Dieter Braun’s Mountains of the World

Natalie gave me this book as a Christmas present last year. Her interest went beyond just giving me a beautiful book, but she hoped it would serve as an impetus for me share my love of the mountains with our young Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz that goes beyond our pilgrimages to the peaks themselves. It was. At the beginning of the New Year we finished our reading session before bedtime by reading 5-10 pages Mountains of the World by Dieter Braun (2018) over several nights, and always discussing some aspect of nature, weather, and people among the mountains.

Braun takes his audience on a tour, or a survey course, on the subject of mountains. He starts with the origins of mountains, considers whether we’re measuring mountains greatness properly, what lives among mountains, legends like the Yeti, and even covers spelunking and the fragile qualities of the mountain environment. And yes, he actually considers whether we are measuring mountains greatness and relief properly in a book primarily intended for children book, and his illustrations are sometimes better than words alone. My kids grasped the idea and their eyes were wide and were clearly in wonder. Braun’s mantra is clearly show then tell.

Dieter Braun is an illustrator and children’s book author from Hamburg, Germany. He gotten up close with wildlife, visited great destinations, and captured their essence, or what he felt was their essence, in his books formatted for children. I say formatted for children, because they are made by the publisher for children, but they are enriching even for this guy; I’m just blessed to share it with two kiddos.

And yet, there were some oddities of choice that Braun included. I enjoyed the page on Iceland and the aurora borealis, but was not sure that it was germane, though I thought his inclusion of “Mountains of Sand: The Desert” was a thought-provoking portion.

Braun devotes several pages to mountain climbing, skiing, and mountain biking recreation among the mountains. He features Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and Reinhold Messner, which I enjoyed talking to the kids about and even had an excuse to raise Jerzy Kukuczka, Messner’s rival whom I admire, with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz. However, Braun appears to have had to make some editorial decisions about how to simplify the list of “Types of Climbing,” which he limits to bouldering, free climbing, ice climbing, and urban climbing. All four were quite beneficial to talk about, and I agree breaking climbing into sport climbing, trad, aid, big wall, and so forth would dull my kids wonder, but did Braun feel alpine climbing was adequately covered through Hillary, Norgay, Messner? I think alpine climbing needed a little more attention through definition.

Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz had their horizon’s lifted through this book and our subsequent discussions. Even just listening to them about their new interest in finding a way to start at the Pacific seafloor and “climb” all the way up Mauna Kea. Or their excitement to learn to ski in the next season or two.

Dieter Braun’s Mountains of the World is a book to own and share. You won’t regret it.

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PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links helps support The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.

Is Mt. Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Mt. Kennedy of the Yukon. (All rights reserved.)

I started to feel like I was missing something significant. Alpinist Magazine had a feature on Mt. Kennedy. Then my Google alerts showed a lot of “chatter” about Mt. Kennedy and suddenly Gripped Magazine had an article. Was Mount Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Well, not exactly, but there are two stories, and both are worth talking about.

In 1965 Jim Whittaker led Senator Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of an alpine objective in Yukon Territory formerly named East Hubbard, renamed by the Canadian government that same year after the late president, John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’ve often dismissed the ascent as notable but not significant. David Stevenson made it more interesting for me than just notable.

David Stevenson was a member of Mt. Kennedy’s second ascent in 1977. He also wrote the long-form feature — a mountain profile — in Alpinist 67. The mountain was remote, and it has all the elements of classic David Roberts and Bradford Washburn far north American alpine adventures, including long slogs, shuttling, and no contact with the greater world for months at a time and being at complete peace about it. I read that stuff with nostalgia. (Does that make me weak, or subconsciously critical of my modern hurried life?) Regardless, the feature was excellent and worth the purchase or the subscription.

The second story was a new feature-length documentary will be released this fall (fall 2019) about the sons of the original climbers, including a candidate for governor, a band manager, and young mountaineer, repeat of the climb 50 years later, Return to Mount Kennedy. Like most other climbing films (or any film or movie for that matter), I won’t rush to watch it, but I am curious about how the film delivers on its promise to tie in a theme of conservation.

