Edward Whymper and Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Standing alone. (All rights reserved)

While the literature from the 1900s to the present is rich with mountaineering content, I once assumed that everything from the 1800s all read like something long winded by George Eliot with pages turning over without a period or other final punctuation mark. Then someone in a group of climbing book collectors that I used to belong remarked that Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper (1871) was surprisingly very readable. Well, I regret that I didn’t read it sooner.

Scrambles seems to have been the quintessential adventure book for budding mountaineers before Maurice Herzog wrote Annapurna. After reading Scrambles I couldn’t understand why it was out of print; it ought to be like those classics whose copyright long expired and every book publisher knows someone will buy if the edition looks handsome enough.

Of course, there’s a trend, supposedly, where people claim to have read things that they never have read and have no intention of ever reading. This is one book, I suspect, people have lied about reading. With all of the secondary sources and authorities citing it, it’s easy to feel like you read it because you’ve gleaned something from other people’s Cliffs Notes, right? Scrambles contains classic stories that have been retold by Robert MacFarlane and David Roberts, just to name just two other modern storytellers. But if you want to be credible on the subject, this book must be on your reading list.

Scrambles Amongst the Alps. (All rights reserved)

Edward Whymper was an English tradesman making a living as an illustrator and engraver, who managed to have the means to travel to Europe and take-in the wonders of the Alps. He visits obscure towns, seeks out guides, makes first ascents, and is party to and witness to the first attempts on the mighty Matterhorn, including the tragic fall. The ascent of the Matterhorn isn’t quite what Annapurna is in terms of dramatics, however, the travelogue nature of Scrambles puts it in a different category altogether. Whymper is surprisingly conversational and an excitable geek, spending a whole chapter on a train through the Alps and the engineering of tunnels. (His enjoyment of the technical, particularly around the Fell Railway and the great tunnel drilled down to hand drawn illustrations of the train’s brakes and sentences like, “This greatly diminishes the up-and-down motion, and renders oscillation almost impossible.” (I skimmed this chapter, as I read it primarily for the climbing.) He also offers readers recommendations on where to stay the night and places to be avoid, because, as he might say it tersely today, the hosts don’t know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

One sequence I found particularly amusing was when Whymper was climbing Mount Pelvoux. His guide, Old Sémiond, claimed to have been to the top before and knew the way. Instead, they spent an extra night on the wrong part of the mountain and Old Sémiond continued to insist he knew the way, even redirecting the party to avoid the ice, which he had “a strong objection to.” Whymper became his own indefatigable guide, knowing much more by instinct than his hired help.

Whymper’s attitude and language throughout the book is candid and fascinated by the unique (which is still unique today, interestingly, ranging from history of the region to the challenges of climbing,) and at times a little cheeky. While the titles of the chapter, not unlike the title of the book, are matter-of-fact and bland, yet the prose is surprisingly frank, laying judgments about history, terrain, and the company around him.

Crossing a bergschrund. (All rights reserved)

Scrambles tells Edward Whymper’s journey through the Alps and the people and challenges along the way in climbing them, as Whymper goes about peak bagging. The great fall on the East Face of the Matterhorn, after the first ascent, however, does not disappoint. And he does more than an adequate job of showing the reader what it felt like to watch his teammates fall 4,000 feet to the glacier. They paused, unable to move, for fear their steps could repeat the same horrible missteps to the bottom. His final advice to his readers may be applied to life, as well as mountain adventures: “Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper one of the most charming books I’ve read. It is a combination of period-travelogue and a first-hand account of early climbing in the Alps that cannot be supplemented by secondary sources. It is available through Top of the World Books, the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall Mountaineering Library (members of the AAC get books shipped for free,) online, and, if you’re lucky, some old dusty copy might even be at your local library.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

Why Mountains Were Cool Before Climbers Climbed

The Retreat. (All rights reserved)

We’ve been told that prior to 1681, mankind thought of mountains as unpleasant boils on the surface of the earth or heaps, or at least some unsightly feature that we were likely to avoid or dismiss altogether. We’ve been told that after 1681, opinions began to shift. This was when Thomas Burnet published The Sacred Theory of the Earth, which we’ve been told that this was the moment when mankind began looking at mountains not as inconvenient land on which to farm but as clues to earth’s past. If something in you rebelled at the thought, because something in believed mountains have always been beautiful, then I have something to tell you.

During Christmas break I reread Robert MacFarlane’s landmark and mesmerizing book Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003). MacFarlane brought our generation’s attention to the shift initiated by Burnet through this book. My wife noticed that I had underlined passages and had notes throughout in ink. I was rightly chastised. My only defense was that this was how I took notes in college to help me write papers; I didn’t need to copy every line and make a citation, it was just here. She did make me feel a bit guilty, though I could find key passages with ease.

