James Salter: Solo Faces
Vernon Rand (though we do not learn his first name till well over half way through the book) is working as a roofer in California. (A breed of aimless wanderers can be found in California, working as mason’s helpers, carpenters, parking cars. They somehow keep a certain dignity, they are surprisingly unashamed.). He is working in a church roof with Gary, who is being a bit foolhardy and slips. It is Rand who rescues him. Rand was twenty-five or -six. He lived with a Mexican girl, or so they said. He starts a relationship with Louise, a language teacher. She has a twelve year old son called Lane. Rand takes him rock-climbing on Tahquitz Peak. Near the top they meet Jack Cabot, another rock climber and clearly an old friend of Rand. Cabot, it turns out, had been in Europe and had climbed some of the famous peaks: Cima Grande, the Blaitière, the Walker Spur. Cabot urges Rand to go to Chamonix. Rand, we have now become aware, is a serious rock climber or, perhaps, was. He had had a brilliant start and then defected. Something had weakened in him. However, now he has recovered and is ready to start again.
Off he goes to Chamonix, abandoning Louise, as he will abandon other women he meets and has a relationship with. Most of the rest of the book is about his climbing exploits. He initially starts on the less challenging peaks, usually with a companion or two. Rock climbing has changed. Once the province of university men, it had been invaded by the working class who cut their teeth on the rock of Scotland and Wales and then travelled everywhere, suspicious and unfriendly. They came from the blackened cities of England—Manchester, Leeds. To the mountains they brought the same qualities—toughness and courage—that let them survive in the slums. They had no credo, no code. It is often with these men, tough and taciturn, that he climbs. However, as the title of the book tells us, he soon starts making solo climbs. He climbs the Frêney Pillar, a very difficult climb. He had planned to go with his friend, the Englishman, John Bray, but Bray had taken ill, so he goes on his own. One of the problems of climbing in the Alps is that bad weather could suddenly come in, without any warning. This was the cause of many of the accidents and deaths of mountain climbers. Rand is hit by such bad weather. Bray, down below, sees what has happened. When his friend does not turn up after a while, Bray is worried. A helicopter goes looking for him. The next day, weary and dirty, Rand casually walks into the village, having survived the weather by staying on a ledge for a day and a night.
This almost casual approach to danger will come to typify his subsequent mountain climbing, whether on his own or with others. He is a complete loner, living on his own with very little money, occasionally getting odd jobs or sponging off women with whom he has brief relationships. When Cabot turns up, he has no difficult finding him, alone in a tent, as everyone knows the strange loner American. When Cabot proposes climbing the Dru, off the pair of them go. Cabot gets badly hurt but they survive.
He will continue in the same way. He has a relationship, she gets pregnant but he does not want to be a father. Cabot does not ask him to join a climb up the Eiger and he is bitter but continues to climb on his own. When an Italian couple are trapped on the Dru because of bad weather and injury to one of them and other rescuers cannot reach them, it is Rand who leads a team across a difficult route to rescue them. Briefly, he is famous. He hates it.
Rand is a Salter hero, independent, determined, stubborn. He has a succession of relationships, which generally do not last. She’s one of his many wives. He has greater and lesser wives, one of his girlfriends say of another. Another says I want to trust someone. I want to feel something. With you, though, it’s like somehow it goes into empty air. But this book is not really about his relationships with women, even though there are quite a few. It is about his relationships with mountains. He has his failures, both before the books starts but also during the book, but always bounces back. He tries climbs that others dare not and, on several occasions, brings on others who are scared by encouraging them and helping them and getting them to climb peaks they would never have dreamed of climbing with others. It is not always clear whether the challenge is the challenge of the mountain or the challenge of himself.
First published 1979 by Little, Brown