A Few Feet Short by Jamey Glasnovic

The Himalaya in Glasnovic’s A Few Feet Short.

Before Jamey Glasnovic headed back to Nepal and the Himalayas, this time alone with his bicycle, he wrote what I had started to think:

What of course could be more important than living an adventurous and fulfilling life?

The answer, of course, is work. A dirty, four-letter word if there ever was one… If you grow up in middle class in the Western world, certain expectations become a part of your every-day life, whether you like it or not.

Jamey Glasnovic wrote bout his second visit to Nepal and the Himalayas in his new book A Few Feet Short: An Uncommon Journey to Everest, published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2018. After visiting Nepal several years earlier, Glasnovic had been facing health and life challenges leaving him lost at home adrift among the Western middle-class. Begrudgingly, at first, he packed a few key things, including his bike, and flew to Kathmandu to wander the towns and the hills leading up to the base of tallest mountain in the world.

Glasnovic decided to take this journey right before he turned 46. I turned 40 earlier this week. Although 40 is a milestone, age 45 is the time when many Western middle class men start to face a mid-life crisis. Glasnovic clearly faced one, and I hope to avoid one; Glasnovic’s advice is to slow down and live deliberately, not necessarily conforming to the prescribed path of culture. That’s why Glasnovic went to Nepal. I’m taking notes.

Glasnovic was a bar tender with rising blood pressure heading him down the path toward a stroke or heart attack. His doctor asked him if he had some non-alcoholic beer at the bar. Glasnovic replied that it wouldn’t be as much fun. It just took time to realize he needed a lifestyle change.

Slowly, Glasnovic changed his attitude and agreed: living and living meaningfully were two different things. While he could go “all-guns-a-blazin'” with his friends at the bar or trying to make every day the best day of his life by more and more thrills, to the detriment of his wallet and his health, he decided he needed to do something different.

Nepal took on a practical and romantic meaning for Glasnovic. He appreciated the landscape, the people, and — now — how different it was from his current lifestyle. But in going, going to visit wasn’t enough. He needed a challenge. He needed something to make this life journey a quest. So he wouldn’t just visit the landmarks via car and bus, or even a pied, no, he’d ride his bicycle. He was also certain it hadn’t been done before.

If I didn’t take Glasnovic so seriously, and didn’t empathize with his life changes so much, I would have laughed more early in the book; he was quite funny about his reluctance to actually ride across Nepal. It was cynical. It was also anything but positive. It was funny, but underlying all that it was also sad.

Of course, part of the plan of his journey riding from Kathmandu to Everest base camp was a change of scenery and take a slower pace than back home. As he struggled with the anxiety of the journey, he did have time and procrastination was convenient. But he still had to shift his approach to tell himself to slow down, relax, the town isn’t going anywhere. His bike trek isn’t going anywhere.

After he wandered Kathmandu for several days, visiting the tourist-congested neighborhoods and the lesser known and places the foreigners rarely see, he started pedaling. He took in funeral tradition at river, the likes we never see in the Western world. The deceased are wrapped in colorful cloth, dressed in flowers, and carried on a stretcher to the Bagmati River. There the deceased are burned to ashes in front of the whole family and gathering. It was hardly a private affair; Glasnovic could just stop and watch, meanwhile the traffic along the path by the river simply routed every else around.

The traffic, when it wasn’t merely manic, it was curiously reckless. Many rode motor bikes, and while the drivers wore helmets, well… why don’t the passengers?

As Glasnovic pedeled for days uphill toward Everest, he began to finally appreciate the journey, despite the pain and aches as his body found a new groove. Nepal was poor. Nepalese didn’t have much. Nepalese worked hard. And they were joyful. Perhaps he didn’t want to get too intimate to find out the outlook for the Nepalese, but he’s convinced they had a lesson for someone like him.

Glasnovic argues that Nepal has it hard, but maybe they have a lesson for we Western adventurers and Western middle-class workers, both in our rush to the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, or even to our jobs. Maybe the problem is how we measure everything:

We measure distance in time, not miles or kilometres. Speeding up the experience of travel has changed how we view each trip. Movement becomes about the intervening period to the destination, and the ground covered loses significance. The focus is on being here and getting there, and te details simply pass us in a blur.

I recommend A Few Feet Short. I don’t recommend it because of Glasnovic’s journey, but because he helps open eyes. We ought to be aware of what norms are cultural and pushed on us, not to rebel, but to know what inside and outside us hold us back from being at peace.

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How Do You Follow and Support a SAR Thousands of Miles Away?

Rope team. (All rights reserved)

Since Thursday, February 28th, there has been a search for Danielle Nardi and Tom Ballard on Nanga Parbat. They went missing while attempting a new route up the Mummery Ridge. To date, only a snow-filled tent in an avalanche path around Camp 3, where they were last reported, was found.

It’s hard to know what to do in these situations 7,000 miles away. So I do a lot of things…

I try to follow with interest, hoping their found, perhaps descending a whole other section of the mountain with an incredible story to tell.

