TAC 34 Index
It wasn't pre-planned that two TAC writers would attend the same October lecture given by Rebecca Stephens, nor did they compare notes afterwards for any longer than it took to agree to both write up their reactions in review form. So here are the responses from, firstly, Val Hamilton, and then your Editor:
I would not have travelled far to hear Rebecca Stephens speak, but she was in Stirling at a Royal Scottish Geographical Society lecture, costing only #2 to members. I have a perfectly rational antipathy to the woman: my prejudice against her accent and use of the words "horrid" and "gharstly" is not admirable, but I defend my right to dislike instinctively a woman with that Sloane bone structure and bearing, who can acclimatise so effortlessly to 23000ft and beyond. This ability is blatantly unfair and I speak as someone who hasn't even dared venture to the summit of Ben Nevis (though I'm informed that the shortage of oxygen up there is due to the thousands - literally - of unfit punters gasping for breath).
Over the years, I have attended many impressive talks by great mountaineers, and the abiding memory is of epic hardship, frequently involving tragedy, but lightened with the black humour which seems necessary for survival in such circumstances. This talk was very different. We were given a description of a winter hill-walk at altitude, with the main climb being a steady plod up staircase-angled snow, and luxury camps where you could relax, cushioned by plentiful oxygen and the ever-attentive "very sweet" Sherpas. It was closer to Murdo's plashy brook than to Brother Ffffiennes' crotch rot, though there was surprisingly little evocation of place and the slides were well below the usual RSGS standard. The most memorable was the picture of the South Col with about forty tents on it. This, as much as anything, persuaded me that hardship was not being glossed over with traditional British understatement. Given good weather, good support, and good health, Everest by the tourist route is within the reach of anyone who has the ambition and can raise the money.
Apart from this revelation, what I gained most was a clear understanding of her motivation. There was no attempt to pretend that she was doing it for anyone but herself - not for Queen and Country, nor for charity, nor for any greater good. This was honest, brave and convincing, spoken from the heart, without a note. Her fluent presentation style impressed me at the time and it was only later that I realised how devoid of humour it was. I've come away from many ostensibly sadder talks, feeling much more uplifted. For a lecture entitled "On top of the world", there was a striking lack of joy.
Some climbers, when stuck up behind a lectern, look like caged crag-rats - Victor Saunders for example. Some - notably Chris Bonington - ooze guardsman-straight logistical prowess. Some come across as late-period Beatles castaways who just happen to have muscles and minds of steel: witness Doug Scott. But only one, Rebecca Stephens, resembles Posh Spice.
This writer went along to the Geog Soc gig with a contorted, double-twisted take on what he was about to hear. Stephens, when previously seen on TV, seemed so Sloaneish as to grate and jar no matter what she might have achieved: it's no accident that the phrase "stuck up" has crept into the above paragraph. But that is prejudice: no-one should be judged on upbringing or accent, least of all by some wannabe-objective reviewer. What felt more valid as a worry was that Stephens had both crashed-in and cashed-in on Everest and its hype, coat-tailing a commercial expedition to acquire overnight kudos as the first British woman up Everest (as if nationality mattered in such a context anyway). Cashing-in is anathema to TAC, so again there was negativity in advance. But offsetting this was simple achievement: bloody hell, this person had been up the biggest hill in the world, and, for all the talk of a tourist route via the Tenzing/Hillary ridge, it's still an amazing thing to have done. There was a sense of anticipation, of presence, of someone having achieved something utterly special, of having nothing else to prove. By the time the lecture started, presence had outweighed prejudice, and this reviewer was glad.
But eighty minutes later, as coffee cups clinked, the doubts came roaring back like a jetstream out of Tibet. Stephens constantly underestimated her audience: a well-heeled genteel set for sure, but heels vibramed and tricounied often enough. We were told what a col was, that Lhotse was a mountain "nobody has ever heard of", that "the only problem with climbing Everest is the lack of oxygen". This might have been okay had it not meshed with a general talking-down of the expedition. There were occasional insights and snippets of information, both logistical and motivational; but, overall, the giggly dumb brunette bit was overdone, as was the impression that she had made it up Everest more by circumstantial accident than by design or willpower. This was surely not the case: Stephens must be a hard-nosed, take-no-shit woman, driven on the hill and in her career, knowing no ceilings, glass or altitudinal; and acknowledging this would have given a way into revealing the ups-and-downs of a ten-week expedition. There were clearly undercurrents and hidden agendas: what of team pressures and dynamics, wiry-but-weary old hands versus cocky newcomers? What of the anomalies and tensions of her journalistic role? (Only passing mention was made of sponsor-unease: that the ultimately successful summit bid could easily have brought both a genuine femme fatale and a bad press.) What of the weird, underexplained dynamic with John Barry? What did she really feel about the day when 38 climbers - but not her - made it to the top: did she really, really want to be part of that misplaced media scrum? And what lingering insecurity causes her, even now, to almost always refer to Everest as "that mountain"?
And so, with the content wavering, the yah-yah accent and the haughty bearing returned to take their toll. The chief load lugged between camps was not oxygen, nor food, but adverbs: everything was terribly, desperately, absurdly. And since she wasn't, really, that good or gripping a speaker, her Sloaneisms became solecisms. It was oddly uninvolving: the one indisputable top-of-the-world fact almost brushed off as a CV add-in, as something to dine out on for a lifetime, as a new silver spoon to wield endlessly on the Home Counties dinner party circuit.
Stephens ought to have nothing to be embarrassed about, to apologise for, yet there was an underlying feeling that her tale will always be more self-efface than South Face. As a consequence, her lack of grounding eventually kicked in: this is someone with no known history of battling through the rain, wind, and sloping bogs of endless Gorms or Coe weekends. Someone from a finishing school in Switzerland, not Sutherland. This in itself could have been fascinating: let's learn more of how to make it to this level - in both senses - from a gin-and-gymkhana background. Yet this was either assumed understood already, or simply ignored. So maybe it is true; maybe commerce has taken over completely; maybe you can buy your way up Everest with the right backers and bankers. But it would have been nice to have been told from the horse's mouth, rather than simply left wondering.
TAC 34 Index