It was intelligent, exciting, gross, at times nauseating and frightening, and I nearly quit reading it. But I am glad I toughed it out because the conclusion was climbing-history informed and damn witty.
Eric Sparling, a writer from Nova Scotia, wrote Peak published by Podium in 2022, didn’t set out to write a horror book about the supernatural. He liked monster movies like The Thing. And he had gathered a lot of convincing knowledge of high-altitude mountaineering that I was convinced and a climber-writer I referred the book to, who also read it, said it was good, “until it went batshit crazy.”
(Side note: I don’t like violent movies and I have never been inclined toward horror stories in books or movies because I think the real world has enough violence and frightening things; so I always try to pull back that veil of fear and find the beauty because of or in spite of the horrible things. I’ve watched a handful of movies, always with friends, and think fondly of The Others, The Ring, but when I tried reading Mexican Gothica by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I couldn’t finish. So for Peak, I got the audio book and listened to it driving between meetings for a week. I need a little more old-fashioned grit, I suppose.)
Sparling tells us the story of Phil Truss, a divorced newly-rich aspiring climber who learned that a brain tumor may kill him within a year. His desires to climb mountains grows and decides he wants to die a mountaineer and what better mountain to climb than the Mountaineer’s Mountain, no not Rainier or even Robson, but K2. He hires Ukrainian superstar alpinist Ivan to be his guide (for the most of his remaining wealth,) and they’re off to the Karakoram.
The first three-fifths of the book Sparling does a reasonably convincing job of describing what the climb would be like from Phil’s newbie-amateur perspective. Phil may be paying the bill, but Ivan is the boss, trying to keep him alive, and more importantly, alive until he succeeds at reaching the top. But along the way, Phil experiences some unusual visions and hears voices. Of course, he has a brain tumor, which could cause that. Ivan even explains his experiences with feeling someone’s tangible presence helping him on a climb, but he was clearly and objectively alone. This was high-altitude climbing and many things can cloud our perspective, Ivan explains.
Phil realizes he can’t ignore the visions and voices he sees of the demon trapped around K2, which he names Varney. Varney chose to reveal himself to Phil because he was the first person ever to K2 wanting life but seeking death. As we read on, as an intriguing detail, we learn that even Aleister Crowley, the Wickedest Man in the World, didn’t have the advantage Phil had in connecting with Varney.
After Sparling’s witting storytelling, my favorite aspect was how Phil dealt with the blog’s, social media outrage, and disgust from other climbers on K2 that he didn’t belong on the mountain. There were opinion pieces lambasting him for being a privileged, rich man buying his way to the top. He weighed that heavily. Was he a fraud? If he lived longer than expected, he would never be a peer to the climbers that climbed and worked for years and decades to top out on K2. He was getting a crash course and practically pulled up the mountain by Ivan, Dawa, and to some extent supernatural forces. In the end, Phil comes to peace within himself about it, but it’s quickly dashed by Varney’s plot being unveiled and what horrifying things Phil must do to transcend into the supernatural.
Other than my reservations about violence and the horrible descriptions of putrid smells (I have to give him high points for “raw vegetables reduced to liquid fermented in a coffin,”) there were two aspects that fell flat for me: First, Dawa, a professional climber on Ivan’s expedition team, was referred to as just “the Sherpa” on several occasions. Perhaps that was intended as a title of respect, but I wasn’t sure it was appropriate today. Lastly, Phil had an amateur perspective that all climbers facing a climbing challenge “storm the gates of hell” to ascend to the top of any peak, especially a dangerous one like K2. That attitude was something I thought too before I started climbing beyond bouldering and reading so many, many more first-hand non-fiction accounts. No climber is so brave and perhaps it was more tied to the book’s theme, but it wasn’t rooted in reality and I think a climber, even one unique like Phil, would understand the calculated risk management that there was no storming anything.
For mountaineering literature, I think it is hard to write something authentic without it being nonfiction. But there are exceptions. Comedy like The Ascent of Rum Doodle comes to mind. And now, for me, so does Peak. I recommend it for climbers and anyone that reads this blog willing to read a supernatural story because the twist at the end is smart and admirable, but you’ll have to go enjoy the whole adventure to find out what I mean.
(By the way, there are two non-fiction books on the market titled Peak. The other is a young-adult novel about a boy named Peak that goes to climb Everest. I read it and recommend it more favorably. Of course, I’m rated G in an R world.)
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I have a reoccurring dream that starts by arriving at what seems like an amusement park’s parking lot with big, bold signs and lots of cars with lots of people in a natural rock amphitheater. The attraction is through a turnstile entrance in the bottom of a rock wall and everyone, including me, files through. On the other side, everyone is gathering backpacks and water bottles in dusty and trampled woods. I put on my old favorite Jansport pack, which has been long-gone in real life and I start to walk slightly uphill.
