Re-Reading and Pre-Reading

Going through the read (past tense) pile.

Wine critic Robert Parker had a special sink built in his home. It was two or three times deeper than an ordinary sink so he could uncork a bottle that he personally purchased, slosh a sip to sense the flavors and hints of oak or whatever quality the barrel imparted before spitting it out and taking notes.

Parker is said to have taste buds that were well above their average capabilities. Parker himself said his strong memory of wines allowed him to compare glasses to one another so he could give each one on his scale, which was a score out of 100. Of course, the critique of what he scored as excellent wines was simply what Parker preferred.

For reading and reviewing climbing books, I don’t need any special apparatus. In fact, I read in multiple different settings. Buses, trains, at desks, libraries, living room couches, cafés, and hotel or guest beds. But there was a time when I read but never took notes or considered the book with the scrutiny Parker applied to rank wine. A good seat, and ideally with a cup of coffee (or, even better, an afternoon beer,) was really all that was needed. But reading for pleasure and with a critical point of view is a little different.

There are about 20-30 books that I need to re-read in order to properly consider elevating them to be candidates for climbing classics. So I am going back to reading, swilling, and comparing them more deliberately. I pulled the hard copies of the books on my Short-Long List and put them on my desk so I can start whittling through them.

I am quite excited about re-reading them this year. These are mostly books I enjoyed, but what will we think of them in terms of being a classic of climbing literature?

I will still review a new book or two as they are released, or at least I am open to that depending on the demands on me by work and family. I may post them elsewhere first and here later, so watch my social media.

An author with a new book deal arranged invited me to review their manuscript before submitting the whole first draft to the editor. I am behind my self-made schedule, but I think I can do a chapter a day and get my comments back to the author in a week or so.

The Banff Mountain Literature Competition is allowing me to participate as a pre-reader once again. I took a two year break over 2021 and 2022. It was rough times for “both” of us; the Banff Centre even shut down and laid off the majority of its staff during part of that. The pandemic disruptions with the Habitat for Humanity affiliate I run and the changes to Wunderkind’s and Schnickelfritz’s schooling shut down many things for me too, and pre-reading was one of mine. I was worried that by turning down the invitation that I would have difficulty getting back in, but it seems I did okay by them.

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Ski Slopes and Vintage Climbing Instructionals

Smith’s 1957 Introduction to Mountaineering.

Stick season in Vermont is a period after the colorful leaves fall and before the snows take the leaves place in the branches. This winter in Pennsylvania has been one long stick season with only a brief snowfall near the Susquehanna River that landed on the pine branches and lawn during coffee but disappeared after breakfast. We returned to sticks.

Snow is important to Natalie, Wunderkind, Schnickelfritz, and me. I used to have this notion that snow reminded me of the Adirondacks or Green Mountains in winter that I romanticized a great deal while working long hours in Washington. Since the kids started playing in our new(ish) snow-filled yard when the conditions allowed, I saw that it’s about play and living in the moment. Snow is ephemeral, beautiful, and precious. So Natalie and I make sure the kids have good snow pants, coats, and boots for sledding and play before every Thanksgiving.

Ski lessons for Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz were overdue, but now that the conditions and restrictions of the pandemic have loosened, we were off to one of those little Ski-the-East hills. These little ones try tonpass themselves off as “resorts,” and boast a few rooms to remt plus a restaurant and bar. Interestingly, I never lived closer to any slope and ski lift than I do now in Lancaster, PA. I had a longer drive when I grew up in snowy Buffalo!

B photography from the PA slopes. Stick season officially, even here.

The kids took lessons and I stuck nearby. Natalie skied. We went to a bigger resort not far from DC before we had kids, but due to expecting our first, I skied, she didn’t. We’re square now.


Grit has always been a key element in climbing, and an old instructional book substituted for lessons and mentorship. Take this one, for instance, by George Alan Smith, titled Introduction to Mountaineering, published by A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. as a new and revised edition in 1967. The first edition was out in 1957. It taught climbing as it was done in the Himalayas and David Roberts’ books of the day: With ropes, sans harness, and your boots, pre-EBs.

This was once deemed safe and grippy.

My friend received it as a birthday present and was kind enough to loan it to me. There are other instructionals from this era, too, and I’m curious about why so many? I’ll keep digging. In the meantime, I am grateful for my Black Diamond harness and my Evolvs.

Well, that’s it for now. Next winter, if I get skis and a seasons pass, I might be able to forget about the gym and wait patiently for the golf course to come into form.

