IN The Breach Rob Taylor levels the most serious
charge ever brought in print by one American mountain climber against another. In January 1978 Taylor and "Harley Warner"--the name is an alias-- were trying a new ice climb high on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro is little more than a walk-up by the tourist route, but Taylor and his partner were in a remote and serious area called the Breach Wall on the opposite side of the mountain.
On the first 20 feet of the first pitch, Taylor's handhold broke loose and he fell, badly fracturing his left ankle. During a long and exhausting day, "Warner" helped get Taylor down to a bivouac site at 16,000 feet. Promising to return as soon as possible with a rescue team, "Warner" set off for the Horombo Hut, only six hours away. Instead, Taylor asserts, his partner abandoned both Kilimanjaro and Africa, leaving his crippled companion, if not exactly to die, at least to depend on the chancy help of an undermanned rescue effort in which he, "Warner," took no part.
"Harley Warner" is in fact Henry Barber, an American still in his twenties whose meteoric rise to fame became a worldwide legend in climbing circles in the early 1970s. On the strength of numerous extreme routes ranging from Australia to Yosemite to the British Isles, Barber was widely acknowledged by 1975 to be the best pure rock climber on earth. In the course of acquiring such a reputation, he also managed to alienate a number of acquaintances with his cool competitive arrogance.
Taylor, on the other hand, became a strong but by no means stellar mountaineer whose forte was ice and snow. With Barber he accomplished a long ice route in Norway that was perhaps his finest climb. By the time the pair had decided to go to Africa together they were good friends. Yet, if Taylor's account is to be trusted, the weeks before the accident were marred by frequent bickering and acrimony.
They bickered, according to Taylor, all the way through the jungle, up past tree line, and onto Kilimanjaro's lower flanks. The author sets up "Harley" to seem wildly reckless and enthusiastic, in contrast with Taylor's own sober respect for mountain hazards. In view of subsequent events, the lay reader is seduced into accepting this simplistic version of the duo's differences. But climbers are more likely to conclude that Taylor was simply "psyched-out" --i.e. not ready for a hard climb and thus casting about for excuses to back off.
Barber, Taylor indicates, said as much at the base of the climb. "Ya know, Rob, this trip has shown me a different side of you, one I have no respect for. You used to be a great ice climber, but you've lost your nerve. You don't belong in this occupation." Apparently goaded to prove himself, Taylor immediately started the climb, fell, and suffered a compound fracture of his ankle.
The details of the author's indictment from this point on must be spelled out. At first, Taylor claims, Barber wanted to finish the climb anyway, dragging the injured climber up like so much baggage. Though he performed brilliantly to get Taylor down to the bivouac site, Barber swore at him to "cut that chickenshit whining right now or I'm gonna cut the goddamn rope and leave you up here."
On going to get help, Taylor recalls, Barber packed up all his personal gear --a possibly telltale indication of his intentions, for most men planning to return with a rescue team would go as light as possible. By his own admission, Barber ran not to the nearby Horombo Hut but all the way out to the park gate, more than 30 hours away. There he told Norwegian mountaineer Odd Eliassen about Taylor's plight, and shortly after left Africa for business commitments in the United States.
Eliassen--the real hero of the book --pulled off a phenomenal rescue with five sometimes recalcitrant native park rangers. Besides waiting for days in hallucinatory confusion, Taylor underwent a wrenching carry down the mountain and a nightmare of infection and surgery. He frequently expected to lose his foot and more than once confronted death. Today he is partially recovered, but has a bad limp and will probably never do hard climbs again.
Most damaging of all is Taylor's assertion that Barber, back in the States while Taylor was still in an African hospital, visited Taylor's parents, to whom he pretended that he had participated in the rescue and maintained a bedside vigil at the hospital. He also, Taylor insists, bragged shamelessly about his own skill in getting Taylor down to the bivouac site and gloated that he would probably get four times his usual lecture fee for a Kilimanjaro slide show.
Those who know Barber doubt that he will publicly refute Taylor's assault. His attitude to date has been that the controversy is beneath him, and he claims not to have read the article (a much tamer and less specific version of the current book) which Taylor published in the jounal Climbing in July-August 1979. The substance of Barber's defense is that he avoided the Horombo Hut for fear of a leopard suspected to be in the vicinity (he had earlier thought he had seen one, and was terrified of the animal), and that he could barely walk by the time he reached the park gate and so would have been useless on the rescue. He did admit that leaving Africa had been a mistake, but one which he claims Taylor himself sanctioned.
Especially in view of the new charges about lying to Taylor's parents, that defense is simply inadequate. Many climbers, especially of an older generation, will view the whole controversy as an unseemly mess that should never have reached the public eye. Most readers will regret Taylor's grandiose effort to use the controversy as a launching pad for a (wholly inarticulate) autobiography, and even his sympathizers will have trouble believing that his experience led him to a "conquest of self" (the subtitle alludes to an aphorism of Mallory's). But Taylor's pain, and the pus and stench of his infection, as well as the tragic loss of the graceful freedom that had made him a climber, are vividly evoked. It may be decades before Henry Barber speaks for himself in the aftermath of this sorry episode. Until then, the interested will continue to wonder what he has to say.