Yorkshire grit – as opposed to Yorkshire gritstone – is a phrase that can leave me a little wary. It’s not a grit that forms many pearls, being instead the kind of irritant favoured by professional Yorkshiremen who no longer live anywhere near the place; think Eric Pickles, or Geoffrey Boycott.
Alan Hinkes, on the other hand, seems to be the real deal, being North Allerton born and bred, and still there. His mountaineering claim to fame is to have kept going year after year in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, being cautious when necessary and toughing it out when conditions turned bad. He exhibits those qualities most admired in Yorkshire: common sense, dogged perseverance and plain speaking.
It would be unfair to judge this book in the context of what Alan Hinkes’ career isn’t. Unlike, say, Chris Bonington or Doug Scott, two of our most successful high-altitude climbers with a high profile, there is little innovation here. He mostly climbs established routes and mostly climbs either alone or with a Sherpa companion, focussing on his own efforts rather than those of a team or partner.
This has left him a little on the periphery of the hard-core climbing world, where innovation, technical difficulty and style are the most important criteria. Yet the epic nature of his long journey – the 27 expeditions to 8,000-metre peaks spread over eighteen years – and his obvious passion for the mountains has earned him a different constituency.
He says in the course of this book that if you cut him in half, it would say ‘mountain climber’ in the middle. It may not sound hifalutin or soulful, but his enthusiasm and inclusiveness is a nice change from the elitist indifference many top climbers exhibit. To his credit, he’s able to talk to ordinary people who love the hills, rather than make them feel he’s doing them a favour.
The prose is functional and whisks us through his various expeditions in an occasionally perfunctory manner. (Although Reinhold Messner’s cursory autobiography makes Hinkes seem effusive.) He doesn’t delve too deeply into his psychology or that of anyone else. His encounter with Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995 is skimmed over very gently. This narrative is punctuated with text boxes about different boxes; one or two seem rather banal – tea versus coffee? – but others are quite revealing, especially on how Polish legends like Jerzy Kukuczka influenced him.
Matters of personal controversy are skipped around as though they don’t exist. Yet in some corners of the world Hinkes’ claim to have climbed all fourteen 8,000ers isn’t recognised. This dates back to his ascent of Cho Oyu, whose summit is difficult to locate in poor weather, like finding the trig point on Kinder Scout, only without being able to breathe – and without the trig point.
At the time, according to Liz Hawley, Hinkes was uncertain about whether he reached the top. Hinkes now says he did, and spent an hour and a half looking for it until he was satisfied. It seems churlish to discount his record on this basis. As a guide working on 8,000-metre peaks told me recently: ‘He could do Cho Oyu when he’s 70.’
The appeal of the book lies in the images; he’s an assiduous photographer, at some personal risk to his fingers, and there are plenty of unusual and beautiful images to hold your attention. He’s seen it all from every angle, after all. The book works best as a compendium of these colossal monsters, the tick-list to rule them all, the obsessive’s Mordor.
It’s ultimately rather moving, watching this man go out again and again, seeing the picture of his daughter he carries to each summit change from that of a girl, to a young woman and then a mother, as the once young Hinkes, now with less hair, now a grandfather, keeps on keeping on. Now that’s true grit.