In some of the dreams I am with my wife, sometimes the kids are with us, in another version I am there with my sister, and sometimes I am going solo. In all of them there is a way station and a camp a little further up from there. I remember peculiar details about the station, like quality of the wood, the knots in the step, and the pattern of the pine and leafy deciduous trees behind its lichen covered roof. In some of the dreams, I went much farther.
From the camp, the steepness increases and the trees fade into fog and the fog into snowy terrain, as if going through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe, and coming to a precipice. The cliff, in the dream, is just a viewpoint of the next leg of the journey. From there I see snowy peaks, most of them resembling K2, the Matterhorn, and peaks I once took in during my pilgrimage to Alaska. The biggest mountain, and it was a mountain not merely a peak, dwarfed them all, and was still far away. It was both intimidating and welcoming me.
I like to think of my imaginary mountain as a make believe interpretation of Denali, capping off or crowning a continent. I have the dream periodically, but have gone years between reaching the precipice to take in the great mountain. And I considered my dream frequently as I read Katie Ives’ first book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams published in 2021 by The Mountaineers Books. Ives shares a reoccurring dream of her own and stories from fact, fiction, a mix of the two, sometimes spiritual objectives, and a hoax intended to shake up the new direction mountain climbing was taking among the outdoors community after World War II.
THE CRUX HOAX
In the 1962 issue of Summit, the climbing magazine of the day, there was an anonymous contribution with an enticing photo of multiple alpine big walls broken up with hanging glaciers with several routes marked. The accompanying story told of attempts, but no first ascents. The caption read: “[T]he unclimbed summit of ‘Riensenstein [sic],’ approximately 8,100 feet, near Prince Rupert in British Columbia.” These big walls were tantalizing and different from the walls of Gunks and Yosemite. They were exotic and waiting to be climbed. It was in a specific place and had a story that convinced most readers. Some went to British Columbia seeking these walls, only to be confused by the story and the landscape.
Did these mountains exist? If not, why would someone tease the readers so? Did the editors know and were they in on the prank? The mysterious Riesenstein in Summit was proven years later, by Al DeMaria and Pete Geiser’s article in the 1966 American Alpine Journal, was in fact an overlooked part of the Alaska Range called the Kichatna Spires. Even Bradford Washburn, who photographed most the range and knew of them, discouraged young alpinists from visiting there later because the precipitation clearly funneled to the spires’ valley.
Katie Ives digs deep in her book into the story behind the hoax as well as the deep seeded reasons we want to believe, seek, and even conjure imaginary mountains. It’s an entrancing journey into a world where humans create ideas and places to believe in, and even stories for the real places in our lives to give them more meaning. Ives takes you on a tour of the Seven Cities of Cibola, Mount Hooker and Mount Brown, Diamond Mountain, Shangri-La, Minya Konka, Amye Machen, Nanda Devi, and even Narnia. Some are fictional, some are real, but the stories are sometimes both at the same time.
The hoax was created by Harvey Manning, Ed LaChapelle, and Austin Post coming together. While each had a significant contribution from their special backgrounds and skills, Ives reveals that Manning was the instigator. Manning was best known for being a coauthor of Freedom of the Hills, the classic mountaineering instruction guide. He had successfully tried other hoaxes before, but this was his greatest; Manning hadn’t fooled people into believing in a new technology that didn’t exist this time (because he had,) no, for his greatest act, Manning would move a whole mountain! As his reward, readers looked on in wonder, climbers went searching on expeditions, and both dreamers and fools were made.
Ives reveals that Manning was a dreamer himself and sought to recreate an innocent mystical experience in nature, an experience had in the hills and that could only be duplicated there. Manning had found some secrets of the outdoors and that most people, even the new outdoor enthusiasts of his day, were missing it. New gear from sleeping bags, backpacks, and camp stoves, to name a few, were all being developed from the military industry birthed in World War II and now promoted to improve the outdoor experience for everyone, just at higher prices. Manning felt it was unnecessary and greedy. At the same time, a new kind of climber was coming onto the scene; they needed untrodden peaks where “no one” had been, or no one had recorded going, to fill new entries of alpine journals with their name on it. Manning thought it was “a pretentious bullshit thing,” according to someone who knew Manning and listened to him laugh about the climbers declaring they would be the first to ascend the Riesenstein. Reading this made me consider how even I preferred my simple Jansport backpack and Timberland boots when I started hiking to the new, “technical” gear from Eastern Mountain Sports with specific brand names I started acquiring when I began earning a pay check. Did I need it for the most wonderful experiences in nature?