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Dougald MacDonald Awarded for Literature Excellence by the AAC

Your invitation to the 2023 AAC Annual Benefit Gala, March 10-11.

On Monday afternoon, as I was packing to travel to a conference, Natalie was going through the mail and handed me a modest postcard and said, “You’re invited to a dinner.”

How quaint. Usually, someone just calls or emails me for dinner. But this wasn’t from a friend or a donor from work. This was very different. New York City would be the site of this year’s Annual Benefit Dinner of the American Alpine Club.

I put it on my desk next to a list of questions for a future post about the future of the American Alpine Journal. I had three interviews to do, questions for Dougald MacDougald, the Executive Editor of the AAJ. Dougald and I have been exchanging messages about when to talk, but work (the day job,) has been dominating my time.

I should have reached out to Dougald sooner. He came up in my social media feed associated with that sharp gala logo as soon as I returned from my conference: Dougald was being honored as the H. Adams Carter Literary Award for Excellence in Climbing Literature.

If you’re wondering why Dougald, well, he hasn’t written a smashing best seller or wrote about a dashing first ascent in pure style for Alpinist, rather he has been conveying news and curating the record of the world’s most significant climbs in the annual American Alpine Journal, periodic updates online, and a podcast. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Dougald’s list of climbing-book recommendations was the best, of literally thousands, on the Web.

His influence and character have ripples everywhere he goes. For example, he’s helped me with content and given me encouragement. And I am clearly not alone in that regard; Dougald’s Facebook friends responded warmly to his understated news of his recognition by pointing out his contributions to various publications and their own work as well as the enjoyment they share in the publications he leads.

Here is what the ACC included in its Meet the Awardees page about MacDonald:

“After learning to climb as a teenager in New England, Dougald MacDonald published his first climbing story (about ice routes on Maine’s Mt. Katahdin) in Summit magazine in 1983. Professionally, he spent the first quarter of his career as a business journalist, eventually serving as editor of the weekly Denver Business Journal for five years.

“In the early 1990s, he switched to climbing journalism, writing hundreds of articles and a book, Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener. He has been editor-in-chief of two climbing magazines—Rock & Ice and Climbing—and co-founded Trail Runner Magazine. Since mid-2012, he has edited the American Alpine Journal currently hosts The Cutting Edge podcast and supervises other AAC publications.

“He considers his greatest career accomplishment to be mentoring dozens of writers and editors over the years. After decades of climbing, he still gets out at least once a week at home in Colorado and travels frequently—often with his wife, Chris Blackmon—for climbing, trekking, or skiing.”

Dougald wondered whether what he did was actually literature. Well, if journalism is indeed literature in a hurry, Dougald has nothing to be concerned about, but I do consider the AAJ an invaluable part of climbing literature.

So, to all of you heading to Manhattan for the gala, and even if you’re not, be sure to raise a glass to Dougald on March 11th.

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Mislead by the Olympics: Born to Climb by Zofia Reych Reviewed

Born to Climb by Zofia Reych (2022)

The arrival of climbing as a medal sport in the Olympics was celebrated by the competitive climbing community, and some others looked on with curiosity if not interest. Although the competitive climbers viewed it as an indication of its validity as an athletic pursuit, climbing, by-and-large, did not reach an evolutionary peak. Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes by Zofia Reych had a opportunities to address or refute this evolutionary development, but instead it tells a story that gives too much weight in connecting Olympic climbing to climbing’s very beginnings.

Zofia Reych was born and introduced to climbing in Poland and was introduced to pulling plastic later in the UK. She also studied anthropology and applied it to Born to Climb, published by Adventure Books / Vertebrate Publishing in 2022. Born to Climb was released in 2022, the year after competitive climbing debuted in the 2020 Olympics (which, of course, was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and actually held in 2021.) The timeliness poised this book to tell a story based around the milestone, which was both why I wanted read it and its flaw.

I enthusiastically sought out Born to Climb to read because I was curious about the author’s lens on just that story. Reych explains, in what could be irony, why climbing was welcomed by the Olympics into the fold as it welcomed snowboarding in after the success at the X-Games. Reych also goes farther back in her research and lets the reader consider the factors that resurrected the ancient games and why it was actually reestablished. There were fascinating discussions on the establishment of sports for the affluent and the workforce in the 1800s, and the economics of the Olympics over the 1900s. It made me a little more cynical about the populism of sports in general.