Mt. Kennedy isn’t the mountain of the year. Who am I to declare that? But that does give me an idea for this blog; perhaps I have mountains or climbers of the month that I can focus on here on the blog and social media? Well, it’s just a thought.

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The Olympics: Today’s Hot Climbing Topic from Nonclimbers

City living. (All rights reserved)

These days when people learn I love climbing and have this blog, they inevitably say one of two things:

“Have you seen Free Solo?”

And,

“You must be thrilled that climbing is included in the Olympics now.”

In short, Yes, and, Eh.

Yes, I have seen Free Solo. The climb was incredible, but no, my hands didn’t sweat. Maybe because I wasn’t there filming it. I remember when social media exploded with the news Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan alone without a rope. I read about it a ton. It was spectacular. In fact, I even waited to watch the film until after I read Mark Synnott’s book. (I suspect I was the only person in the world to do this.) And I still liked Jimmy Chin’s Meru more.

And as for the Olympics, I am actually indifferent. I’ve never gotten excited about the summer Olympics and I don’t enjoy competition climbing. Although I climb indoors for fitness and center myself, comp climbing is its own discipline.

In fact, the Olympic comp climbing doesn’t fit into my scope: Here are my guidelines I follow (and regularly break for a rant:) Focus on the essence of the alpine experience, Draw on the power of the mountains, No Mount Everest, No sport or comp climbing.

I’ve heard that potential competitors aren’t pleased with the format. The Olympic Committee requires the 20 male climbers and 20 female climbers to compete in all three events, including lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. All three events are unique, especially for the climbers. The training and preparation for each event is different. We’re all specialists, or at least we’re specialists at one discipline at a time. Speed climbers are usually just speed climbers and the lead climbers won’t be competitive at speed climbing. Either way, the winner will be the best overall. But even then, it’s not just comp climbing, but Olympic comp climbing.

TSM aside, I think the Olympic adoption of climbing events had plenty to do with the growth of climbing gyms worldwide. In Buffalo, where I grew up, I didn’t have a gym in the 1990s. I had to drive north to Niagara County for an odd climbing gym that only had preset knots in carabiners ready for a harness. Now, Buffalo has a large, upscale Central Rock Gym, like those in the greater Boston area. In fact, for a while, the climbing gym industry was seeing 40 new gyms a year being added across the country.

Climbing’s popularity has grown exponentially and fostered more competition events, coverage on mainstream television stations, and I suspect one day soon I will be buying Five Ten climbing shoes (now owned by Adidas, by the way) for my kids at Dicks Sporting Goods, or — gulp — Target.

I think that the growth in climbing gyms has been wonderful. Again, it goes to my general point and value statement that climbing matters. Whether we want an escape from the urban or suburban wasteland, a vista from a summit, or just found a way to get our body engaged with nature, whatever we seek has been met with climbing somewhere, somehow. Even, for some of us, in the Olympics.

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David Smart Shares the Pure Fire of Paul Preuss

Knowing that loved ones’ worries about his climbing impeded his attempts to free solo, Paul Preuss allowed his friends to move on to another route without him. If his friends had known that they would watch what would be the most difficult climb in the world, they might have stayed be witnesses. It was July 24, 1911 at the base of the the West Face of the Totenkirchl. Preuss carried a rope, but it remained in his pack only for rappels, and his only technical gear he would employ were his Kletterschuhe or rock climbing shoe with rope soles.

He climbed hundreds of meters, unroped, and without placed protection. He followed a route established by a party lead by Tita Piaz in 1908 until, near the top of the wall, he continued the line along an unclimbed fissure extending the route higher. At a hut, he logged in his climb publicly and added, unnecessarily but intentionally, “allein” or alone, and thus started a stir of wonder and controversy that set climbing on a new path.

This was just the beginning of the bold disruptions to climbing made by Paul Preuss as told in David Smart’s latest book Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss: Life and Death at the Birth of Free-Climbing. Until this book, the most I could find — in English — about the great climber and free soloist were in entries in 1913 and 1914 editions of the Alpine Journal and some translations of his essays. No stories. No context. No explanation.

