Review - Echoes by Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock's prose captured my interest via his blog, and so I had this on pre-order since the summer. 

The book charts the author's early life, his work in the prison system, and discovery of climbing as a release from the world of concrete, sweat and fear that he inhabits on a daily basis.  It takes us through his childhood, an apprenticeship as a estate keeper in Wales, and then entrapment and disappointment in a interior prison of his own, working amongst the country's most wanted - drug dealers, murderers and gangsters.  From here the story accelerates to describe his conversion to climbing and mountaineering, a world of freedom, danger, injury and sanctuary sought in high level, high risk expeditions. 

It's an uneven book, a book full of peaks and troughs and contradictions and most of all tension.  I struggled with the first few chapters.  The author seems to wade through giant snowdrifts to reach into the distant past - you can feel the stretch at recollection, the telling of his early years trance-like, absent.  Everything up to his own incarceration as a prison warden is almost a list, devoid of substance or detail.  As if it happened to someone else, as if something is missing.  Which of course it is - but this absence is a surprise.  His current writing unabashedly confronts his own fears and feelings in a way that some climbing traditionalists find uncomfortable.  Maybe this schism is understandable, given the metamorphosis which lies at the heart of the book.

But, this is less than half the story.  As he begins to tell the tale of his early climbing exploits, early winter climbing on Nevis and an obsessive training regime, the book blossoms.  As the author becomes the climber and not the prison warden, you feel the text relax, become not just more descriptive but also more personal.  The author is a hard man, becoming softer, that tension in his life writ large. The later chapters are classic, breathless page turning stuff - I haven't read a book this gripping for years, scarcely able to put it down from half way through - the later expeditions to Peru and the Himalaya are intimately described, the authors love for the cultures he visits and the friends he climbs with are as captivating as the punishing routes they dream up together.  You can feel him falling in love with his new way of living chapter by chapter, crux by crux.

I'm not a climber, but the author takes you with him - only once did the technical language of equipment obstruct my understanding of the challenges of high mountaineering.  He has been criticised for a direct style both in prose and on the mountain. A prickly and confrontational momentum, famously dismissive of any form of aid when on the hill.  No compromises.  This stance speaks honestly of the author, and the text is the same - at times angular, even awkward, then driven, completely sublime.  Respect for the mountain and good grace when finding routes is something even I can relate to, though I don't know one end of a jumar from another.

What you get with Echoes is the portrait of a man becoming himself, not a silver spooned athlete hot-housed from infancy, but a real soul in real conflict who (literally) climbed out of his own personal hell to become one of the boldest adventure mountaineers in the world.  In that sense this is a story about rebirth, a tale from the road to Damascus, a mammoth undertaking.  Nick Bullock has been places most of us never will, and that's before his feet leave the ground.  The author is as brave on the page as he is on the mountain, and for both these things, Echoes deserves our attention.  Yes it may be uneven and sometimes pieced together, but since it charts such a personal journey and does so increasingly eloquently, I think it's worth forgiving the technicalities and giving some time to a gritty, honest and dazzling transformation.  The author dares to care, and so should we.