The American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega once described the skyscrapers of Manhattan as having an “irresistible verticality.” The term might well encapsulate the lure of mountains for Tremadog’s Eric Jones, a climber compulsively drawn to heights and challenge and the technical difficulty of constantly hitting peak performance as it were. As the voice-over by Matthew Gravelle to this vertiginous documentary put it “here is a man who has lived his whole life on the edge of danger.” Or the ledge of danger perhaps.
To mark his 82nd birthday – when many people would have been content to suck the icing off the cake with a new set of dentures – Eric decided to return to the limestone tower in the Italian Dolomites which he had solo climbed fifty years ago, looking for the adrenaline super charge and mega-buzz which have proved to be lifelong addictions. It’s a lifetime of chasing that mental rush, compounded with a rare sense of satisfaction over which the octagenarian climber can look back philosophically – ‘Doing a solo climb – no matter what problems you have in your life at the time – nothing else matters.’
Given his high-octane, endorphine-charged lifestyle, Eric Jones, this “ageing Action Man” as the programme put it, didn’t even expect to reach a ripe old age. As his friend the climber and cameraman Steve Peake pointed out, there are cemeteries all over the world filled with some of Eric’s fellow mountaineers. And age has changed Eric physically, with a veritable litany of aches and breaks which have resulted in an artifical knee, a fixed pin in his big toe, his crushing both his heels in a paragliding accident and arthritis present throughout his body. It’s a body well past its sell by date. But not sufficiently so to put him off one last gruelling challenge.
Hats off to the production crew at Slam Media for succesfully filling in the health and safety forms, as you’d imagine they’d read like a gauntlet thrown to the insurers, especially the bit about safety equipment. Safety rope? None. Carabiners? None. And a salute too to Steve’s 18 year old step-son Tybalt Peake for accompanying Eric not only on his own first Alpine climb but also for supplying some of the heady, stomach-churning 360 degree shots from his head camera. They made me dizzy just sitting on the sofa, as the mists swirled round the turrets of Italian limestone and you simply didn’t want them to look down.
One of the other side-stories in the documentary concerned the cameramen who had also risked limb and life to film Eric’s extraordinary exploits, such as Leo Dickinson who helped broadcast one of his climbs live on ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ and also followed him during 3 days of constant danger scaling the north face of the Eiger. The switchboard after the programme was jammed not with congratulatory callers but rather ones complaining that Eric wasn’t wearing a safety helmet.
Over the years Leo observed two maxims while filming Eric. One was that he shouldn’t interfere and certainly not ask him to do something twice. More morally challengingly, he vowed that should Eric need rescuing he wasn’t going to be the one to instigate the rescue. Similarly, cameraman Steve Peake proved to be a supremely articulate interviewee: his view of Eric as a personal hero seems to have grown stronger rather than diminish over the long years of their friendship.
You’d expect a programme such as this to explain why a man would drive himself so determinedly, seeking danger on the back of fast motor-bikes and through base jumping or Himalayan hot air ballooning. The need for thrill, it seems, derives from the shock of losing a young friend, 33 year old Gordon Rees to cancer and the realisation that life was not a rehearsal.
The programme didn’t shy away from the fact that much of Eric Jones’ adventuring has been at the expense of his family, not least his Australian wife Anne, who was often left to look after the children, even as she worried about her husband’s latest high venture. Anne and Eric’s daughters Rebecca and Keira were never less than thoroughly candid about life lived without him as he skydived in Venezuela’s Angel Falls or went climbing in a daredevil way that tested both mental sinew and physical stamina, following what are for him “vertical footpaths” up the mountain-sides.
TV commissioners love a lot of “jeopardy” in a programme and this one had it in spades, not least the eponymous final climb which was on one occasion delayed by a storm and this after Eric and his friend Steve Peake had driven 1000 miles across six countries in three days to get to the Italian mountains. A year later they returned to make another attempt, out of season, well away from the holiday hordes of climbers.
A practise climb goes well but then the weather closes in, giving them only a half-a-day window the following day. Eric, thought of as “invincible” by his friend Steve, shows signs of a certain vulnerability following a sleepless night’s pondering of the challenges ahead. Luckily he calls off his solo climb and hightails it out of there before regret or second- thoughts creep in. With that Eric reconciles himself to being a good grandfather and enjoying seeing the wee children grow up. The shots of him quietly wheeling a pram add poignancy to the way Eric’s eyes twinkle when he recollects some of his past extreme adventuring.
Even allowing for the relative ease of filming using drones this was a programme in which the makers overcame all sorts of challenges to get the shots, and gave the viewers both exhilaration and explanation in equal measures. Jones himself is a genuine inspiration, a thrill seeker who knows that preparation and mental steel will shine through and get you up and down again safely. Driven, fearless and sure- footed as mountain chamois he is proof that age doesn’t necessarily diminish us, but is itself just another almighty challenge, which men like Eric can tame, much as they do the lofty mountains.
The Last Climb: Eric Jones on BBC Wales is available here.