David Smart, the author of A Life Wasted Climbing (2015), among other titles, and the editorial director of Gripped Magazine, has intricately woven stories of Preuss’ life and accomplishments with vivid illustrations of the times and the rising middle class in the outdoors into a magnificent biography. The result has been a short-listed nominee for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and Banff Mountain Book Competition.

(And by the way, Smart is also being honored this year at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival with the Summit of Excellence Award. The annual award has recognized individuals — which reads like a “who’s who” list — that made significant contributions to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies and across Canada. Smart pioneered routes on the Niagara escarpment in Ontario and wrote its first guidebook in 1984. If you’re a regular reader on this blog, you won’t be surprised that Smart fell in love with publishing through climbing literature.)

I love reading climbing books. It’s my favorite genre. I read books about politics, nature, religion, baseball, and novels, but I always come back and never bore of the nonfiction found at 796.522 in my library. But this book sparked the same sense of discovering some lost and mesmerizing treasure when I started reading climbing literature in college. Not only did it make me want to climb, but also roll out maps of the Alps and Dolomites and find more information about the other characters in the story.

The influence of German and Austrian climbers in Canada was felt by Smart, and thereby the legacy of Preuss (pronounced “Proyce”) was known, though the German stories were usually shared orally. Writing a book about Preuss had been on Smart’s mind for about a decade, even before the public’s rise in interest in free soloing from Alex Honnold’s first free solo of El Capitan in 2017. Smart committed himself to the project, by starting the research phase, around 2014. If you page through the Acknowledgements and the Selected Bibliography, you’ll see that Paul Preuss was a monumental undertaking involving a great deal of translating from the original German and Italian and conversations and manuscript reviews by a who’s who list of climbing history and literature, including Reinhold Messner, Katie Ives, and several others.

Totenkirchl and the first solo ascent. (All rights reserved)

One the treasures in Lord of the Abyss, was how Smart seems to keep track, subtly, about how many occasions and various ways Preuss may have died. (There is no real scorecard in the book, for the record, but perhaps someone could make one.) Of course Preuss tallied the ascent on the Totenkirchl, and even more so on the smooth face of Campanile in the Dolomites or downclimbing the Ferhmann Dihedral, and the hundreds of solo ascents he did in secret while growing up. And counts the initial meeting with Tita Piaz, the Devil of the Dolomites, Preuss’ rival. The day they met, during a wine-filled evening, arguing that the other was the greater climber, Piaz disappears and soon returns with pistols and hands one to Preuss. Dueling was not completely uncommon, and Smart says Preuss had managed to steer clear of it during college in Vienna. Piaz and Preuss took their paces and assumed their positions. The nearly jolting sound of another popping cork shifted the mood and the argument was brushed aside. Preuss 300, Death 0.

In reading other books from the period, even earlier stories, like Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, I never got the sense of the climbing community at home. Granted those stories were tales of the attempts and climbs, primarily. Smart however, in explaining how Preuss’ uncompromising and principled style of climbing came to be, illustrates what it was to be in the rising middle class in Austria and Germany in the late 1890s and early 1900s. At least from the descriptions of life around Vienna and Munich, I got the sense of life being very similar to how it was for Natalie and I living in Washington, DC for 15 years. We all made our living using our minds and writing, being culturally stimulated, pay a great deal for small apartments, and escaping to the countryside and the mountains frequently for everything from hunting, skiing, walking, and climbing.

The urban centers also housed alpine clubs, which varied in activity from simple presentations, to planning outings, providing trainings, and sometimes expedition funding. Smart shares a translation from the Bergland Alpine Club meeting minutes: After dinner and some members were blowing the cream filling out of the cream rolls, the club marched to an a neoclassical monument in town. Preuss climbed the monument’s walls when a Bavarian policeman was alarmed and wanted to catch the builderer. Preuss climbed to the other side, mixed with the passersby and then helped the policeman search for the culprit.

