High Ideals

Thu, May 28, 1998, 01:00

Member of the historic Irish Everest expedition, writer Dermot Somers has climbed in several of the world's great mountain ranges including the Alps, the Andes and of course, the Himalayas, and was the first Irish climber to complete the classic Alpine series, the Six Great North Faces, culminating in the Matterhorn and the Eiger. Recently he has become familiar to television viewers through his latest six-part series Bealach O Dheas which followed the highly successful Cuairt Na Cruinne which is about to be shown on RTE.

Writing and presenting John Murray's beautifully filmed programmes for Teilifis na Gaeilge has proved ideal for Somers whose relaxed, thoughtful style is a perfect foil to the majestic landscapes he is moving through. As a writer and author of two collections of short stories, he has taken the opportunity to introduce themes he feels strongly about - such as what he sees as Yeats's failure to engage in the landscape. "It's just something that shimmers in the background of his poetry; he makes no attempt to understand it."

Somers imaginatively explores the music, history and folklore of the areas he visits. The format presents his observations as well as his more personal, often philosophical response to his country.

Although he has done extensive radio broadcasts over the years and was one of the "voices" of the Irish Everest expedition, Somers has a gentle way of putting things in context. In his first series, he had a guest climber to direct his comments to and, of course, the dynamic of the programmes was partly created by the rapport between them. "It's the relationship which develops between two people on a remote adventure," he says. Bealach O Dheas, which plots his walk from Malin Head in Co Donegal to Mizen Head in Co Cork, was a much more exposing experience. "Although the first series put me on top of the Eiger and on top of a 20,000-foot peak in the Himalayas, I felt much more exposed walking down through Ireland because I had nobody to hide behind. The medium of television forces you to say something, it obliges you to say things about yourself that you may not wish to say in public."

Probably the most special aspect of the programmes for him, is doing them through Irish. "I believe that the Irish language and the Irish landscape are the two most important sources of the distinctiveness of being Irish and I think they are the repositories of the fundamental Irish imagination and our sense of ourselves. When the Irish language is applied properly to the landscape I think there is a unique expression of who we are and where we are - and that is the sense of place and experience which is the essence of what we are." This cultural context, he says, is central to what Teilifis na Gaeilge is attempting to achieve. "I was absolutely delighted to work for Teilifis na Gaeilge because of this terrific mission."

All aspects of climbing continue to fascinate him: rock climbing, snow and ice climbing, as well as climbing in the great ranges. Somers is a meticulous, disciplined, though restless, person but he is not obsessive. "The people with whom I have climbed, people like Dawson Stelfox and Robbie Fenlon, have been the main spring of my climbing; they've always been much younger - and much better - than me. The difficulty about growing older is that it becomes harder, and finally impossible, to keep up with younger climbers. All the people I want to be when I grow up are now younger than me." Having reached 50 last Christmas, he is lean and weathered and admits to now being aware of his age and doesn't like growing older. Part of the process is the legacy of injuries: "I'm riddled with tendonitis in my elbows and legs; it's like woodworm."

Climbing is about more than fitness; skill is a major factor. "I wouldn't regard myself as a particularly outstanding technical climber," he says, nevertheless he has had a solid impact in every area of climbing. Persistence, determination and his preference for a roving lifestyle have also helped. "I used to spend months in the Alps because it was the place that I functioned best as a climber."

What makes a good climber? "Patience, persistence and determination and maybe a sense of black humour as well as cunning." Stressing that climbing is not all about reaching summits, he reiterates a point he has made many times, including in his Everest journal: "You never conquer a mountain: mountains are indomitable and can absorb you like a snowflake . . . Instead, you conquer your own weaknesses and fears, you come to terms with luck and the weather, you build yourself into the strongest, most durable snowflake you can be, and with enough willpower you may reach that summit where the real world comes to a final point and you can go down into life again, fulfilled."

