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Structured Chaos: Victor Saunders

Structured Chaos is a new climbing memoir included in our London Mountain Film Festival Book Curation. You can see the full selection of films and books HERE

We also recorded an interview with Victor and climbing partner Mick Fowler, which will also be available within the festival - don't miss their conversation!

LMFF Virtual begins this Saturday, 15th May 2021, at 6:00pm: GET YOUR PASS


Book Review by Sam Huby

The phrase ‘structured chaos’ was first coined as the subtitle of a mediocre 90's business handbook written by a McKinsey management consultant, which was boneheaded enough to use a photograph of a rock climber as its cover illustration. This more readable work is the latest volume of memoirs from one of the world’s leading mountaineers. To quote the opening paragraph:

“Mountains have given structure to my adult life. I suppose they have also given me purpose, though I still can’t guess what that purpose might be. And although I have glimpsed the view from the mountaintop and I still have some memory of what direction life is meant to be going in, I usually lose sight of the wood the for the trees. In other words, I, like most of us, have lived a life of structured chaos.”

While, as you’d expect, it contains accounts of Alpine and Himalayan exploits at least equal to any of those in its predecessors, this a more wide-ranging and contemplative work.

The early part of the book gives accounts of an early childhood in colonial Malaysia, education at a bleak Scottish boarding school (Gordonstoun, although it’s not mentioned by name - Saunders was a contemporary of Prince Charles and, according to other accounts, was once upbraided by HRH for riding his bicycle across the school forecourt), and working a lengthy passage home from Japan as an ‘oily rag’ in the engine room of a freezer ship. The adventurous and ever-seeking character in these early episodes foreshadows the emergence of one of the leading lights of world mountaineering in more recent years.

Saunders’ progress from a haphazard introduction to rock climbing in the Avon Gorge to the lofty heights of the Karakoram and the presidency of the Alpine Club (although of course he’s too modest to mention the latter) is covered by stories of ascents - and failures - on Kent Sandstone, London brickwork, Scottish ice, the Eiger Nordwand and virgin Himalayan peaks.

The rigours, terrors, tragedies and elations of high altitude climbing are leavened by a thread of understated-but-appealing lunacy running through the book. One notable instance is a brutal boxing match in a terrifying East End pub with his friend and climbing partner Mick Fowler (Fowler, the victor, gives another perspective on the bout in his recent book No Easy Way).


Another, the establishment of the longest continuous traverse in the British Isles; the 33 pitches of vertical mud and crumbling sandstone that is Reasons to be Fearful, a project described at the time by co-ascentionist Phil Thornhill as “probably the silliest route on the silliest cliff ever climbed”. This includes the most amusing of many encounters with representatives of various law enforcement agencies when a hungover Thornhill and Saunders, having fallen asleep for a couple of hours on their respective stances, descend to encounter a rescue party searching for two “unconscious” climbers reported dangling halfway up the cliff.

On a bigger scale, there are several gripping accounts of ascents in the greater ranges. Saunders has reached the summit of Everest no less than six times and has made many significant ascents in the Himalayas, Antarctica, the Andes, North America and the Caucasus - so the book is necessarily something of a 'selected highlights'. Although the selection features some big names like K2 and Nanga Parbat, it’s clear that the author’s real enthusiasm is for the kind of exploratory mountaineering that doesn’t feature in record books and rarely makes mainstream headlines. This is exemplified by the final chapter describing the ascent of Sersank Peak with Mick Fowler 30 years after their last climb together - the previously unclimbed Golden Pillar of Spantik.

Even in the age of the internet and Google Earth, some mountains remain elusive. Sersank goes by several names, and a previous Japanese expedition was told by the authorities that they had permission to climb the mountain if they could find it, because it did not exist. The pair’s successful ascent via the vertiginous north face is an impressive achievement in itself made doubly so by the fact that at the time - 2016 - both men were in their sixties. Undeterred by age or infirmity, they apparently have further plans for 2021.


Despite his impressive record, this isn’t really a book about achievements. The focus is very much on the personalities, friendships and occasional frictions experienced during the ‘unusual life of a climber’. As he says in the Prelude, “It is not the mountains but the friendships that have remained with me”. The chapter ‘Guiding Lights’ is a collection of vignettes of personalities in Saunders’ life. Climbers feature heavily of course, but it is the section on his father George, a remarkable man in his own right it seems, which sheds perhaps the most illuminating, if oblique, light on what it is that drives young men (although not only men, and not only the young) towards danger and hardship in the mountains and elsewhere. Although the author is too reticent, or perhaps too British, to make much of it, the book touches lightly but quite often on wider issues of risk and responsibility, family and friendship, love, art, architecture; indeed the ‘structured chaos’ of life.

Ultimately, though, the lasting impression is of the author’s infectious enthusiasm for the landscapes and the people he encounters as he pursues the obscure ambitions of the exploratory mountaineer. The book opens and closes with a quote from Colin Kirkus: "Going to the right place, at the right time, with the right people is all that really matters. What one does is purely incidental."

Whether he’s drunk at a North London party, dealing with Indian bureaucracy, or being blown inside a tent across a glacier by a huge avalanche, it’s this world view which makes Saunders’ book such an engaging read.

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