But the core of the story is Preuss’ life and the disruptions his beliefs brought to climbing. Smart provides we English readers a solid understanding of how Preuss came to climb so hard, why he became stalwart against artificial aides and principled in the purest form of climbing. And they’re still enchanting, especially when you consider Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider, or Jim Reynolds ascent (and downclimb) of Fitz Roy. Read Preuss’ principles again and see how it made us consider what we do, even today.

When Preuss converted from Judaism to Christianity (a story unto itself), he read a commentary on the Ten Commandments and after each it added fürchten und lieben, which means fear and love, and continued to say trust in God above all things. The the exhortation fürchten und lieben stuck with him. It’s often that sublime quality that keeps drawing me back to the mountains. As for Preuss, as Smart wrote, “Paul’s passion for the mountains was fueled by fear — or falling short of his ideals and the judgments of others — and by love for the mountains.”


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PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links supports The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.

Who is Nirmal Purja?

North Doodle. (All rights reserved)

In March 2019, we saw the results of a press push. Some guy no one knew was going to try to make history.

Nirmal Purja claimed he was going to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time. Not in years, but months. The record had been over seven years. Purja wanted to do it over a single season. I shared the news on social media and the reactions were in alignment with mine, but more succinct:

  • Bullshit on so many levels. Don’t give him the publicity he craves.
  • “Impossible… I think it’s cheap publicity nothing more.”
  • “This shouldn’t even be ‘news worthy’ until he actually does the deed. Anyone can say they’re going to summit all 8000ers in a single year, but I’d bet money he can’t do it.”

Yet as of the end of July 2019, he has already made history by completing 11 of his objectives with only Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, and Manaslu remaining.

So who is this guy?

First of all, the thing he is actually most famous for is the May 23rd photo of the conga line of climbers heading to the top of Everest. Yes, it was from Purja’s Instagram account. He had already embarked on his journey, which he calls “Project Possible 14/7.”

Purja is Nepalise and served from 2002 through 2018 in the British military through the Brigade of Gurkhas and later in Royal Navy’s Special Boat Teams. During that time he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire, as the MBE after his social media handles indicate. (MBE is not knighthood; there are higher orders which are knights.)

Based on Purja’s Project Possible, he is an excellent logistical planner, and has a strong will. It appears to have drawn some significant resources including his lead sponsor, Bremont, a luxury watch maker. He is also supported by four experienced Sherpas. Jeff Moag talks about his team on their K2 push — and it really was sheer will and muscle — that got them to the top this season, possibly making rather than breaking Purja’s Project Possible 14/7.

What Purja has done to date has already been historic. The previous speed record was by Kim Chang-ho of South Korea at seven years 10 months and 6 days. He finished in 2013. The previous record to that was by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987 after seven years 11 months and 14 days. His approach is innovative in concept, though not fitness or technology. Climbers have reached base camps by helicopter before. Mountaineers have climbed multiple 8,000ers in a single trip, though usually within the same expeditionary trip. Doing them all has surprised many, including me.

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The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Inaccurate but pretty Yosemite Valley. (All rights reserved)

On a towering and drenched flank of granodiorite in Borneo, Mark Synnott led an expedition that included his trusted friends Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, and begrudgingly a 24-year-old Alex Honnold too. Honnold’s historic first free solo of Half Dome the year before was fresh on everyone’s minds, and Anker talked Synnott into adding Honnold at the last minute. Synnott, then 40, was concerned about having an inexperienced and arrogant prodigy on his team. Still, Anker pleaded with Synnott, acknowledging the need for options on this adventure climb: “He can be our secret weapon.” But when they reached the walls, Synnott thought his preconception of this reckless climber was proven true when Honnold told Synnott he didn’t bring a helmet because, “Uhhh… I don’t actually own a helmet.”

Mark Synnott’s irritation with Honnold grew into curiosity during that expedition to Mt. Kinabalu. In the end, however, Honnold borrowed a helmet, and after several soggy nights in a porta-ledge, pulled off a key move – a dyno – for the team’s dramatic route completion. But for Synnott, there were many puzzles remaining.