Ives sprinkles her book with many little stories of other climbs and points of mountaineering history that even I hadn’t come across. And, having known quite a bit about the real history of the Kichatna already, I was very pleased that she relayed their whole story from their first obervation by Westerners in 1898 to the real first attempts. (After reading Ives’ book, I feel that Manning’s hoax story was practically prophetic in nature about how the first attempt would go.)
Most of all, I appreciate how Ives isolated the notion of what we seek when we go into nature looking for adventure through examining Manning’s life. It’s intensely personal and sometimes it’s fundentally about the imagined story and narrative we tell ourselves.
RIESENSTEIN AND BRIDGING GENERATIONS
Coincidentally, my first issue of Alpinist Magazine was issue 36 in autumn 2011. That was when Ives first wrote about the Riesenstein Hoax. I started conversing and later working with Ives on a couple of projects of my own or Alpinist around the same time. Then I thought I was just catching up about the Riensenstein and that this story was lasting and legendary in the mind of romantic climbers, like me (though I am much more romantic about climbing than I am a climber.)
Actually, it was relatively new to Ives too. She re-discovered the Riesenstein Hoax from Andy Selters through his 2004 book Ways to the Sky. (I haven’t read Ways to the Sky yet, but I can tell you that it was a Banff Mountain Literature Competition winner in the history category, which is a gold-star level recommendation to me.) Thank you, Mr. Selters for reintroducing it. It might not have caught Katie Ives’ eye until much later, if at all.
Digging into the whole story of the Riesenstein Hoax also reintroduced us to the magazine, Summit, and its publishers Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness. However, in the early days they used pseudonyms and and published letters to the editor addressed “Dear Sir,” because when the magazine started in 1955, Crenshaw and Kilness were concerned their magazine wouldn’t be taken seriously if readers knew it was being run by women. Later, it wasn’t the case after the magazine ran for a few years.
Katie Ives is celebrated today for her writing and leadership of Alpinist Magazine. She started almost from its inception, and watched it go out of business and be resurrected with the help of Michael Kennedy. But Ives gentle and influential editorial touch (which I experienced as a contributor) gave it a unique place among climbing periodicals; you didn’t have to be a world-class climber to contribute, art was welcome, and many diversified viewpoints were encouraged and sought. In Alpinist and in her book, she makes a point to use indigenous names of destinations and mountains in parenthesis in a persistent effort to overcome the, as Ives wrote in the book, “[A]ttemped suppressions of the heritages of Indigenous people–first with colonialist myths and imagined blanks projected onto maps, then new boundaries drawn across conquered lands and new names imposed on ancient rivers, valleys, and peaks.” There have been other female publishers and editors in climbing — several I still read and admire like Alison Osius (check out her biography of Hugh Herr) — and having this connection between Ives and Crenshaw and Kilness through the Riesenstein and this book brings me joy!
(For a brief read, before you buy her book, please read about Ives’ visit to Crenshaw and Kilness in 2014 in Alpinist 49: “A House of Stone and Snow.”)
YOUR IMAGINARY MOUNTAINS
My reoccurring mountain dream may be organic, just as I dream about my wife and baseball too, but many of us are seeking mountains in our day dreams. We watch Reel Rock, YouTube videos, buy climbing magazines, and read books. We want something from these mountain experiences. And Katie’s exploration of Manning’s hoax has me wondering about whether I really want, or ever wanted, the first ascent and a fresh entry in an American Alpine Journal. Manning didn’t and thought it was an unjustified ambitious desire when we didn’t have to feed ego to take joy from the mountains and wilderness. Perhaps Summit‘s companionable and accessible approach to the mountains is enough.
I recently read Grace Lin’s novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In it, there is a peak named Never Ending Mountain on which you can reach our nearest celestial neighbor. At the top, the protagonist doesn’t solve her problem or her riddle, but takes a giant leap in learning how. I like to climb, and hike, and spend time in the outdoors, and search for answers, peace, and joy that I can put in my backpack for later. Manning shows us a different way, and Katie introduces us to all kinds of wonderful new paths to look.
If you are looking for magic places, whether it’s your real summit, a mountain pass, Middle Earth, Narnia, or the transformative power of a walk in the woods without a map, I highly recommend you read Katie Ives’ ImaginaryPeaks. No, you have to read Katie Ives’ Imaginary Peaks. When you’re done, leave her a good review in stars, and maybe shoot me an email and let me know your thoughts too. I’ll pass them on to her publisher so she can go write the next one!
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Note: Sometime after I learned David Roberts was diagnosed with cancer I wrote what major newspapers call a “preobituary” about him. These obituaries are prepared in advance and published immediately upon the individuals death to share the news and explain the person’s significance. These are written for exceptional celebrities, leaders, athletes, and writers. For me and my readers David Roberts qualfies and I hoped to celebrate his life respectfully this way. However, when Roberts died in August 2021 I went to hit publish on my formal piece but had serious misgivings about it and have ever since. The preobituary wasn’t good enough. After a lot of thought during this year of wearing black, as a tribute I decided to share with you the two things that I learned from David Roberts that deeply influenced my life.
