In the 1970’s, Henry Barber was arguably the best rock climber on the world. He had the astounding ability to visit crags all over the world and climb routes that had baffled the locals. At Arapiles park in Australia, a big wooden sign pays tribute to “Hot Henry”’s sweep through the rock in 1975. He was a master of ice as well. But his reputation was blemished by a controversial 1978 episode on Kilimanjaro. Opposing versions appear in these books, both of which I reviewed for the American Alpine Journal.
2014: Barber still lives in his native New England. From his web site: "Continual adaptation is the key to survival in today's world. Henry customizes strategies to fit your business, institution or employees. Known worldwide as a climber with a vast experience in all types of terrain Henry has harnessed the same successful concepts to work with clients and audiences internationally."
The Breach: Kilimanjaro and the Conquest of Self. Rob Taylor. 1981.
Big climbs can establish and affirm friendships; they can also destroy them. International expeditions are most subject to the occupational hazard of bitterness and recriminations, with cultural incomprehension heaped upon the strains of altitude, isolation and effort. Even small parties, the long-standing refuge from such worldly difficulties, have produced ill will instead of inspiriting memories. For here the claims of personality are particularly severe; weeks of hard mountaineering may turn minor character quirks into the stuff of open antagonism.
But what if there is little congeniality to begin with? Rob Taylor presents his relationship with the pseudonymous Harley Warner as the conjunction of two climbing virtuouse of utterly differing temperaments. Warner “was born and brought up in the exclusive community of Wildwood…. Early on he accepted the dogma of the dollar,” and he makes his sensational climbing achievements pay their way with lectures and endorsements. Taylor, on the other hand, grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, “only a few miles from Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond.” As a child he romped in the fields with his brother and sister and didn’t think about money. Despite their differences, the Taylor-Warner partnership did carry them up a steep frozen waterfall in Norway and to the top of Mount Kenya’s fabled Diamond Couloir. But the moment questions of judgment arose, not all the climbing skill in Africa could avail them. Hence their Kilimanjaro disaster, which even a little teamwork apparently could have mitigated or prevented altogether.
In January 1978 Taylor and Warner challenged the then unclimbed Icicle route on Kilimanjaro’s Breach Wall. This account well conveys the isolated immensity of the place—a huge flank of rock and glacier rising to the highest point in Africa, a volcanic summit plateau wide enough to get lost in when the mists rise. Moving quickly despite indifferent weather, the two men reach the base of the Icicle itself, at some 18,000 feet, a “dripping rotting cylinder of ice stretching three hundred vertical feet to the top of the Breach Wall.” Such a prospect requires at least a strategy session, but that was out of the question for these two: throughout the book they talk past rather than to each other. So against his judgment and instinct Taylor leads twenty feet up the Icicle until it shatters; the resulting fall leaves him with a compound fracture of his left ankle and questionable chances of survival, with a single companion and help many miles below and away.
The account of Taylor’s rescue, with his own cool courage and the heroic efforts of the Norwegian Odd Eliassen and African rangers, is worth the price of the book. It should inspire climbers who may be tempted to renounce hopes of extricating themselves from perils in remote places. But The Breach attempts far more than to tell this story: its subtitle bespeaks its central ambition. Yet here the book is weakest. Even for the most gifted writers, “The Self” is a hard beast to snare. Pursue it as one may through the wilds of memory and deception, it has a way of slipping off just when you think you have the creature pinned down at last. Taylor grows to believe that “there comes a time, at least once, when our past catches us up…. For me this day of reckoning came upon the Breach. I knew then, while still on the Wall, that I could blame no one but myself for my lack of assertiveness.” This entirely convincing insight is preceded by pages of heavy introspection, suffused with allusions to Hemingway and memories of Taylor’s companion Dave Knowles, killed in an Eiger rockfall in 1974. These sections are often overwritten, in keeping with the pseudo-poetic epigraphs that Taylor has unwisely intruded between his chapters. His conclusion, “those final days in Africa I lost my vision, that inner vision we must all have to carry on, to aspire, to be,” sounds Conradian; but like most of us, Taylor cannot write much like Conrad. The search for self needs to be conveyed with greater literary power than Taylor yet commands.
The narrative passages are more successful. Taylor’s story is not merely arresting but shocking. In contrast to the introspective sections, Taylor here shows considerable restraint in describing what most readers will regard as a betrayal: for after tearing down the mountainside and arranging for help, Harley Warner vanishes. He does not assist in the rescue, does not even remain in the country to verify the recovery of the companion whose safety—Taylor’s brief description is unambiguous— he had failed to guard at the moment the Icicle cracked. Perhaps neither Taylor nor we should have been surprised at the desertion, since Warner has been portrayed all along as obsessed by considerations of time and money. From his first appearance at the Boston airport, when he rushes off to phone ABC in New York, to his last, again in Boston at the hospital where Taylor is recuperating, Warner seems concerned only with himself. He never has second thoughts, much less regrets. He sums up the Breach: “I am not sorry for anything that I have done and would do the same thing again in similar circumstances.” When he is hospitalized in Tanzania, where patients are traditionally cared for by relatives and friends, Taylor has to rely upon people whom he had not even met before his accident: the Eliassens and a sympathetic American couple. Warner had gone to Houston for a sports convention.
