Fiva by Gordon Stainforth
I tend to avoid reviewing mountaineering and climbing books these days. I’ve read so many over the years that I struggle with them, even if they are well written, as they are essentially describing a very similar thing to the others that I have read. It’s no fault of the authors, just a fact of life I guess. When Gordon sent me a copy of his latest book I was a little worried that it would fall into the same category. Of course essentially it does – it is a book about two guys climbing a route in the mountains. But it’s also very different. In the same way that Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void was a whole book which focused on a single route, a single slip, and the single epic that ensued, Fiva does the same. On page 1 we are stood at the bottom of the route, butterflies in stomach. On page 183 we are with the pair just a few days after finally getting down from their route. There’s a very short preface and there’s an Afterword by Gordon’s brother and climbing partner on the route, John, but other than that we are with the pair through every minute of the ordeal.
Essentially the pair, twin brothers with a public school education and a love of rock climbing, head out to Norway to climb. It’s 1969 and Norway is popular with British climbers. They chose a route near the infamous Troll Wall to warm up on. It’s 6,000 feet long and the vague guidebook description gives them the impression that it should be straightforward so they set off with a bit of chocolate and a handful of sandwiches. It turns out to be a far more serious proposition, with very loose rock, rotten snow (they have just one ice axe and little in the way of experience on snow and ice), and difficult route finding. They have an accident, and then need to get down which proves to be even trickier than getting up.
What’s most remarkable about the book is that it has been written some 40 years after the event. In fact it was a trip the pair took back out to Norway to mark the 40th anniversary of the epic (would have been interesting to read an explanation as to why they did this) that sparked the idea of writing the book. Whereas Tony Howard, in his recently published account of his ascent of Troll Wall, wrote the manuscript shortly after the trip and then found it in a box in his loft 40 years later, Gordon and John managed to piece together the entire epic based on their memories, a few photographs, and their return trip. Amazing. Of course we have to assume that a certain amount of ‘writer’s licence’ has been employed to flesh it out, but nowhere is this at all obvious. Gordon admits in the preface that he has attempted to write it in the style that he would have written it when he was 20. On the whole he succeeds, but there are times when he lapses into a clearly more mature writer. Occasionally his writing jars, particularly the dialogue, but I suspect that this is simply down to the fact that an exuberant 20 year old student with a public school education in 1969 would have jarred!
The fact that he has spent 180+ pages describing a single epic climb and retreat leaves little to the imagination. I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of travelling to Norway and sitting underneath the Troll Wall for 3 days in rain and fog and never getting a glimpse of the towering cliffs, but having read this book I have a distinct visual impression of what was behind the cloud. Gordon is a very good writer and has used put his skills to good effect in describing both the harshness of their environment, and their utter despair at the situation they found themselves in. Reviews online have compared it to Touching The Void. Had that book not already paved the way I rather suspect that this could have done something similar, bridging the gap into the general audience. Throughout the book he makes reference to climbing terminology and gives a brief explanation for non-climbers, but does so with enough skill that it doesn’t irritate an actual climber (the most difficult task when trying to bridge the gap). Whether it can emulate Touching The Void remains to be seen, but I’d say it’s well worth a read.