When I read David Roberts words about Ed Bernd vanishing on Mount Huntington, it was still winter in 2000 and I was in my avoiding working on a mid-term college paper reading in the comfort of my bed. My world was dimly lit by an old hanging lamp, which cast my reading space with a plastic yellow-orange glow. I bought the book, Moments of Doubt, an anthology of Roberts short works because I had just finished The Lost Explorer, which he wrote with Conrad Anchor, and was my introduction to Everest climbing beyond the Imax movie.
Roberts and Bernd were descending as a two-man team of a four-expedition after their successful second ascent by a new route of the most beautiful peak in the Alaska Range. It was now dark and the two two-man teams were climbing to tents at different camps to rest before continuing the descent Roberts and Bernd would go lower and on the descent to camp, unroped, there was a spark, and without a sound or more explanation, Ed Bernd disappeared.
Roberts quieted my unstill mind at that moment and I was was wholly present on Mount Huntington in a dark world. It wasn’t war, it wasn’t politics, it wasn’t work or school, but the joy at the top and the specter of death was palpable. And this wasn’t fiction.
Alone, Roberts descended to the lower camp. Foul weather blew in and for five days, Roberts spent in the tent wondering about Bernd. Wondering whether Bernd could be walking out or what his resting place would be like. Wondering if his teammates were at the higher camp. When would they come? Would they come?
I sunk into a dreamlike-like state in the orange light. I was surprised he was alone, in the dark, high on a slope. Roberts’ partners may be a few hundred yards aways but this was a windy night, without a radio, and in 1965 when shouting and visits were the most effective communication.
The essay in Moments of Doubt is largely a introspective piece composed of a longeur during his tent stay. I read with interest, and even now, 22 years later, I saw the bright spark opening to a void with an orange glow.
This story in the essay, originally a magazine article, “Five Days on Mount Huntington,” introduced me to a wholly separate and valid view of the world I didn’t fully know. I had read the Bible with intense interest to find my who I was and set my purpose. I was also increasingly drawn to political leaders and war heroes, like George Washington, John McCain, John F. Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger since I was in middle school. These stories showed me paths, but none of them taught me about myself, and the toll of courage, endurance, and honorable character, in the classic old-fashioned sense. No one wrote so honestly as Roberts about self-doubt, second guessing, pity, and a selfish soul trying to rise above itself that I have ever found.
Which brings me to the first thing Roberts taught me, through his works: Seriously considering a wave of doubt about anything important was not itself a sin, and death was an end of living, at least on earth where I wanted to be, no matter what my pastor said or history books said about immortals. “Five Days on Mount Huntington” was just the start of seeking stories where people pursuing great challenges opened up. I looked for more in biographies of world leaders and business executives, in baseball memoirs, golf autobiographies, and found some during the longeurs but not one compared to those written by Roberts or by a climber generally. They became proverbs and scripture of an un-sacred un-codified book.
THE COST OF TRANSCENDENCE
Roberts story of Ed Bernd continued in his autobiography On the Ridge Between Life and Death. Roberts was coming home from from Mount Huntington and he volunteered to pay his respects to Ed Bernds parents. Roberts hoped to comfort them, and perhaps make them more proud of their son.
In an interview on the Apinist Podcast he confesses to interviewer Paula Wright that he was woefully unprepared for the mourning of parents. In Outside Magazine in 1980, Roberts published the essay “Moments of Doubt,” which became the title of the anthology of articles where I read “Five Days on Mount Huntington.” In that article he asks whether climbing is worth the risks and he boldly reasons, yes, absolutely: Despite the pain and sacrifice, the beauty found on an alpine summit or ridge was overwhelmingly euphoric and transcends many petty things of life. To experience that was worth the risk. The flaw, he confessed to Wright much, much later, was that he hadn’t considered the cost of the risk to others.
Ed’s parents were in despair and distraught that Ed’s body was unrecoverable. When Roberts comforted them that Ed’s resting place was a beautiful place on the glacier of the Alaska Range, he was met with a reply from a different set of values: Ed’s mother replied (and I imagine sorrowfully,) “My son, he must be so cold.”
This raises the second lesson Roberts taught me: You may hold the token for transcendence’s slot machine, but someone you care for may be the cosigner left with an enormous price to pay. Jennifer Lowe Anker and Brett Harrington have both lost significant others in climbing and their grief has been documented through film, a book, and articles by them and others. And at least they embraced climbing. Ed’s parents didn’t.