On the last page, I found a note I wrote after reading it the first time. It was a mild dissent, though without any concrete foundation. MacFarlane’s thesis was that how we experience mountains is all in out imagination. I agree, even today, that how we perceive nature is driven by how things are framed, but I didn’t share his conclusion entirely. I never bothered to try to prove it, but I felt like there were many examples of wildness (which mountains are a part) that were necessary components for finding enlightenment. I mean, think of all the times some character in the Bible went into the wilderness and saved whole populations of people… Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and even Paul to an extent. I even think Daniel would have climbed a mountain, except he was such a city kid; it’s all that he knew.

Mountains of the Mind

Robert MacFarlane’s book has been one of my favorites over the years. I regret that I didn’t read it sooner than I did, which was five or so years after it was initially published. MacFarlane tells the recent history of how mankind has looked at mountains and how our contemporary game of mountaineering and climbing has evolved under the lens of previous literature and adventurers. Here’s his thesis statement from the opening chapter:

This book tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated. For this reason, it is a history which scrutinizes not the ways people have gone into the mountains, but the ways that they have imagined they were going into them, how they felt about them and how they have perceived them… It isn’t a history of mountaineering at all, in fact, but a history of the imagination. (MacFarlane, 22-1)

Among retelling his own climbing stories, MacFarlane does a marvelous job at connecting the dots, starting at the end of his book where he recounts in pointillism-detail George Mallory’s intense obsession with Mount Everest (and there is no doubt that the great climber was obsessed, according to MacFarlane or most other researchers,) and tracing back through time contemplating how Europeans, and Britons in particular, viewed mountains. MacFarlane’s key juncture, where his book begins is with Thomas Burnet in the 1680s. While rudimentary, Burnet was the first to suggest how mountains came to be, which kicked-off a scientific look at the mountains. What followed was science, and romantic poets offered wondrous descriptions of the landscape spurred a movement in search of the sublime.

Fundamental to MacFarlane’s view, and retelling of Burnett’s view, is that the mountain landscapes were unwanted tracts of land to be avoided and ignored. A later view offers clues to a conspiracy theory. And we’re all victims.

Mountain Gloom that Wasn’t

Thanks to Alpinist, I discovered Dawn L. Hollis, a graduate student at the University at St. Andrew’s. She contributed to issue 57 in spring 2017. And she’s offered a few reasons why our belief that Burnett was a visionary was wrong.

In the Wired column, Hollis wrote a piece titled “Rethinking Mountain Gloom.” She said that three years ago she gave a speech to the Alpine Club (the original one from Briton,) “to put forth an alternative story — a narrative of mountains that were full of activity and written of in terms of the deepest admiration — long before the development of modern mountaineering.” And this included long before the pivot around 1681.

Hollis demonstrates that there was actually some disagreement around Burnet’s dismal characterization of mountains. Herbert Croft, an aged Bishop, countered Burnet that mountains were great, which Hollis quotes. Others also dissented, and Hollis concluded:

Burnet was an unusual early modern figure… but not because he occasionally found mountains to be wonderful. Rather, he was strange precisely because he shuddered at them, and suggested that they were not God-given.

The article is well worth seeking out and paying full price for a back-copy if necessary, particularly as she goes back deeper in time to uncover numerous examples of praise and adoration of mountains from literature to art.

Hollis goes on to explain that there appears to have been a sort of cover-up, or revisionist take that used Burnet’s view to promote the value and significance of mountaineering. Through the Alpine Journal, members entered their historic ascents and presented perspective, through a revisionist lens to deliberately cast pre-mountaineering activities in the mountains as antiquity and unenlightened, essentially. More interestingly, Hollis demonstrates evidence that successive writers were influenced by these subtleties and followed suit, perpetuating the myth.

I wish we could take a second crack at MacFarlane’s take. Perhaps we’d have to reach back farther than Burnet’s work to make it complete. The story is still true, but as Hollis showed, there’s more to the story.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why Dead Everest Climbers Have Become Landmarks

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

Rope Team. (All rights reserved)

It seems that Smithsonian Magazine online has gotten into the game of writing content with click-baited headlines. I guess you have to when the website has lots of advertising. Well, this article from 2012 has made it around the social grapevine once more, as something to gawk at: “There Are Over 200 Bodies on Mount Everest and They’re Used as Landmarks.”