Climbing, as we know it today, evolved from the 1800s. And ever since then, climbing has varied by different ethics and arguments about pro, various styles ranging from traveling in pairs to big heavy expeditions, and broader categories from alpine mountaineering, ice climbing, trad climbing, sport climbing, bouldering. Climbing was complex in the 1800s, and with the multitude of new branches of climbing categories sprouting in the 20th Century, with their own ethics and styles, have made it even more complicated. Drawing a line from the past to the Olympics made me pick up the book, but there is no straight line, and it made Born to Climb informative but not significantly insightful.

Born to Climb is misleading, in its timing of publishing, and the drive the story takes in telling the adjacent, but not parallel, stories of how climbing and Olympic developed and changed through the 1800s and 1900s. Although Born to Climb states no thesis about the ascension and crowing of climbing as a medal sport, the book is merely a good history lesson mixed with some current day climbing anecdotes, told through autobiographical details.

Reych does an exceptional job of educating the reader about how climbing changed from the Greek and Roman times to the alpine ascents in a pure sporting fashion in the 1800s, and the first rock climb (ropeless, by the way) at Napes Needle in 1886 in Wasdale, Lakes District by Haskett Smith, and all the way to contemporary competitive climbing. If not a thesis, at least a key point she makes in different ways, is that all forms of climbing “stem in a straight line from the ideals and ethics that were born in the Alps in the nineteenth century.” While competitive climbing is the hot topic, what about ice, mixed, and dry tooling climbing?

Reych shed new light for me in her review of the cultural conditions that women climbed in the 1800s. More women climbed than maybe recorded, but those that did were viewed as potentially harming their bodies and could border on vulgarity. Women climbers were part of the “new women,” which was a pejorative term.

While reading I was questioning whether the personal stories Reych sprinkles throughout the book advanced a theme or illustrated other points in the book. It was a little more biographical, which was sincerely charming, but didn’t initially move the story along. But later, it shined insight into contemporary culture around climbing as it entered the Olympic era, for instance when she speaks of a notable climber dying climbing outdoors. She makes herself an example of the current climbing culture, which is descended from the past.

In the end, Born to Climb is well researched, but having read many of the works she cites, I am not sure this was added more to the climbing shelves other than added one celebrating the 2020 Olympics. I appreciate that it embraces and looks to climbing history, searching for a thread from the top of Mont Blanc that isn’t there, other than climbing itself, but I am not buying a copy to give to my friends.

Rating: 3/5

Was this a classic? It was an excellent history. I wished it was available ten years ago, though it couldn’t have been. It might be valuable to some readers, and might be a good reference for a long time, but it won’t compete with sagas of remarkable attempts or biographies of great climbers.

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The Problem with Climbing Book Lists on the Internet

New Find (All rights reserved)

There are a lot of lists of climbing books on the Internet, and most of them are bad. They’re a hodgepodge of old, new, narratives, and guidebooks and instructional books all amassed into one most often. And when the list is shorter and more focused, it tends to be ambitious for whoever is posting it.

I’m guilty of writing a bad list. Several years ago, a blogging friend invited me to write a guest post. He wanted the top 10 climbing books ever written. He thought I could write it. I knew it was more than my reading experience, but I felt I had enough knowledge to fake it. I disclosed that to him and he actually agreed and said that’s why he asked me. Well, the post still comes up either number one or in the top 10, depending on our search query and I cringe at it.

Now allow me tell you what’s wrong with that list and just about every other one on the Internet, including that one I wrote years ago.

The list’s have titles like the “top 25 best rock climbing books,” “best mountaineering adventure books ever written,” or “climbing books serious climbers should read.” There are even titles aiming for more credibility, by adding “definitive ranking,” and sometimes they attribute the list to an expert or celebrity. Mine was foolishly titled, “10 Best Mountaineering Books of All-Time.”

(By the way, I don’t link to them because I don’t think it wise. The more connections of attention, the more credibility the search engine gives them. Besides, they’re easy to find; all 87,000 search results.)


These Internet lists, however, all contain some flaws, except one from Climbing Magazine (now only) by Dougald McDonald: 33 Must Read Climbing Books. Dougald wisely wrote that this isn’t an end-all be-all “best ever” ranking, and only promised you’ll enjoy those stories. What I appreciated was that it was vetted by people that read them, I was told. And not all of the books were even in print at the time of being published, so I know they weren’t peddling affiliate sales or anything.