I am in awe of achievement in the mountains from Roberts and his fellow Harvard Mountaineering Club members climbing Denali’s north face, the dangerous Wickersham Wall, to Alex Honnold’s historic free solo of Free Rider on El Capitan in Yosemite. The consequences, I believe, they accepted, though everyone on the Wickersham Wall were a little naive about that climb (they thought all the rocks falling were normal risks that had to be overcome by shear grit.) The possibility of death was at least disclosed. Within the circle of climbers, we all understand that we are seeking something, or even pursuing some transcendence with nature or within ourselves. The explanations for death in pursuit of that failure are a different equation.
Climbing is an amazing pursuit with the ability to hurt the ones we love. I don’t know how to balance that. Roberts didn’t have an answer or a lesson for that, unfortunately. Maybe that question is part of an unfinished third lesson from David Roberts.
Lastly, to Mr. Roberts, thank you for writing and sharing your stories and your insightful thoughts with me throughout your life. And thank you for introducing me to so many interesting and important historical climbers, including Bradford Washburn. My life has been better with all of it.
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What would stop you from climbing? As in, what would make you retire? And would you be okay with stopping?
Stopping climbing is not like trading softball for golf in your 40s. People stop playing baseball, softball, and football at a point everyone commonly accepts, when the new “kids” joining are faster and can drink you under the table. Climbing doesn’t have the same convention because climbing is also entwined with a lifestyle who’s ethics are about being scrappy and overcoming hurdles.
Except everything comes to an end and hopefully it’s by a conclusion of our choosing. However, even for the dedicated climber, the end of climbing can be quite subtle. Now I am worried that I may have inadvertently crossed some sort of invisible threshold.
HOW LONG CAN YOU GO?
Of course, there are lots of people that climbed into old age. Fred Becky is everyone’s favorite example. Don Mellor said he never thought of himself as old, which is why he told him he even thought of becoming a schoolteacher when he was in his 70s. Gary Bloch, a man who climbed throughout his lifetime, went up El Capitan at age 81. Not too far off in age, Tom Choate summited Denali at age 78.
They are inspiring examples, but they are also outliers. Most climbers are active in their 20s and into their 30s. Then again, perhaps today more climbers are active in their teens and 20s, due to the growth of modern climbing gyms and organized climbing, which wasn’t as prevalent a 20 years ago.
I sometimes meet people that say they used to climb. Sara, a close colleague in Washington about ten years older than me, blurted out one day when they learned I liked climbing, “I used to climb at Cochise Stronghold.” We talked about how she had climber friends in college and she just tagged along. She didn’t climb back East, so it was a college thing. “But I’d love to go back,” she added.
Injury is such a fickle excuse. Sometimes it’s final and sometimes we treat it like it’s final when it’s temporal. It depends on the injury, but even losing a finger to a circular saw making homemade shims (read up on Tommy Caldwell for more on this) doesn’t stop people, they adapt. Injuries that result in a handicap seem to just present a new hurdle to overcome.
Another friend, we’ll call Kerry, had her first serious climbing injury at Earth Treks in Crystal City (that’s National Landing to those new to DC.) She tore a shoulder tendon and between surgery and recovery, she wasn’t climbing for 18 months. (Or should I say a mere 18 months?)
Health might be the real show stopper. Anything effecting energy levels and strength can sideline someone significantly. I suffer from eczema, and there was a time when the holds in the summer and the chalk was making my arms turn red and itchy. But that was brief. Cancer and other serious diseases, and their treatments, can really keep us from climbing.
The late great David Roberts stopped going to Alaska around the 1980s. He said he was often asked if he still climbed and his answer is no, or not like he used to. Roberts explained that it was too hard to stay in climber shape and too scary to climb the routes like the ones he established. He replaced the time he devoted to Alaskan pioneering to exploring the American desert southwest, and even wrote books about it.
For me, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 was the last day I visited my gym to climb because the next day, my organization felt the coronavirus was emerging as major threat and I was writing up contingency plans to on how to shutdown our nonprofit’s operations. After that I didn’t go anywhere except the office to hang a sign on the door, “We’re closed; please call or email us.” I took on an understanding attitude about everything, but privately I mourned the disruption to our community and not going to the gym to climb. I wondered: How would I fill my cup now?
Without work, my commute, and climbing as part of my weekly routine, how I spent my time for work, family, and to maintain health and wellness had to change. For a while I just rode my bike and took more walks, but that wasn’t anything like the physical and mental puzzle climbing offered. Eventually, I took a golf club outside and dropped a Wiffle ball on our lawn and practiced my swing. Then I made a game of going around the house in as few shots as possible.
Schnickelfritz got his two-and-a-half foot club and joined me. We had such a good time together, we did the next natural thing and visited the golf course just a couple of block away from our home. Though it was closed by law, we would play a hole or just hit a sleeve of balls as far and straight as we could down a fairway. When golf courses re-opened, they became a safe outdoor meeting place. Before I was conscious about it, golf was taking up some significant space in my life.
