Book Review: Echoes by Nick Bullock

In 1971 Standford University attempted to run an prison experiement into what happens when you put good people in an Evil Place. The experiment took a group of 24 students from an initial batch of 70 applicants, all of which score normal on a barrage of tests. At the flip of a coin each was assigned into one of two groups. Either a prison guard or a prisoner, in the end they only used 9 from each group anticipating they might need to replace some people.

One day real city police officers turned up and arrested the 9 prisoners and brought them to a corridor in the basement of Standford University which had been turned into a prison. The experiement was meant to last two weeks but only on the first morning the prisoners barracaded themselves into their cells and began to verbally abuse the prison guards, the guards responded by using a CO2 fire extinguiser and forced their way into the cells where they then stripped the inmates naked putting the ringleaders into solitary confinement a 1ft by 2 ft room darkened room. They also took the people least complicit in the rebellion and gave them special priveledges.

Less than 36 hours into the experiement one of the inmates suffered acute emotional disturbances. Within 6 days three of the inmates had psychological breakdowns, the scientist running the study had crossed into his role of prison superintendant and only after reviewing some behaviour by the guards at night when they thought they were being watched and another scientist describing the behaviour as immoral (some of the abuse bordered on what has notably happened in Abu Ghraib in Iraq), did he eventually stop the experiment after days into a plans 14 day run.

The experiement unearthed what it can feel like to be a prisoner, and also what behaviours are inappropriate as a prison officer. As a scientist I find the study fanscinating, as this along with Milgram Experiments into what people will do when it is believed they have permission from a high power.

What this has to do with Nick Bullocks new book Echoes is interesting as whilst it is a book about climbing, it is also about much more besides. One thing that that experiment showed was what happened to the prisoners, and very little emphasis was place on the effect on the prison guards.

However as Nick served as a Prison Officer for some 15 year, in his book he spends half the time reflecting on just what that has meant to him. Whilst there are no scientific reflection to argue the case of those effects, instead we are just hit repeatedly with the raw emotions of what it is like to quite literally fight for survival both on the rocks and in a prison. Both of which require great feats of mental toughness.

At times you feel that that Nick truly feels guilty for what at times are quite violent acts of control over an inmate. But faced with a daily cycle of intimidation and violence both towards the guards and fellow prisoners you are left with the overwhlming conclusion that it was a neccessary evil. As such there are times in the book where you sense Nick’s total disillusionment with his lot.

At this point he discovers rock climbing and a duplicitous world, where on the one hand he too is serving a prison sentence, one that anyone stuck in the 9 to 5 grind of working to pay the bills can feel, versus the freedom of climbing. The book charts his own bid to a world free of commitment to a place where he is the master of his own destiny. A destiny that lead him to attempt, fail and occassionally succeed on more routes than you can possibly dream of. Although I am reminded of John Middendorf’s words about the best routes being the ones that you give 110% only to fail just below the summit, as only then do you truly know you have given it your all.

His dedication and unwaivering enthusiasm to climbing shine from the pages as you are transported from one of his worlds to the other as abruptly as he was. It is an emotionally challenging book but one that eventually leads to an ending that in itselfs is a new beginning. I am sure he will eventually get round to finishing his next book that will no doubt pick up the narrative of his life where this book left off. I certainly hope that is sooner rather than later.

Like Nick, I too was inspired by the Deep Play by Paul Pritchard, it is still one of my favourite books on climbing. Next to it now is Echoes, undoubtedly destined to become one of the greats of modern mountaineering literature. Nick also keeps a great blog where you can find more of his great writing.

His book is availble from V12, Joe Browns, Amazon (although you might save £2 via Amazon Nick will lose about 40% of his author fee so I would buy it from your local climbing store and support both them and Nick) or it is also available on Kindle and iBook (I got the iBooks version, although I might have to buy a proper paper copy if I ever get a book case!). When I chatted to Nick yesterday eary reports were that the book was selling really well.

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