Savage Arena

14th Aug 2017

Savage Arena

We probably all have childhood heroes.  For some it’s a footballer, a cricketer or maybe a sports person from another discipline.  Others might pick a teacher, parent, coach, scout or guide leader.  For me it was always about climbing, and so my heroes were always, and not surprisingly, climbers.

I was a Manchester lad and so it made sense that I was drawn to climbing heroes local to me although I hope it was their climbing achievements rather than their home towns that drew them to me.  Either way, it was always Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker that influenced my early climbing days.  Joe originated in Hull but spent time in Manchester as a student and beyond.  Pete’s family lived just down the road from me in Bramhall.

A special moment for me as a young lad was seeing Pete talk live at Stockport Grammar School.  Pete was a great speaker and on that occasion I heard him talk of his staggering ascent of the West Face of Changabang with Joe.  The pair had achieved a ground breaking climb in a small team and with no support.  Pete later wrote a book documenting their ascent and ‘The Shining Mountain’ should be a must read on every climber’s (and armchair climber’s) book list.

Pete always appeared accessible, open, friendly and sociable.  I felt that in some small way I knew him (he did, after all, sign my poster at his lecture!).  But, much as I admired Pete, it was Joe that fascinated me more.  Joe was the mysterious one.  I knew he was talented.  I knew he was driven and I knew he was ambitious - but much about him, for me, remained a shadowy world of unknowns.

A small door into his mind was opened when I read his first book, Everest the Cruel Way (published in 1981).  It told an epic tale that reinforced my belief that he was a focussed and disciplined operator.  Ultimately, though, as good a read as it was, my view on more recent readings of this book are that Joe was still developing his writing style at this stage.  It was an honest and readable book that has been praised for its analysis of team dynamics, but to my mind it lacked the literary depth he achieved later.  He had unfinished business with writing just as the failed Everest expedition story it described left him with unfinished business on the world’s biggest mountain.

Joe had spent his early years studying in a seminary and his decision to not pursue a life as a priest hinted at his dreams for a life led by adventures of a different kind.  He had started climbing in a local quarry and soon this became his key passion.  Climbing offered an alternative he felt drawn too, and it seemed he also wanted to be free from the shackles of a ‘normal’ career.  His school report from summer 1968 states that ‘Joseph would be very good if only he could get over his resentment of authority’.  I know that, even as a teenager, I was in awe of his slightly rebellious nature.

By 1969 Joe had made the decision to leave the seminary and he soon started making his mark in the climbing world.  He studied Sociology at Manchester University and enjoyed the climbing opportunities offered locally, but was soon spreading his wings to the Alps.  In 1973 he completed first British ascents of the Eckfeiler on Mont Blanc and the Dent Blanche.  He climbed the North Face of the Eiger in winter in 75 and that same year headed to the Himalayas to climb Dunagiri with Dick Renshaw.  

So, soon enough, Joe was off to ascend the Shining Mountain with Pete.  I remember being transfixed by Pete’s writing on this ascent.  The pair had prepared for the cold temperatures by sleeping in a giant industrial freezer, had created equipment such as special hammocks to allow them to live on the wall but, above all, they had the inner strength to believe they could climb this monster wall when nothing like this had been done before.  It ranked among the greatest Himalayan achievements of the day and, maybe, one of the greatest of all time?

Joe and Pete’s Changabang success set the climbing world alight and it was perhaps inevitable that they would then set their sights on higher things.  Over the next few years they had 2 failed attempts on K2, achieved a stunning against the odds Alpine style ascent of Kanchenjunga and then Joe headed for that winter attempt on Everest in 1980/81.  The mountain spat them off and it was this expedition that he wrote about in his first book.  

I guess he may have felt like his series of failures were mounting (although the concept of failure implies success is only about reaching the top) but, in 1981, he  and Pete went to China with Chris Bonington and Al Rouse.  Their objective was the unclimbed Mount Kongur and, when they returned, I went to see the team lecture about their successful expedition.