It is ironic to me that golf has re-emerged in my life now. This blog was the result of some practicality. In 2010, at the cafe in Middlebury, VT I was trying to find a way to use my free time back home in DC to bring me more joy. My first idea was to play better golf. I would take lessons and play every Saturday. Except, Natalie and I shared one car, getting to the affordable courses were not convenient, we had an expensive mortgage and were planning a family. Oh, and I traveled frequently for work, so taking another five to six hours (with commute) to get a weekly round in was exorbitant. I would be sticking with the status quo of playing in golf once or twice a year when invited to fill a foursome. But writing this thing called a blog about the books and interests I had in mountaineering seemed like a smart path. This brings me joy.
Will I climb again? I don’t see why I wouldn’t. I might become the regular golfer and the occasional climber. I will always hike and peak bag via less vertical routes, Lord willing, since they require less fitness maintenance. All I know for sure is that the space for reading and writing about climbing hasn’t been overtaken (and it has been nearly impossible to replace!)
HOW DO YOU FILL YOUR CUP?
You’ve probably heard those analogies involving a cup and how it pertains to you as a person. I don’t know how the one I am using here, in the header, and this blog post, originated. There are two I am intimately familiar with. First, Jesus prayed to His Holy Father that this cup pass from him if possible, meaning the job of being crucified, be given to someone else (then he also prayed, Your will be done, and it was.) Second, Buddhism has a story that explains how a student should come to a teacher, and if the student’s cup arrives full, everything the teacher shares will just end up on the table and floor in a wet mess.
For some reason, life coaches everywhere on the Internet use this one: You, like every person, has an inner cup that can hold all kinds of things, and they teach that you should fill it only with good things that give you joy and make you well.
Years ago, I asked Banff winning author Chris Kalman what makes a full climbing life? He saw the fallacy of my question, and politely tried to explain: “To me, there is no full climbing life, there is only a full life. And a full life is not a destination, or an end-goal, but a process and a pursuit.” Kalman knew that there were not multiple cups that made up the cup of life. It’s what you fill that one cup with and how you fill it.
Both Sara and Kerry had transitions placed upon them. One moved. One had an injury. Both could have been overcome, yet they embraced a different set of circumstances. Sara had a family and developed a career. She was healthy and happy. Kerry still climbed but the first thing I thought of her now when catching up through her social media pages, and seeing her at conferences just recently was the standup comic performer. Kerry will tell you that she wouldn’t have gone to the comedy clubs to make people laugh, rather than to laugh, without the change after her injury.
Sara, Kerry, and Chris all gave themselves some liberty in how they define themselves: Although they all climbed, and they called themselves climbers, they didn’t define or identify themselves solely by their climbing. I don’t think they would define themselves solely as professionals or comedians either.
Perhaps the end of climbing is all about how you are presented with the occasion and what you do next. The end would be worth mourning if it meant your death, if that was how you identified yourself. But if you have something to replace it, and it is a thing of quality, then perhaps there won’t be a hole in you, or empty space in your cup. I pray that if the end of climbing comes for you, that you have or find what you need to continue with a full cup, a full life. But please don’t stop reading about it, because that wouldn’t be life to its fullest.
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I have seen his name on the spines of a handful of books and his picture in Patagonia catalogues but haven’t really understood why that was. His mountaineering exploits never stood out front and center and he seemed more of a travel writer. I didn’t actually understand why he kept coming up. Now I know.
Ridgeway has written his autobiography, A Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map, published by Patagonia Books in 2021, and it’s beautiful, both for the cover, the photographs, and his life’s story. It could almost be mistaken for a coffee table book, like many of new volumes from Patagonia Books today. It could easily have been a paperback without all of the coffee table elements and have become a dogged-eared copy in a young person’s backpack guiding them on an unconventional path to success.
Despite climbing Everest and being among the first Americans to summit K2 in 1978, Ridgeway was never the most important person in the events he was part of and witnessed. He was a team player. He grew into the role of mentor and coach, doling opportunity freely, including to Jimmy Chin, and he guided characters like Dick Bass and Frank Wells to climb the Seven Summits (the Kosciuszko version) for the first time, regardless of which Pacific-Australia peak they climbed. From there, he filmed for television and documentaries, including Patagonia’s 180° South, and fostered his love for birds into wildlife in general and took to advocacy. But the lasting impact on me, has been his lasting relationships, often expressing gratitude to people, like Chris Chandler, who invited him to climb Everest.
Chandler’s invitation changed Ridgeway’s life course. Ridgeway’s life was off to a difficult start: During his high school years, his father burned down the house his family called home, committing insurance fraud for his mother’s and his sake and vanished into the South Seas. Ridgeway moved into his best friends parent’s Airstream trailer while he finished school. Ridgeway’s mother saw her son’s interest in mountain climbing (through applying his book learning from Freedom of the Hills on Mount Baldy,) and needing somewhere to send him during the summer, enrolled him in Outward Bound.