Hill walking has become a hugely popularly recreational pursuit, while rock climbing is now widely accepted as a sport by the general public. Mountaineering remains a mystery for many non-climbers. Some find it difficult to understand why people risk their lives. "Climbing is at one and the same time vitally important and absolutely useless," he says. "There is a comic tension between those two extremes and you always have to be able to laugh at the joke or you will become obsessive." For all his opinions, he is neither obsessive nor campaigning. If anyone has ever personified the idea of abiding by a live-and-let-live policy, it is Somers.

Forced off Manaslu in 1991 by bad weather, he recalls "we had invested everything in that expedition but I remember laughing as we came down. We had huddled in a high camp for five days and we had put everything into it - our determination, persistence, hope, every ounce of our existence." It had been planned as part of the build up to the Everest expedition. At just over 20,000 feet, it was all over. The climbers knew it was time to abandon the attempt. "The weather just brushed us aside like debris. A cosmic irony," he announces, adding, "the same thing happened on Changtse in 1987."

It is Saturday morning and Somers leads the way to his home in Co Wicklow. Up past the Devil's Glen, the road takes a gradual climb. Houses become scarcer and the landscape opens up. On arriving at the house he built himself, he seems slightly disappointed. The haze is concealing the extent of the views but it is just about possible to make out Djouce mountain. The Sugar Loaf is more assertive. The birch and oak trees he planted are doing well. Built about 10 years ago, the house which sits into a hollow carved out of the land, was designed by Somer's friend and fellow climber, Dawson Stelfox, the first Irish man to stand on Mount Everest. An Oisin Kelly stone raven overlooks the large, uncluttered living room from a large perch at the top of the steep ladder-stairs. The black trilby Somers wears on his walk down Ireland in Bealach O Dheas waits on a chair.

Photographs dominate the walls of the high-ceilinged house, many of them views of mountains. There is also a sepia photograph of aviator Amelia Earhardt. Somers's wife, Maeve MacPherson - an orienteer and also a flyer - is the deputy director of the National Adventure Centre at Tiglin. Somers bought the picture of the pioneering aviator for Maeve when he was in San Francisco. Flying over Ireland has added a new dimension to his understanding and appreciation of his landscape.

Climbing literature and fiction battle for space on the book shelves. As expected, Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard is one of his literary heroes, as is Cormac McCarthy: "I admire both of them for their tremendous realism, style and philosophy." Doris Lessing is another and a framed photograph of her hangs on the wall in his office.

Having recently completed a binge-reading of J.G. Ballard's fiction, Somers casually mentions, "I just can't bring myself" to liking John Updike. "I can't relate to fiction that depicts a decaying urban society." The remark is typical of his precise but relaxed conversation; literature plays a large part. He mentions Patrick White's Voss as "a great expedition book", pauses for a moments and adds, George Steiner's The Portage Of A.H. To San Christabel. "The two finest expedition books I know and neither has anything to do with climbing." Somers doesn't speak about his adventures; he mentions the places, the people who live in them and their respective cultures.

Outside a cuckoo is intent on being heard. Somers mentions Tim Robinson and praises his contribution: "What I like about him most is that he is an extraordinarily fine writer and he has used this to evoke qualities of the Irish landscape that include everything from geography, geology, archaeology, culture, place-names, habitation - all done in beautifully evocative language. He has also tried to re-instate the memory of the earlier generations who have lived in these places as well as recovering the cultural layers."

Off the loft room is a large attic and across the gable wall is a long poster featuring the Himalayan range. Diving gear shares the floor space with climbing equipment. Diving was an earlier love, until it became repetitive. He did not begin climbing until he was 27. Everything in the house is related to their interests and outdoor pursuits; nothing is superfluous.