A good list doesn’t contain lots of caveats, it simply states what it is attempting to do and does it with knowledge and without including the book that was just released, even if it was included on the best seller list of New York Times, or (gulp,)

In actuality, making a list of the “best climbing and mountaineering books” is a gargantuan task. anyone with real knowledge knows is nearly impossible to accomplish. I know this. But I am plodding forward to do the things I accuse these Internet lists of not doing well, and because I know that it’s not really about the final product but the process or the journey. If this were a climb, think of it as a purists approach to the last great problem.


Lots of climbing books are worth reading but not all are good for recommending on a short list. I give Dougald and his advisors kudos for making a respectable list of 33 on the surface of things. But several inclusions, or categories of inclusions, can be a dead giveaway of a list that was cobbled together just to make content. Although I respect lists of suggested books to read, mixing new print with books printed in previous years that really are not quality works are reason for distrust.

Including several popular titles can ruin a list. Take Jon Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air for instance. It captivated non-climbers and entry-level climbers, but established and well-read climbers generally don’t hold it in high regard. Including Ed Viestur’s book No Shortcuts to the Top has the same problem. I genuinely liked both books, but I have found more advanced and significant books.

Including Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole seems odd. Having reviewed it and seeing it on several lists, I can’t tell if the list writer was suggesting it because it was new, had affiliate marketing behind it, or they genuinely thought it was significant. It had some notable new theories about George Mallory and Sandy Irvine but nothing concrete to warrant it on a short list.

Including a book by Mick Conefrey sends up red flags. Although he is a credible documentarian, his works re-introduce past works for readers new to the subject. And the works are bland compared to many of the current books being written by climbers first-hand published alongside his. His work feeds a need, but don’t list it among “best” or “must-reads.”

I was charmed that several prominent lists included Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The half the story is about how Mortenson arrived in Afghanistan, through mountaineering, before he found a calling. Regardless of the credibility of the account, I never considered it a climbing book. It included climbing but it wasn’t about conquest or a gentler aesthetic desire for self-discovery through a mountain experience. It’s a good story but I wouldn’t include it on one of these lists.

Short lists or 10 or 15 titles that include a mix that include established and well-known works like Annapurna by Herzog and Everest: The West Ridge by Hornbein, which are think are credible recommendations, and then includes a new book by Ashima Shireshi, How to Solve a Problem, confuses me. Shireshi’s book is very different and might below. It’s illustrated, sometimes thought of as a children’s book, which is terribly limiting to readers. I’m curious about it, but it doesn’t seem to be in the same category of books and type of climbing.

The shorter the list the more likely it won’t be cohesive. The longer the list, well, you’re more likely to cover more of your bases. But in both cases, I don’t think the authors of the lists read the books their recommending. I think many are also pulling from other’s recommendations. Making a list based on sales or Internet searches are misleading about what style of books to include. One list using such methodology grouped several guidebooks with narratives. Either way, and too often, the headline is click-bait.


I wish more of the lists proliferating the Internet would just list author’s personal favorites, and say that that is what they are, and I also wish that best seller lists are say that’s what they are but the author of the list takes the time to separate the narratives from the instructional books. Of course, as a general rule, best sellers lists do not make a good recommendation list for this genre.

The key to this knowing good books in this genre is reading them and getting reviews from people that read them. I am trying to help you in that regard. At least a little. I’d read all the time if responsibilities and my need to hike, climb, ski, and golf didn’t get in the way. Sometimes we read in sips, sometimes in gulps.

I sincerely want to tell you what the best mountaineering books of all-time are, but I haven’t read enough of them yet. That’s a big part about what my quest is about. And reading them all, or enough of them, and reading them with a critical point of view, is not what produced these lists. Of course, I am trying to identify classics, the way an English literature professor would recommend several classics to appreciate for various qualities, including their long-lasting appeal, even if they are not timeless. Naming climbing and mountaineering books that are worth reading and owning on a small shelf — essential reading — is the key.

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Boardman Tasker Winner Deep Play by Paul Pritchard

Deep Play by Paul Pritchard won the 1997 Boardman Tasker Award.

Four stories up, by Mr. Wooley’s physics classroom, a young Paul Pritchard looked down well-like spiral stairwell, and dropped down. He saw a classmate that passed too quickly to shout to, and recognized the school’s heat radiators as he flew, and the red tiles at the bottom by the pool before he blacked out. Pritchard woke up in the hospital. No one dared him. He wanted to see if he could do it.

