The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains by Barry Blanchard (2014) from Patagonia Books is a finalist for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountaineering Literature. It made the short, shortlist. Previous winners were Jules Lines’ Tears of the Dawn, Harriet Tuckey’s Everest, The First Ascent, and Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers. The Calling is a worthy peer.
The Calling is Blanchard’s autobiography. He is an alpinist with a titanium will and a gentle touch. Although we have never met (though we have corresponded,) I would not have latched onto climbing the way I had without his influence.
I first learned about Barry when I was a newly minted ice climber in college. Steve House was one of my heroes and he wrote about how anyone in North America who wanted to train hard for big mountains needed to train in the Canadian Rockies. (House was actually referring to an article by Mark Twight, but I didn’t get that subtle detail at the time.) Training in the Rockies meant getting beta from or climbing with “Bubba,” a.k.a. Barry Blanchard.
I started collecting references to and anecdotes about Blanchard, mostly from articles involving House. This was before everything about climbing was on the Internet, and I on wasn’t social media yet (and I doubt Blanchard wasn’t either). I’ve since lost it, but I used to have a photo from a magazine of a grey-pony tailed Blanchard look at slides from behind a projector. I daydreamed about the line he might have been contemplating.
Through the snippets I managed to snag about Blanchard, I was never disappointed. He always had more more thing to up his own accomplishments. From his dirtbag climbs in the Alps, his youthful solo ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, and his still legendary ascent of North Twin, he just kept going. Denali. Nanga Parbat. He climbed ice so thin it impressed his peers of his day. He lived.
Blanchard’s autobiography is told to tell a good story, and if it’s doubtful that it needed any embellishment. There are also moments of jocular humor that you only get from a bunch of grown men hanging out. Then there were moments that would make you pause and those that made you sad, a little upset, and need a drink.
His book also explains his family background in colorful detail. How his mother was abused and how he was helpless to save her. He raged and was forced to rage inside, alone. He hurt. And he hurt for those that hurt, including his sister and his brother, from being poor, and a lost.
Discovering climbing seems to have saved him and given him skills and self-purpose. Interestingly, he became determined to be a climber though he was growing up in the flat part of Alberta no where near the mountains. He bused, walked, and hitch hiked to the mountains whenever he didn’t have to work or help his family.
It seems that through the tough times in Blanchard’s life, he learned to see the joy of good hard work and things that were precious. When the story reflected at a quiet time during a bivy on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, Blanchard was romantic:
We were four men in the prime of their lives who’d all pursued their love of alpine climbing as if it were an art form. We believed that we painted lines on these magnificent mountain walls. Shigri was beautiful, seductive, and virgin.
But the other thing that Blanchard does well, especially for a new reader diving into mountaineering literature for their first or second time, is showing how consuming climbing can be and how, if we choose, commitment to climbing — and alpinism in particular — can yield satisfaction of being. After he and his friends, adopted the ideas of Reinhold Messner in his book The Seventh Grade, they immediately applied it to their approach to a climb as a matter of almost religious faith:
We called it “pure alpine style” and our unwavering belief in it defined us as “alpinists.” Alpinism was the most important aspect to our lives, our fountainhead. We believed in it, and the mountain, unconditionally.
All climbing stories can be told we went up, we arrived (or we didn’t arrive,) and we went down. Maybe something went wrong along the way. But if all climbs were as boring as that we wouldn’t read them. We wouldn’t even climb. It’s only through the writer’s perspective, and the events he/she chooses to share and when, that tell a story worth reading.
Blanchard is a hero to some of us, but he’s also a very likeable guy. His book is as likeable as he is. And his stories are better than I gathered in bits in pieces years ago. Blanchard lays sits himself next to the reader and asks, so what do you want to know and he didn’t hold anything back, and I felt like a better person for it.