The writer, Rachel Nuwer, told the story of three climbers that attempted to climb Everest but never made it down. They’re tragic stories. The stories she doesn’t tell are tragic too. But as Robert MacFarlane wrote in Mountains of the Mind (2003), “What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.” By comparison, it wouldn’t be tragic for a baseball player to die sliding into third base; it would be singularly unique and virtually unthinkable.

While Nuwer introduces some new knowledge and shares some short biographies, she doesn’t provide a complete picture of why there are so many climbers lost and still high on the mountain. It’s complex, but I think the understanding all of reasons and factors in play are important for understanding why they’re landmarks, why the bodies remain in place and do not have a more respectable burial, and that nature of climbing on Everest today.

Why they Remain

According to Elizabeth Hawley’s notes on her Himalayan Database, 282 people have died on Mount Everest through spring 2016. Not all of the climbers that died are high on the mountain and some others were brought home, though on Everest that’s rare. (If you can’t log in to Hawley’s website, Alan Arnette has climbed and has been writing about Everest for decades, and he has a tremendous amount of resources on his website including some related tables that pulls from Hawley’s research.)

On most mountains, if a climbing partner or a member of an expedition dies during a climb, they’re partners and teammates make every attempt to bring the body home or at least down to the valley. In some cases this can be impossible, unreasonable, or plain dangerous to the rest of the party. In 1936, Toni Kurz was injured on the Eiger’s infamous north face and his rescuers were unable to reach him due to the length of their ropes. They combined two ropes but Kurz was unable to climb past the knot due to his lack of strength through the injury. He hung on the side of the mountain until much later when a team better equipped and better health was able to recover him.

Everest is different than the Eiger, of course. It’s at high altitude, where the air is thin and carrying even one’s backpack is a laboring activity. Climbers are subject to degrees of hypoxia and judgment can be impaired. The ridges on the popular routes are narrow and stumbles are to be avoided. Even then, on the south side at least, carrying a body through the dangerous Khumbu ice fall, where house-sized blocks of ice tip, fall and crush without warning, would risk several more climbers lives.

Let’s also contrast Mount Everest to the second-highest mountain in the world, K2. K2 is generally steeper for than Everest’s flanks, and for longer stretches. When a climber dies on K2 and is stranded, without the reasonable ability to recover their partner, the fallen climber is left to the effects of the mountain. Most of the climbing on K2 is on it’s face — a giant sloped wall. K2 avalanches sweep it clean of loose debris, which is why even the remains of Dudley Wolfe, who was died on K2 in 1939 were found years later by author Jennifer Jordan on the Baltoro Glacier at the base of the mountain. Everest isn’t as steep and has many more “pockets” for the things it moves. But along the major routes that most climbers attempting Everest take, the path is usually along ridges, less prone to avalanching. When a climber cannot go on, he or she usually settles into a personal pocket of snow drift or under a rock, in a storm to deal with their frostbite, edema, and/or fatigue to wait. Many climbers are displaced, but not usually swept away. And more often, exposed to the high altitude sun rays, and constant freezing and thawing, the remains become semi-permanent in the landscape.

Herding Paths

Before I moved beyond bouldering into ice climbing, my Uncle Tom would take me to climb the 46ers; these are the 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains that rise above 4,000 feet above sea level. They’re mostly in a cluster in the area known as the High Peaks, have bald treeless summits from the harsh winters, and the landscape is a more rugged and northern version of the Smoky Mountains. While we were usually bushwhacking alone up many trails to the top, sometimes we were clearly on the “beaten path.” Other hikers, sometimes right off big 80-person tour buses, were making a virtual conga line up some of the narrow areas. But the wider areas of the trail they hiked side by side; Uncle Tom pointed out to me how the trail and mud got so terribly mucky: “This is a herding path.”

Everest has become a popular stop for the tour-bus equivalent of climbers, the commercial expedition. Today, you can pay a guide to handle the food preparation, most of your technical gear, and expedition fees paid to Nepal or China (depending on the side of the mountain you’re climbing). Hand over $40 – $50 thousand dollars and you’re set. You just train (because, as they’ll tell you, you cannot train enough for this mountain), and they’ll make you a path up the mountain. K2 by comparison, has a growing expedition “bus” visiting, but it hasn’t had a boom of business the way Everest has since the 1990s.

This has made climbing the world’s tallest mountain — the third pole — very accessible to interested adventurers. This is also another reason why so many have perished, in my opinion. While not everyone that climbs is an amateur, this commercial approach to climbing the mountain sets up different expectations of what is expected (making the summit is often one of them.) I genuinely hope things change so that the next climbers don’t become permanent hosts.