At the time Kongur was the highest unclimbed mountain in the world and for a young and impressionable climber the story they told was incredible.  The team had fought awful weather and dangerous conditions. They had dug snow coffins to sleep in as tents would never have withstood the harsh wind.  Pete Boardman had been knocked unconscious on a rappel descent and only been saved by his glove jamming in the descent device he was using.  My eyes were on stalks as I saw their incredible slides and listened to their tales.  Again Joe was the one that drew me most though.  He was enigmatic and distant, but he had a way of describing the situation in a wholly engaging way.  He had a certain intensity.

Joe’s partner, Maria Coffey, discussed this in a piece of writing she put together for an exhibition about his life. “Joe was a master of attention”, she said.  “In work, play, relationships, writing and, above all, climbing - he did everything with complete focus, and to the full.  He lived more intensely than anyone I’ve ever known”. 

In 1982 Joe returned to Everest with Pete, Bonington and Dick Renshaw.  By now they had wholly given themselves to the Alpine style ascents that had characterised Joe’s career.  A team of 4 attempting the huge and unclimbed North East Ridge without oxygen.  It was a huge undertaking with no margin for error.  No safety net.  It was classic Joe Tasker and I suspect that he completely relished both the style and the challenge.  

The team had setbacks.  The conditions were challenging, Dick fell ill and Chris, after a gallant effort, decided the summit was beyond him this time.  It was down to the dream team of Pete and Joe to forge onwards or go home.  They forged onwards.

I wanted to know there was a softer side to Joe.  Employees at the climbing shop he owned for a while in Derbyshire talked of him being a tough task master and he was said to be quiet and reserved, but again those that knew him well also talked of a caring and sensitive person.  Again it was Maria that summed him up when she said that ‘He could be tough and uncompromising, but there was a very tender side to him that not everyone was privileged to see.  He once helped me go to sleep by gently stroking my eyelids.  He told me he used to do this to his little brothers and sisters, at their bedtime”.

Of course, you will probably know that in that final summit push on Everest Pete and Joe disappeared.  Two of the greatest British mountaineers were lost on May 17th 1982.  The climbing world mourned and even as a young boy I was emotionally shattered too - both my childhood heroes gone in such an abrupt way.  

Joe is said to have delivered the manuscript for his second book to the publishers only the night before he left for Everest.  The book was called ‘The Savage Arena’ and, just as ‘The Shining Mountain’ is a must read, ‘Savage Arena’ is the single mountaineering book everyone MUST read.  I have a very well thumbed copy that gets pulled off the shelf on regular occasions.

Joe was only in his early thirties when he died and we can only wonder at what would have been possible had he returned from Everest.  So many of Joe’s climbs had been ground breaking and yet I always wondered if, on that final Everest climb, Pete and Joe were really pushing the envelope  a little too far.  There is no doubt their resources were stretched to the limit and yet the same could be said of Joe’s climbs on Kongur, Changabang, Dunagiri or Kanchenjunga too.  He was often operating at the fringes of the possible.  

I say with certainty though that ‘The Savage Arena’ is a literary masterpiece.  Joe had, by that stage, developed his writing style to the point of an art form.  He can describe situations in such an engaging way and yet he still manages to avoid being drawn into the trap of being over emotional.  I love that book.  Maybe this ability was, to some extent. in his genes.  Joe’s family is a literary one and he had been encouraged to read from an early age.  His Mum was a keen amateur poet and Joe excelled at literature while in the seminary.  

There is an added poignancy with this book in that Joe, of course, finished it just before he left for Everest. It has been suggested that his rush to get it finished in time hinted at a personal knowledge that he might not return from Everest.  It has even been said that it reads like an obituary.  Mountaineer Reinhold Messner commented that “it seems almost as if Joe sensed that it was time to tell us of his exploits”.  Of course no one will ever know what was happening inside Joe’s mind at this stage.  What we can be sure of, though, is that ‘The Savage Arena’ is an amazing legacy from a brilliant mountaineer.  

Posted by Paul 


Let's keep the conversation going…..

We are always really keen to receive comments about our blog posts.  Please send any comments via our Contact Form and we'll add them to the page.