Pritchard was the climber many people, possibly even my parents, had in mind when they thought of a rock climber: A risk taker that wakes up after “accidents” in the hospital, if he wakes up at all. He fell, went unconscious, and woke up in the hospital at least three times, including the flight from Mr. Wooley’s classroom, in his 1997 book Deep Play: A Climber’s Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls. This was before his horrible and life changing fall on Totem Pole in Tasmnia. He suffered from a severe head injury that has impaired his use of his body’s right side.

I put Pritchard’s book on my Short Long List because it interested me and I wondered whether it could be a climbing classic. Part of this was that Prichard had climbed on many amazing climbs I read about when I just started reading about climbing. These routes were the big wall climbs of my daydreams: Mount Asgard, Paine’s Central Tower, Trango Tower, and Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and Pritchard tells his story of these routes in his book.

Deep Play is a memoir told through a series of essays told chronologically. He starts at the beginning of his life and I adore the first sentence: “I was born on top of the quarry.” There he and his friends played with explosives, found a dynamic climbing rope, and learned to climb with some real climbers. From there, he and friends developed routes along the sea wall cliffs of England, which appears to earn him invitations to bigger climbs. Later, he says, the Garwhal Himalaya was the “coolest” place he had ever been.

Pritchard was always poor. He lived off unemployment and relied on friends to help him out. His caring character and mischievous spirit earned him his adventurous friends, who were quite loyal. Scrounging and dealing for food, gear, and transportation was a perpetual theme.

What I don’t like is not knowing what actually happened at times. His writing is mesmerizing and kept me interested throughout the book. My favorite chapter was On The Big Stone; he retells one of his early climbing road trips in snippets and clues. It resonated with me and felt like the carefree and sometimes frantic qualities of an adventure with friends. But, there were a lot of details that I wanted to know that went unaddressed. For example, upon leaving, he says he forgot his pack with his gear, but it appears that they kept going, but they might have turned around and got the bag. Yet, they were low on gas. Does that mean they kept going and Pritchard used someone else’s shoes? Did he need shoes or was he climbing in his everyday sneakers? I don’t know and Pritchard doesn’t say.

David Stevenson addresses this in his review of Deep Play in the 1998 American Alpine Journal:

When I say “one gathers,” I mean it literally—it’s hard sometimes to tell exactly what happens. Pritchard quite consistently abandons the literal for the figurative, imaginative, impressionistic. The reader can’t always tell exactly what happens, but nonetheless has arrived (if he’s patient) at a sense of what has happened that’s somehow larger than the literal.

David Stevenson, 1998 American Alpine Journal

Stevenson was harsher than I want to be. He wondered whether we would be complicitous with Pritchard’s next great accident if we consider to praise him. I don’t think that would be the case. As read in Deep Play, Pritchard has been both daring and reckless since arriving at the quarry. Still, it was an ominous question as Pritchard had his life-changing fall on Totem Pole the year Stevenson’s review was published.

Deep Play was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Mountain Literature Award with Against The Wall by Simon Yates, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Icefields by Thomas Wharton, Spirits Of Place by Jim Perrin, and Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson. These are well-respected writers, even if people (like me,) disapprove of some of the stories they told (which is a tale for another time.) Pritchard’s writing was not comparable and it is a little surprising it surpassed these works.

However, Pritchard’s climbing resume, told in Deep Play, has a gravitas, and his disjointed writing is still understandable to the reader even if details (which aren’t always critical for the wonderfully mesmerizing tale anyway) are discarded with abandon. It’s a passionate, authentic, and whirlwind of an adventure that you feel much more than you see. You enter Pritchard’s dream-like memories of the climbs, and road trips, and late nights at the disco between adventures.

I recommend it to meet Paul Pritchard and feel the mountain through his writing alone.

Rating: 4/5

So that was the review. Now let me consider whether Deep Play should be advanced from my Short-Long List to be a candidate for a climbing classic? It is about significant climbs, told authentically by the author, but I am not sure if the writing and how Pritchard conveys his experiences is worth naming a classic for the good of the readers of the final list.

I am undecided. Or perhaps my reservations could put it on a to-be-determined list. Maybe it would be most suitable to be an honorable mention since the language and communication techniques are unique.

Pritchard has written other books, including about his accident on Totem Pole and a new book out this year, The Mountain Path. Perhaps after reading those, or hearing your take, I might have my opinion on the book’s place more firmly positioned.

Well, thanks for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining my email list, which is the best way to get updates. (I am on Facebook and Twitter too, but make sure your preferences will allow you to see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!