- Ben Silvestre is a lesser known star of British climbing, quietly amassing an exceptional list of bold and committing routes in Scotland, the Alps, Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalaya. In this brutally honest piece of writing he reveals the battles with his mental health that have led him from the darkest points imaginable to some of the most remarkable corners of the world and the relationships that are formed there.
Words by Ben Silvestre
I recently watched the Line Across the Sky movie, in which Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell traverse Fitzroy and it’s satellite peaks. The scale of this achievement is rather difficult to wrap one’s head around. I find it especially challenging to do so, since I spent the same weather window struggling up Fitzroy’s North Pillar, via the excellent Mate, Porro route. Our climb took an enormous amount of effort, but the reality is that Pete and I traversed Fitzroy in the same amount of time that Alex and Tommy traversed the entire range. For me, this provides a heavy dose of context to their achievement, which only makes it harder to comprehend the effort involved in their climb.
In February, five years after our first visit, Pete and I will return to Patagonia. I’m looking forward to this a lot, but I’ve had my reservations about going back there. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the weather in Patagonia is terrible, which means the likelihood of climbing anything on a five week trip is pretty slim. But the weather alone isn’t enough to put me off, something about the gamble appeals to me. During our last visit, an ascent of Exocet on Cerro Standhart, sneaked into a marginal window, was extremely rewarding—more rewarding in some ways than climbing a new route in India last year, during a fortnight of high pressure.
The reward one finds in the process of overcoming adversity is always relative to the chance of success. In other words, there is much to gain by succeeding where failure was all but guaranteed, and the opposite is just as true. Of course, too much uncertainty can be so daunting as to paralyse, but none at all can be equally problematic. Life is characterised by change, and over the years I have come to the conclusion that certainty is a sort of death — the movement of life stops when I think I have all the answers.
So the doubt induced by the weather in Patagonia adds something important to the mix, it gives it a flavour which brings the climbing to life. Of course, getting any weather at all is a matter of luck. We were lucky on our ascent of Exocet, but it was also a culmination of sound decision making; proof that our partnership, still in its infancy, was working. The fact that our partnership has only matured since then, leaves me confident that we will make the most of any weather windows. So the problem with the weather doesn’t cause me too much trouble.
The real issue I have with climbing somewhere as busy as the Fitzroy range, is that I much prefer the experience of being alone in a wilderness, rather than sharing it with masses of other climbers. For me, one of the main attractions of the mountains is the sense of space achieved just by being there, and that sense of space is compromised somewhat by crowds. Even the mere knowledge that there is another team on the glacier changes the experience of being in the mountains dramatically. The remotest possibility of a rescue eases the mind games, and having someone other than your partner to talk to—before or after an attempt—affects the experience of being totally reliant on one another.
For this reason alone, I am not particularly attracted to climbing in the European hotspots. Which isn’t to say that the Alps can’t provide wonderful experiences, some of the days I’ve spent in those mountains are seared into my memory. But my point is this — I’ve climbed a handful of routes around Chamonix, and one of the best experiences I’ve had there was climbing the Colton-Brooks on the Droites, in poor conditions, a couple of Octobers ago.
The lifts were closed, and we had the mountains to ourselves; in fact, we didn’t see a single person after passing the Grands Montets mid-station, until we reached the Couvercle hut on the way down. Scratching our way up black ice was painstakingly hard work, arguably much less fun than waiting for perfect conditions, but it was worth it to feel an overpowering solitude on what can be a surprisingly crowded face.
So why am I going back to Patagonia?
Well, for a start, the jagged mountains that dominate the El Chalten skyline are amongst the most beautiful and compelling anywhere on earth. I struggle to imagine a climber who isn’t in some way inspired by a photo of Cerro Torre, even if the only feeling it inspires is fear. Certainly, fear is one of the strongest feelings that I experience when toying with the idea of climbing it. But the desire to overcome that fear—to face the challenge it proposes, and to integrate a relationship with that challenge into my personality—is one that has a lot of sway in my decision making. Facing those sorts of emotions without undue reservation is one of the biggest things that climbing has given me.
And whilst a trip to El Chalten feels more like a visit to Chamonix than a real expedition, the tension one feels when lenticular clouds begin to form ominously on the back of unexpected gusts of wind, gives the climbing a seriousness to contend with any. There is certainly an aspect of climbing in that range which defies the simplicity of getting there.
That simplicity is in itself another reason for my return. Organising our trip to India last Autumn, and then digging myself out of the financial hole that the expedition put me in, was a draining experience. Climbing in Patagonia is cheap, and El Chalten in particular requires little planning, which renders a holiday feeling to what is otherwise a quite serious trip.
Currently, a mountain holiday—with all the steak and ice cream that go along with it—is all I can find the energy for.
But these reasons hardly touch the surface of my motivation to return to El Chalten. Indeed, if I have no energy for the type of expedition that I truly revel in, then why bother at all?
Well, the climbing itself is only a part of the story.
When I say that five years have passed since our first visit, I have to check that the number is right, by counting the years on my fingers. I’ve changed a great deal since that trip, changed in ways that make it hard for me to recognise the boy who walked off the plane in Buenos Aires. It was a different person who flew back two months later.
To understand why, it helps to know what led me there.
The years before that trip were characterised by a loss of hope, which culminated in the black pit of depression. Such times are often the product of a pervasive impermanence—they are defined by uncertainty, and this period was no different. Things that once had value to me suddenly seemed pointless, and I became stuck in my room, unable to find a reason to interact with the world.