I’m also the praying type, so I pray.

Actually, I have more things I try not to do:

I try not to make judgments. (“Oh, they’re gone.”) As long as there is a SAR underway, I try to stay positive. Because, what do I know. I’m not there. It’s on the other side of the earth.

They have friends and family. As Tommy Caldwell says in his book The Push, or Tim Emmet said on the Enormocast recently, only thoughts of how their demise while climbing (or wing-suiting, for Tim) would affect their family gave them serious pause and inched toward heartache. Family lives on and we live with them.

I try not to ignore it. Especially until it is resolved. These things are not trivial current events about a Chinese man-made archipelago or story of a concert on some island. It’s more akin to miner’s stuck in their mine. Except these guys were going for fun, and as professionals, let some of us 7,000-miles away live vicariously.

How do you follow these scenarios? Do they affect you?

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Winter Enchantment and What I Am Reading Now

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What’s on my bed stand March 3, 2019.

Hi, everyone, from a snow covered Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Natalie and I took the kids snowshoeing yesterday. We all looked at these scattered dimples on the snow that looked like little oval shadows scattered across the snow. Droplets of water from melting snow up in the tree branches crashed into those craters. The changing nature of snow from hour to hour is worth pausing for a moment.

Well, I’ve got three things on my bed stand these days:

The Push by Tommy Caldwell (2017) — I am nearing finishing Tommy’s autobiography. (He’s so young, I am sure that there will be a second one day.) The first half answered many questions about Tommy’s life that I followed through bits and pieces in print publications, mostly Climbing magazine, in the early 2000s. He talked about being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan (including the titled push), his marriage with Beth Rodden, and losing his finger. I didn’t realize how early he had been contemplating the route on the Dawn Wall. I’ll do a full review in a few weeks.

Alpinist 65 — Issue 65 just arrived in my mailbox this week. It has an essay by the great David Roberts, art by Sujoy Das, and a feature profile and history of climbing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I only started, but Katie Ives leads off with a fascinating essay that includes a reflection on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. (It reminded me of my early take on the Lion the Witch and Wardrobe; I was drawn to the wintry wonderland of Narnia for the enchanted conditions more than the dramatic saga.) It is on news stands now.

Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul  by Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordan (2011) — I am reading this for myself for my work at Habitat. I don’t go to Starbucks much, especially when there are many great coffee shops in our community, but this book deals with an organization’s core values, and what it means to hold on to them, especially in a crisis. We’ve been revisiting our core values and it has even made me consider what the core values of this blog ought to be.

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The Climbing Legends of Lancaster County

Access Fund logo redo.

Yesterday I had an appointment with a photographer named Vinny from our local newspaper. We met at one of our Habitat houses. Halfway through walking through the house and taking photos, he says to me, “So are you a climber?” He heard I was a from hearsay.

Turns out Vinny climbed at Safe Harbor in the 90s. Safe Harbor is along the Susquehanna River and in the southwest corner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I had heard of Safe Harbor but hadn’t realized that it was part of the county. It’s a mere thirty minutes from my house.

Vinny said he climbed what he thought was a 5.9 there once. Halfway up it puzzled him. It was hard! He makes the moves, reaches the top and comes down and cleans the route. Another climber complimented him on the 5.11. Vinny said it’s just 5.9. They opened guidebooks; Vinny’s guidebook had a few fewer routes than this guy, and Vinny indeed did climb his first 5.11.

Then he tells me that he saw Eric and Hugh climb there once in a while and that he met them both.

I asked who Eric and Hugh were and explained I am still new to the area and I how I grew up in Buffalo and lived in DC for 15 years. He meant Eric Hörst and Hugh Herr.

I loved Eric Hörst’s books, Training for Climbing and his guidebook to Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. I followed him on Twitter and Facebook for years now. When I moved to Lancaster, it turns out he is the area’s authority on local weather forecasts, based here at Millersville University.

Hugh Herr I just learned about through Chris Kalous and his Enormocast podcast. Shortly after I moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania I unpacked my new lawn mower just delivered, started pushing my lawn mower, and turned up the volume on the Enormocast to listen to episode 148. I actually listed to that episode with Herr twice. But I didn’t know that he was originally from Manheim Township here in Lancaster County.

It just proves the point that the degrees of separation in the climbing community are fewer than most other things in life. Anyway, I am looking forward to hearing some more stories from Vinny next time. We have another impending snow storm coming today so the kids will be home and I still have a bunch of work to hack out. Any concerns; that’s life! Well, and worries are overridden by knowing that there will be snow.

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How to Find the Climbing Books at Your Used Book Sale

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Lionel Terray in the 1952-USA edition of Annapurna.

I get the books my home climbing library needs from online shops like Chessler Books, proper bookstores like Top of the World Books, and used book sales. The used book sales might be a crap shoot, but the victories are consistently the most satisfying.