It is not only Warner’s personality that is indicted in this book, but his mountaineering judgment as well. Although portrayed as a dazzling technician, he is granted virtually no alpine sense. At the top of the Diamond he plunges on in avalanche-prone snow instead of keeping to the rock as Taylor insists. He seems oblivious to the danger of a debris chute on Kilimanjaro and ignores the treacherous condition of the Icicle. Worst of all, he is inattentive when his companion is leading: his casual rope-handling transforms “what should have been no more than a very short, three- or four-foot fall” into something far more serious. Taylor’s judgment on his companion strikes me as disingenuous: “An avalanche is not malicious unto itself, nor was Harley. He was what he was. I had simply failed to recognize this.” Warner is drawn as something far worse than a force of nature unleashed: as unremittingly vain, shallow, and even duplicitous to the point of implying to Taylor’s family that he took part in the rescue and ascribing the length of the fall to the failure of an ice screw (which actually held). Taylor may seem to present us with a choice between two sharply different personalities, but he makes it extremely hard to choose Warner.
“Harley Warner” is for general consumption only. Followers of alpine literature will identify him with a well-known New England climber of very similar name. There are at least two sides to every story; Harley’s should soon be available. Meanwhile The Breach, for all its flaws, gives its own account commendably.
On Edge: The Life & Climbs of Henry Barber. Chip Lee, with David Roberts and Kenneth Andrasko. 1982.
At age 28, Henry Barber makes a problematic subject for the biographer. Many of his achievements are difficult to dramatize: short rock problems rather than the evolving alpine adventures that books are more often made of. His most arresting climbs have been solo efforts that place a burden on Barber’s own powers of narration. And at the center is Barber himself: can he be as interesting as his accomplishments? The preface to On Edge terms him a “fascinating character”; the book unfortunately fails to substantiate this claim.
The coolly competitive, businesslike Henry Barber is a familiar figure. But according to this book he also has “a deep-seated fascination with animals and all that is animated and irrational,” “seeks solace” in relations with women and, in his own words, thinks “a lot” about dying. He simultaneously craves and resents attention, a complexity embodied in a scary moment during a solo on a Welsh sea cliff. Performing for a film, he is nearly shocked off the face when the cameraman, a “foreign presence,” makes a sudden movement. Such complications of character are little explored; we can only guess at their depth. David Roberts’ preface acknowledges that some readers will find Chip Lee “too close, too uncritical” for accuracy. The problem is that he is indeed too uncritical, despite serious efforts not to be, yet finally not close (or penetrating) enough to illuminate Barber’s nature, which emerges as opaque rather than mysterious.
Lee provides some lively characterizations, such as Dresden’s Bernd Arnold and the late British wildman, Al Harris. Henry Barber is one of the less vivid people in the book. Whether because of reticence—Lee’s or Barber’s own?—or literary misjudgment, a number of areas of interest are merely touched upon. Barber’s conservative upbringing, reflected in attitudes that troubled many a climbing partner, is not analyzed. His failure to climb with his “hero,” Royal Robbins, is attributed in part to “personality differences,” but we are given no hint of their nature. In the Shawangunks, a reckless hiker takes a fatal fall. Barber, in whose arms the man dies, calls the episode “very sobering, something to think about.” But, Lee adds, “the implications were never pursued.”
To his credit, Lee addresses the 1978 Kilimanjaro issue directly. While The Breach was apparently published too late for his consideration, he does quote from Rob Taylor’s earlier article in Climbing, which embodies many of the charges elaborated in that book. Lee establishes his most nearly critical stance in the Kilimanjaro chapter, his longest and last. Some light is thrown on such questions as the reasons for the length of Taylor’s fall, Barber’s lack of participation at the end of the rescue, his choice of route off the mountain and failure to remain in Africa long enough to visit Taylor in the hospital. Both participants have allowed that Barber was “caught unaware” by the accident, yet Barber’s remarks here give a contrary impression as well: “I was concerned about him. … After he got his first screw in, I just stopped taking pictures. I knew something was wrong.” Taylor’s larger assault was upon Barber’s whole character, which he portrayed as shallow and harsh. Barber’s own words at times only intensify that view: immediately after the accident “I just smiled at him and said something like, ‘Just like everything else on this trip, isn’t it?’ What could I say? He was in incredible pain and was apologizing to me. I just told him to stop his sniveling or I’d leave him there.” Barber’s great resourcefulness during the difficult descent is manifest, but not all readers will be persuaded by his ascription of his “seeming lack of compassion” to a “defense mechanism to deal with what was happening.”
The narrative has an obstructed energy. Block quotations, mostly from Barber, appear frequently, not always well integrated with Lee’s text. More editing would have eliminated irritating repetitions. The volume provides a publisher’s preface and a glossary for the lay reader, a nonpublisher’s preface describing how the account came to be written and a prologue that seems designed to humanize the book’s subject. Many photographs are interspersed; they range from the murky to the striking.
Although afflicted with many shortcomings, On Edge recounts some stunning achievements from Yosemite to England, Dresden, Australia and Turkestan. I failed David Roberts’ sweaty-palms test (“I doubt that there is a climber in the world who can read some of the episodes in Chip’s book … without having to pause to wipe his sweating palms on his trousers”), but other hands may respond more readily. The book is of importance for those who follow the frontiers of hard climbing. It establishes or confirms Barber’s significance in several areas: his insistence on good style, ability to lead on sight climbs that had stymied locals, and his extraordinary solo ascents.
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