Instead of doing something about it, I ignored the pain that my isolation caused me, and hid beneath a chemical haze, my thoughts veiled by clouds of smoke. I pretended to know who I was, and acted like the problems in my life were anyone’s fault but mine. Afraid that the world might show me otherwise, I avoided taking any risks, and in the stasis that this afforded me I ceased to live. But my life went on without me, and the hatred I felt when catching my reflection, only pushed me further into the abyss.
Climbing, with the community that surrounds it, provided an alternative to the dark road I was headed down. Almost overnight, I abandoned my life in Manchester, and moved to Sheffield. Self destructive tendencies were replaced with a reckless approach to climbing, and in the first years I came closer to my end that I probably should have done. But in the space below my feet, as I hung ropeless from wind torn outcrops, I discovered a desire to continue living. I was coaxed back from the edge slowly, carried back into the world of men by my new friends, who realised that if I couldn’t be stopped, I had to be taught.
When Pete asked me to go to Patagonia with him, he endowed in me a sense of trust, which at the time felt distinctly alien. Not only was he willing to look after me, but he was willing for me to look after him, and this caused a profound shift in my self perception. Perhaps if he could trust in me, then I could trust in myself. I accepted his offer, and we spent some time climbing in the Alps together, as necessary training for what was to come. In the late autumn, we travelled to the USA, to gain valuable experience on the granite walls of Yosemite. And then, equipped with the skills to haul our bodies up some weather beaten spires, we flew down to Argentina.
In the darkest years of my depression, I tried to convince myself that I needed no one. That I was a lone wolf, stronger for my stoicism—certainly that no one could help me. And I didn’t want them to, I wanted to prove to the world that I alone was capable of making something out of myself. I had that sort of pride which tends to stare at a man from the bottom of a bottle, and all too often I stared right back at it. But spending a night freezing on an inadequate sloping shelf, with half a mountain above you and nothing but air below, makes you damned grateful for the person by your side. When you leave that ledge the following morning, numb fingers barely managing to grip your axes whilst they rip through rotten ice, you are glad that someone is there to hold your ropes. You are not afraid to ask them for help, if you need it.
For reasons I can’t explain, I was unable to ask for help for many years. An inability to confer my feelings to people was made worse by the fact that I often feel ill at ease in larger groups, and struggle to connect with people under those circumstances. Alpinism, especially in remote areas, provides an escape from the anxiety that I tend to feel in social situations, and allows for the type of bonding that I prefer. In addition, it places a strain on the relationship, which requires discussion if it is to function properly. When Pete and I went to the Revelation mountain range in Alaska, the year after we went to Patagonia, we spent three weeks solely in each other’s company, without seeing another face. Close to a hundred miles from civilisation, the solitude was shocking. But we succeeded because we were able to communicate well, to take calculated risks, and to rely on each other when things got tough.
At my lowest point, I thought that there was no place for me in the world, that I was a stranger to humanity. But alpinism showed me that there are people out there who might need me to look after them, and furthermore it showed me that I need people to look after me. It also showed me that if I wanted to be happy, there were changes that I could make in my attitude towards the world. Changes that I could make in the way I lived. It did this by giving me a reason to embrace uncertainty, instead of hiding from it. If I could accept the difficulty and risk involved when climbing mountains, I could accept that a similar attitude towards struggle in ordinary life might also provide positive outcomes. In doing so, I came back to life. The death of certainty ended. My life gained movement.
It is perhaps no small coincidence that on my return from Patagonia, with this realisation fresh in mind, I met the woman whom I would later marry. My relationships with people began to be characterised by connection again, rather than distance. I stopped being afraid of what I might lose, if only I gained something.
In Patagonia, I caught my first glimpse of the truth embedded in a metaphor so old that it has become something of a cliché. But clichés are such for a reason. Climbing a mountain, whether that be a mountain of the mind or otherwise, is an experience that seems to characterise life itself. Stood at the bottom, there is nothing but chaos. Dawn is coming, but the world is submerged in a shadow so huge that whatever casts it demands to be broken into pieces, before it can be surmounted. The initial slopes often feel like the hardest, the desire to turn around
But you continue despite the noise, you struggle upwards, because you believe that there is a light which lives on the other side. And then in the final metres, as you reach the summit and look down at the way you came, you laugh at the manner in which you doubted yourself. The weight that you carried in your chest is released, and you shed a tear, drawing in deep breaths that seem to be made of something purer than what lay below. You stay there a while, and there is a part of you which mourns the impending loss of this feeling. But then you realise that the moment would mean nothing if it wasn’t the culmination of what had brought you here. And so you begin the long journey down, and when you are in the valley again—in the shadows—you look upwards into the sky, and noticing another peak, more lofty even than the one you just visited, you wonder if you can get there.
The undulating cycle of life continues.
In Patagonia, I realised that I could not at the same time live my life honestly, and separate it entirely from struggle. I realised that there would always be mountains to climb, but also that I had to choose to climb them. That in retreating from the initial slopes, they held me forever captive in their shadow.
By embracing the challenge presented by uncertainty, I embarked on a journey—a journey which turned out to be indistinguishable from life itself. Nowadays, it feels like I’m looking down at the person I used to be from a distant summit, but I know that there will be times when I’m looking up at the person I am now, from a darkened valley. It is important for me to know where I came from, because this reminds me that happiness, or life even, is not a place to arrive at, but a road to be travelled. It reminds me that the same road will present many twists and turns before I am done with it.
With this in mind, I have decided to make a return trip to Patagonia. Hopefully, we shall have the opportunity to do some climbing—the opportunity to take our chances in the face of great uncertainty, and find life hiding somewhere between the cracks. But more important than that, is the desire to complete a cycle which I started half a decade ago. To peer into the darkness that hides in my soul—to wade through memories half forgotten.
To remember who I was, and to be reminded of what I might yet become.