This month I found my favorite discovery yet: A first-USA edition, of the book-of-the-month club (BOMC) variety, of Annapurna by Maruice Herzog and published by E.P. Dutton in 1952. I love it because it was worthy of a BOMC version and it’s stunning compared to the current paperback edition I bought around 2000, not because it is worth a lot of money, which it’s not. I’m also proud of it because my persistence found it!

The used book sales are my favorite because, well, they’re special events and you have no idea what to expect. You’ll likely walk away empty handed most of the time, but once in a while you will find something worth, well, emailing me about!

By used book sales, I don’t mean used book stores. The used book sales I am talking about are usually once-annual events fundraising for a cause, like the public library. My favorite was the used book sale at Stone Ridge in Bethesda, Maryland, which ended after a 46-year run. It was a huge event and my hunt for climbing books included a search across 40 tables in three gymnasiums. I always came away with something worthwhile, even if it was a duplicate I would give away.

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Hardbound 1952 BOMC edition of Annapurna.

There are four rules I follow for my hunts. These rules are not comprehensive or limiting. They’re just what I do.

  1. Find Charitable Book Sales — I prefer these, not because they support causes, but because they’re annual affairs that collect a lot of books over a year to be sold during just a few blowout days.
  2. Shop on the First Day — The prices are usually the at their peak on the first day but selection will be as good as it gets.
  3. Search in Various Sections — I have not yet been to a used book sale where all the climbing or mountain-related books are in one section. So look everywhere. I start in Sports, and then Travel, followed by Nature, Science, History, and Coffee Table Books.
  4. Have a List — Make a list of books you’ll buy automatically, because you never know. But also keep a list of books you have, especially if you find an old American Alpine Journal. Do you know what issues you already own?

So that first-edition of Annapurna turned up for me because I had already searched through the histories, sports — where I found a paperback by Dee Molenaar, which I also bought — nature, travel, and coffee tables and stopped. My wife called her mother about a book she found and I noticed a science section in the corner I hadn’t noticed earlier. There, standing upright between a book about flowers and a conditioned paperback of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, was Annapurna, blue, hardbound, and elegant.

May you reap what you sow.

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Not All Climbing Books Are About Disasters

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Broken snow. (All rights reserved)

I am grateful for Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider for one big reason. Of course, I think his film Meru was better and more representative of great climbing (and I am biased toward alpine climbing anyway.) Free Solo has given the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience a new reference point for climbing. They understand the risk differently than even before the 60 Minutes piece about Alex Honnold.

But on the flip side of this coin, I can’t tell if this novice climbing audience understands that Alex Honnold’s exploits in Free Solo were still outliers among climbers of the future. Well, they probably do and recognize that Honnold is unique. Well, I guess it won’t help people to continue to mistake El Cap for the biggest big wall in North America (it’s not, in case you were wondering.)

What I appreciate more, for being widely well-known, is Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. It’s also more representative of climbing in general. It was a multi-year project. It required years of honed skills. It was not merely about being an extreme outlier. And thanks to a very slow news cycle after Christmas in 2015, the whole country knew of their climb and heard something about the now infamous boulder problem.

But that’s all mountain films and climbing news. Mountaineering and climbing literature has some challenges, and yet really shouldn’t. The mountaineering and climbing genre has some of the most amazing literature in the world and yet, the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience still hasn’t gotten past the tragedies:  The first book about climbing and mountaineering they often think about is Jon Kraukauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. It is “tell-all” book exploiting the tragedy of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight climbers, mostly guided clients, died.

In fact, when new acquaintances learn about my blog they often tell me about how they read Into Thin Air and how it moved them. I think that’s great. No, I am not being sarcastic; I genuinely do. Good climbing books are powerful and insightful about humanity, what we are capable of doing, and finding dignity despite our weaknesses. However, in all seriousness, if they don’t cite Into Thin Air, it’s one of these titles…

  • The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (1997)
  • The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner (2002)
  • Forever on the Mountain by James Tabor (2007)
  • One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkison (2010)
  • No Way Down by Graham Bowley (2010)
  • The Last Man on the Mountain by Jennifer Jordan (2010)
  • Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall (2014)
  • Surviving Logan by Erik Bjarnason and Cathi Shaw (2016)

And there are still miscategorizations of the climbing disaster genre. Just look at this list from Good Reads.

They know these stories because they heard about the event in the news, or even (gulp) Outside Magazine, and decide to pick it up. Unfortunately, they have only scratched the surface of climbing books.

The majority of climbing books are not about disasters. In fact, I’d argue that a disaster is not the prerequisite for a good or even a great climbing book. I have read what critics have called the best or greatest climbing books and articles and I think the best are biographical or auto-biographical and introspective stories of a climb or a life climbing. A good character, a wild landscape, and a transformational journey — that’s worth reading.

I think you might argue that Into Thin Air did those things, and in some ways it did. But there were better ones. Here are five just off the top of my head (sorry if I repeat these too often):

  • The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (1968)
  • Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald (2017)
  • The Tower by Kelly Cordes (2014)
  • Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe (2018)
  • Beyond the Mountain by Steve House (2009)

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