Also in the attic are skis and two pairs of crutches - "they belonged to injured climbers who came here and were cured," he says. Throughout his career, he has never had an accident. There are no falls to report; the injuries he now suffers are the result of wear and tear. Born in Co Roscommon, in the middle bit "where no one passes through unless they are actually going there", Somers is one of five children. His parents were both national school teachers and his father still lives in Dublin. Mary, his mother, died a long time ago. The family had moved to Glasnevin, Dublin, when Dermot was about 12 and he attended Colaiste Mhuire in Parnell Square. He says he didn't like school. As a boy he ran cross-country as well as some middle distance on the track. "I've always loved running," he says, "but not competitively, not in any organised way." Hill running was one of his great pleasures, the freedom of it. Somers is an interesting combination of intensity and calm. He has views and opinions but he never harangues. As a former long-serving executive member of the Mountaineering Council of Ireland, he also served as the council's environmental officer. It is a voluntary post and his tenure culminated in the controversies surrounding the interpretative centres, planned for Luggala in Co Wicklow and Mullaghmore in the Burren. He decided he would retire from the job, only when the Luggala centre had been defeated. The opposition campaign was successful.

Naturally he fears for the environment and refers to the need to preserve Ireland's limited upland areas. Only five per cent of this country is over 1,000 feet. Interestingly, he makes the distinction between using the landscape as opposed to abusing it. His attitude towards the landscape is impressively egalitarian.

On leaving school he studied Irish, English and French at University College Dublin. As the son of teachers, he duly completed a H.Dip and taught briefly. "But that is only a dim and distant memory. I didn't see the point of teaching for me. I didn't like school as a boy and I didn't want to be in one as an adult." For him, life is about fragmentary experiences: "We live in stages; I'm not interested in continuity. I don't think it is that important." While a student he had begun working in the building trade in England, block laying, brick laying, stone work and carpentry. "Don't make too many claims for my skills. I'm a cowboy, you learn how to do these things. It's like being in the countryside and knowing how to handle animals."

The UCD of his day was "very free and easy. I came and went," he says matter of factly. There is nothing arrogant or dismissive about it. Somers never attempts to create a personal mythology for himself.

Building was to become very important to him: "I love music, building and language," he says. Regarded as a good sean nos singer, Somers also played classical guitar, "but not so much now" and has written a fine story about singing, The Singer. Cinema is another passion. "I believe it is the art form of the 20th century." He mentions his favourite movie, Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt By The Sun (1993). There is no television in the house. "I've never had one," he says neutrally, "at its worst I think it represents the lowest common denominator."

Looking back on his early years, he mentions the way life was in the 1960s: "We all had hair down to our waists, went around looking for a purpose and read Herman Hesse". Writing has always been his life. His two collections of short stories Mountains And Other Ghosts (London; 1990) and At The Rising Of The Moon (London, Cork; 1994) were well reviewed by mainstream as well as specialist climbing publications. Somers accepts that as a climber, his work does tend to be seen as genre-based although its range is so wide. Somers the writer looks as much towards the specifically American nature and philosophical vision of Matthiessen as he does towards his own Irish tradition. His fiction is concerned with action, movement, relationships and situation, often, but not always, in an Irish setting. Currently at work on a long novel about stone, he speaks of the many distractions. For all his love of climbing, Somers sees himself as a writer who climbs rather than a climber who writes. There has always been the tension between his desire to write and his inherent restlessness. "I love adventure, I always have. I need excitement." Climbing literature can draw on the sport as a metaphor for a dramatic existence.

He knows his country well and for him the most remarkable place is the Skellig Michael. "It is the most dramatic structure in Western Europe. In fact, the only places in the world which can compare with it are the high Buddhist monasteries in Tibet."

Asked to describe the excitement of being on top of a mountain he says: "It's not really being on top of the mountain, it's being in a remote mountain area away from the banality of ordinary existence and you are caught up in an adventure and you are stretching yourself to the limit - which is important and totally absurd." Despite his restlessness, his slightly haunted expression, he is happy and says of his life now, "my existence really started when I moved into my present framework".