Everest started a great journey of friendship for Ridgeway, during his expeditions to Everest, K2, and into once-forbidden China to attempt Minya Konka. On Everest expedition, Ridgeway met Jonathan Wright. Wright took Ridgeway on a significant detour prior to the ascent to visit a monastery. Ridgeway learned meditation and found inner peace, or at least the seeds of it, within himself. Wright would also speak up for the less experienced Ridgeway during the climb and gave him advice, as if he were sharing tips for being a good factory worker together: Be patient and don’t slack when it’s your turn. It later got Ridgeway to the summit of K2.
Ridgeway also became a documentary filmmaker on K2 by happenstance. He filled in for an absent teammate on the factory-work-like slope of the seige-style expedition, learned a new skill, and grew a new branch in his career. He would go on to film for CBS, Patagonia, and other nature documentations.
When Ridgeway met his wife Jennifer, she was a jet-setter of the 1970s and early 1980s like he was, both traveled widely to exotic places but for contrasting lifestyles. Jennifer was a purchaser for Calvin Klein. Ridgeway and a friend tried coaxing her to join them on a trek for a National Geographic assignment. They even offered that they could get her good boots in a nearby neighborhood of Kathmandu; but she declined gracefully, explaining that the farthest she walks is from a New York City taxi to the doors of Bergdorf Goodman. They made it to dinner instead and rendezvoused on other occasions. They both learned that had lost important people in their lives and supported each other in healing. They later married at his beach shack near Montecito, California.
Rodgeway knew Doug Tompkins and Kris McDivitt Tompkins before they were married, and before establishing Esprit. Kris and Doug would sell Esprit, with its brand The North Face, to save millions of acres in Patagonia for conservation. Doug was a friend and adventure buddy with Yvon Chouinard, and Ridgeway was with them on the fateful kayaking trip in 2016 when Doug’s boat flipped and he died of hypothermia.
The story that touches me the most about Ridgeway was the extended story of Jonathan Wright. Shortly after the Everest expedition, and Ridgeway’s historic K2 summit, Ridgeway and Wright joined Yvon Chouinard and others to climb in China for the first time since the People’s Republic of China closed Its borders from Western travelers. They’re destination was Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for Gongga Shan, which its summit was 7,556 m./24,700 ft. above sea level. It had only been climbed twice before, once by Americans in 1932 and the Chinese in 1957. This time, they were going to put up a new route.
There is some dispute about the avalanche risk assessment or whether there was one, but above Camp II Ridgeway and others glissaded down the slope to show off and return, hallering yahoo as they went. The subtle yet unmistakable and dreadful whump sound from the snow released the snow sheet on the slope and threatened everyone. Jonathan Wright, Ridgeway’s best friend, was killed. They buried him on the mountain.
The team retreated home and Chouinard shouted and cursed the mountains for what happened. He even complained that, “These mountains are too high,” which made me consider whether they were (still am, actually.) A guide from the Tetons blamed Ridgeway for triggering the avalanche because he was too preoccupied making the documentary of the climb to assess the risk.
Jonathan Wright was survived by his wife and infant daughter Asia Wright. Ridgeway wrote about Asia’s request to him that he take her to the slopes of Minya Konka to visit her father’s resting place in his book, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father (1998.) I saw this book in paperback in 2000 when I started reading climbing books but quickly dismissed it; it appeared too sentimental and not adventurous enough. After reading A Life Lived Wild I now think that I was too young to understand. Now that I am 43 and a father, I am planning on reading it.
So Rick Ridgeway is more than I expected. My friends, Alex and Caleb in Alexandria, have been involved with Patagonia stores in Washington, DC and the newer shop across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA for the last 20 years. One of them is an assistant manager. They have met many of the filmmakers, authors, and subjects of the company’s communications when they have come through for employee and public events. They were first introduced to Ridgeway just after 2000 and speak fondly of him and hold him in high regard. He seems to hold a different place compared to the other athletes that tour their shops. As they mention to me that when they first met him that he wasn’t as tall as they expected, they brush past that facet and talk about 180° South or the initiatives at the company he lead since 2005. They talk about his life’s work, the work on his book, that I recommend, A Life Lived Wild.
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The verdict on what are classic climbing books is still out, for me, which is a reason I keep this blog, but this book is significant for its subject and its approach. Annapurna South Face: The Classic Account of Survival by expedition leader Sir Chris Bonington, published in 1971, broke the mold of what everyone thought an expedition book was supposed to be. And if this isn’t a classic climbing book, it is at least the record of a historic climb.
