharacteristic bitterness: “ I was no longer a member of Team Bonington....I felt a deep disappointment and the pain of a long friendship betrayed.”
Although he soon left the universe of expeditions, he did not stop climbing. One of the happiest photos in the book shows him, in his seventies, on British rock with his partner and contemporary, Rab Carrington. Many prominent British mountaineers of the past century have produced memoirs. Boysen’s is one of the best. It is written with humility and humor. The photographs, color and otherwise, are excellent. There is no better place to gain a sense of British climbing of the period.
Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2015
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