Synnott wondered what Honnold was capable of, and, at the same time, when he would have “the wake-up call” when climbers pull back the throttle on the risks they take. So when Synnott learned Honnold was committing himself to the greatest first free solo ascent in history, he began to write his new book, The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life, published by Dutton in March 2019.

In writing this book, Synnott wanted to answer a question underlying the wonder most share in watching Honnold climb without a rope. Even Honnold’s autobiography, Alone on the Wall, (which he wrote with David Roberts,) and even the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo did not fully respond: Was Honnold a unique freak-of-nature or a human like the rest of us? And, if he was indeed human, what can the rest of us learn from him?

You might have seen some harsh criticisms – nearly dismissals – of Synnott’s book in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times promptly after it was released. Don’t believe them; Synnott didn’t miss the mark, they did. Gregory Crouch argued in the Times that Synnott, and even Honnold, should have done a better job of teasing out the deeper truths of climbing, particularly staring death in its face. However, this is always the attempt in a lot of climbing literature, and Crouch should know as a climber that this is rarely accomplished by anyone, including Reinhold Messner, except for perhaps David Roberts.

Blair Braverman, in the Journal, attacked the whole book on the premise that Synnott was sexist. It appears to be true, and more valid than Crouch’s criticism, but the story remains. In addition, while Synnott uses some “casually” objectifying language, of the two instances she cites one was superfluous to the thesis but the other was not about Synnott’s perspective but rather illustrating Honnold’s own character and womanizing behavior.

Synnott starts his book by providing a general audience with a strategic overview of climbing culture and risk starting with his initial foray into a thrill-seeking approach to rock climbing, and introducing the reader to legendary free soloists like Jon Bachar, Peter Croft, and Dean Potter. Synnott also sheds light into what it is like to climb with the watchful eyes of the virtual audiences through social media and film crews. Synnott lead one of the first expeditions to the Karakoram that required he and his team, including Alex Lowe, to lug a laptop to draft “dispatches” to basecamp that would be posted on the sponsor’s blog.

The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Although the second half was clearly written while the effort to document the events that are now famously captured in Free Solo were underway, Synnott also brings the reader the backstory of events and considers Honnold’s humanity. Synnott goes beyond how the documentary film crew risked disrupting his climbing, but also how it did affect his own mental game, including one instance where the filming disrupted his relationship with his girlfriend. Synnott investigates further into Honnolds’ approach to fear and whether his amygdala – the supposed fear center within the brain – which Honnold’s has been shown to be inactive, and seriously considers whether that is actually unusual or even if it matters at all.

The Impossible Climb also looks back to key moments of Alex Honnold’s progression in free soloing. He considers a period in 2015, when Alex Honnold felt unusually alone after the death of Dean Potter. Since Honnold free soloed Half Dome seven years earlier he had created a vacuum to insulate him from distractions and foster his greater climbing ambitions. But perhaps it wasn’t actually an insulated vacuum, as he thought. On May 16th Dean Potter died with Graham Hunt in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite. Potter was first a childhood hero to Honnold and later, as Honnold pushed his limits, a rival in free soloing as Honnold pushed more limits. Just days before Potter’s accident, however, they had dinner together in Yosemite, marking a new step in their complicated relationship. With Potter suddenly gone, Honnold’s paradigm was broken. Honnold felt alone and, according to Synnott, an unprecedented pressure to perform on rock – believe it or not – like he had never actually felt before.

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Further puzzling over Honnold’s capacity to free solo El Capitan, Synnott compares free soloists to elite circus tightrope walkers who walk a high line without a safety net, often climbing on a partner’s shoulders. He discovers a powerful parallel to how they and Honnold approach their craft without a safety net, and provides a glimpse for anyone that might want to learn from them; ultimately, we all chose who we are and at what level we perform.

Whether we as readers consider Honnold in wonder or chastisement, The Impossible Climb presents enough evidence and new perspectives about Honnold to make a new judgment about his special strengths. For himself, Synnott concluded Honnold is not a freak-of-nature but is indeed human like the rest of us. His life is not about facing and overcoming challenges or even fear, but merely facing choices.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, you might want to follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links supports The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.