Although some have found the book tedious with logistical details about climbing expedition management, that is typical of an expedition book. That is, after all, what this book is fundamentally. And Expedition books played an important role; they were the standard way to record explorations into new realms, particularly to guide future explorers and adventurers about what is already known, and, of course, establish a record of one’s accomplishments. Bonington, however, stands out as a writer of an expedition book and a climbing leader, and his book could be a top ten classic climbing book.
First, Bonington is not actually the sole author. As was the case with all expeditions, the leader wrote the chronicle and his (yes, they were all men with few exceptions) team members would attempt the summit. And the underlying idea, from the ethical approach common among big expedition efforts, was that if one person from the team made the summit, the whole expedition was successful. In this case, Bonington included the chapter about the last leg of reaching the summit from the first-person perspective of Dougal Haston who reached the summit with Don Whillians.
These books include a treasure trove of data and stories that is sometimes like going through a box from my grandfather’s business; I found things called paperweights, old photos, hand-written receipts, and correspondence (old fashioned letters hammered out from a typewriter.) For Annapurna South Face, Bonington opened his filing box and spoke about the process of getting official approval from Nepal and traveling, with his team and all of their gear, by boat. Bonington lead a team of team 21 climbers, including Haston, Whillians, Mick Fowler, Tom Frost (the sole American, in case that matters to you,) and several other alpine luminaries. After organizing food and porters to carry their loads, they often slept under the stars.
I don’t know whether to excuse Bonington or call him out for his insensitivity over Nepal’s poverty. During the expedition party’s approach to Annapurna he witnessed the Nepalese children, and observed the fifth and low-quality of living, the poor quality of food, and how their simple, delightful smiles were something noble yet naive to their poverty. The observation was honest, but in fact, he was naive to his party’s own entrance on the scene, which was a juxtaposition of health, fitness and the pursuit of a luxurious challenge.
One of my favorite segments involved Don Whillians during a lonesome wandering on the approach. He returned from reconnoiter as if he had seen a ghost. In fact, he believed he saw an abominable snow monster, the Himalayan Yeti. Whether he had or not, Bonington suspected that Whillians had merely became disoriented, spooked himself, and walked in circles. Whillians long disputed this; it’s worth the your own wandering down a search-engine rabbit hole about this.
Whillians was also handy, and, in order to provide better sleeping accomodations on the wall, Bonington documents the Whillians Box. It was essentially a cube-shaped tent with lumber for support. It could also be described as a port-a-ledge and tent combo. Arguably, it was more protection from falling debris too.
Bonington invited one American on this British expedition. It was good for some added publicity with a news audience across the pond. (Notice I said “news” not media; it was 1970, after all.) But Tom Frost, the American stood out among the team for reasons other than his nationality. The British members drank and smoke regularly. Frost was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke either. It came to blows on the steep flanks, during a multi-day hold up in a tent. The smoke would get to me too; I’ll let you read the book to see how that panned out and affected the rest of the climb with his partners.
Bonington tracked his climbers up their chosen route, starting with a long ice ridge, then an equally long rock face. All combined it took longer than planned: Five weeks followed by three more, respectively. To tell the story of the summit leg, as was the approach in other expedition books like Annapurna, Dougal Haston contributed a chapter with his firsthand account. Haston dropped his personal gear but recovered and persevered. I don’t like to spoil the whole thing, but will say that the story gets better, and there is a tragedy. (Perhaps both are common knowledge among climbers, but reading it first hand yourself is important; it is the primary source, so dive in!)
Bonington was indeed detailed. That is an criticism or a compliment, depending on your opinion. I admit that I appreciated the detail and it wasn’t a dry list, but a rich commentary, with personality, colorful opinions from experience, that was laying evidence for not only what Bonington’s men did but the style, way, and judgments of how they did it. Their gear, the conditions, and the ice ridge and rock face were all subjective to interpretations of strategy. I like to think I was able to see things as the author.
NEXT POST, LIFE’S EVOLVING CHALLENGES
As for life here in Peaklessburg, my Habitat affiliate has embarked on a five-year building plan. Since it’s a nonprofit and requires fundraising, pledges, visits, and such, it could easily be likened to the five-year voyage of the starship Enterprise visiting new worlds. The most complicated part, though not necessarily the hardest, is finding suitable sites for new homes, which takes a lot of due diligence for feasibility and, at times, negotiating.
Suburban life has sucked me in a little more. With two cars compared to our one in DC, I have shuttled our kids around more often than I ever considered I would have. Thank goodness for wireless devices and Bluetooth connections.
In TSM news, I’m stopped and will finish soon Rick Ridgeway’s autobiography, Life Lived Wild (2021) from Patagonia Books. I Ridgeway’s books never seemed that compelling to me, but I now see why he has been so important, at least to the Patagonia company and brand over the years. I’ll explain that later.
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