Life and Climbing

Like MacFarlane pointed out, death is part of the deal. But death is always part of the deal. There are more bicycling deaths every year than climbing accidents (400-600:30). So wear your helmet. I am a pedestrian most of the week, so I’m totally cautious crossing the street.

Legendary climbing writer David Roberts is fighting cancer. It hasn’t been pretty. He’s been one of my heroes and I pray for his health, (despite that he might urge me not to waste my time.) It’s made reflect on the 60 or so people he’s known that have died climbing. And yet, he wrote this in Alpinist issue 56 from this past winter, in an essay simply titled, “Death and Climbing”:

It is not climbers alone, of course, but modern Western culture that is hindered by a systematic avoidance of death. We no longer hang self-portraits holding skulls as memento mori, the way seventeenth-century thinkers did. Our poets seldom face the terror of terminal illness as squarely as the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe…

Roberts and other climbers usually avoid the topic of death. I think we need to understand it better. It’s not something to gawk at. It’s something real. It happens to loved ones. It happens on Everest, K2, the Eiger, the Adirondacks, and all around us. I think in puzzling over it, we can understand our draw to climbing and the mystery of things that excite us.

Be safe and be well.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Merry Christmas, AAC

I packed up my books to show the condo, but this is what I kept handy. (All rights reserved)

A select shelf; no knotted wood. (All rights reserved)

Books were stacked high on knotted-wood shelves, which surrounded a lounge chair and a wide table with a lamp and brass-handled magnifying glass. Three tall windows opened to a thick grouping of firs and the shimmer of a lake through the needles. The books, of course, were all about climbing, hiking, kayaking, mountains, coasts, rivers, and features of earth and nature far away. They complimented the collection of maps and photos that were often left scattered on the wide table.

Nothing was from the digital ether. It was all tangible, and most of it was old, dated, and handled by explorers — real adventurers that transcended my fir trees. The collection was as much a lens to view a distant past that still existed far away, but the books, maps, and photos were also something to feel, hold, and even smelled.

That was my dream, which as of 10 years ago, has grown stale because much has changed. Since living in the ever-changing and modernizing Washington Metropolitan Area, and Natalie and I had kids, my interest in making that room a reality is almost as dated as the stodgy notion of it.

I have embraced reading (and writing) on a screen. I have connected with people interested in climbing history, current events, and climbing literature through social media. The digital ether isn’t so mundane; rather, it’s a lifeline.

The books, however, are just as good as ever. But so are climbing magazines and journals. And goodness do we write a lot of them. Not all of them are great, but I like them because they’re all good and all about climbing. Many of the recent great ones were published by Rocky Mountain Books, and they have sent me copies of some of their works to review. I’m grateful that an author you and I know asked the publisher to send her book to me to review. They’ve been sending me beautiful work ever since.

Since Rocky Mountain Books has been so generous with me, I had an idea. I think I’m going to share. I am officially letting go of the old traditional dream of a formal library in my home. While I might have one some day, I like my friendship with you more.

Merry Christmas, AAC Members (All rights reserved)

Merry Christmas, AAC Members (All rights reserved)

So I am packing up the two latest guides from Rocky Mountain Books and (with their permission) am shipping it to the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library in Golden, Colorado. Pretty soon, if you’re a member, you’ll be able to check out these books too.

The best part is, these books are real. They’ll live on shelves, and visit you in your arm chair. They’ll guide you, explorers and adventurers. Get outside and live. That’s why climbers write, isn’t it?

Saying goodbye to some beautiful new guides. (All rights reserved)

Saying goodbye to some beautiful new guides. (All rights reserved)

Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy them, and I look forward to sending some more in soon.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

So I hear that you’re moving to Canada. That’s great! (And I understand that you are dismayed at prospects of the impending Trump administration.) So I jotted down some quick recommendations for you on your move.

If you move to PEI, be sure to live near Charlottetown and go have a Gahan beer, but be careful with those sandy cliffs. If your French is up to snuff, you won’t feel like an outsider in Quebec, and there is excellent water ice north of Montreal. If you’re heading to Toronto, there is some modest climbing in Ontario — oh, and you’ll have to get used to buying milk in a bag. British Columbia is diverse and insanely beautiful.

But Alberta… ah… Alberta. That’s where you should go. Settle into Calgary or even Edmonton for a “real job” with lots of benefits and paid vacation time, embrace a hockey team, and drive to the Rockies (the real ones) in a couple of hours. There is ice climbing and several amazingly well developed sport and trad climbing areas throughout the Bow Valley.

Never heard of the Bow Valley you say? Well, have you heard of Lake Louise, Canmore, or Banff? That’s the neighborhood.

So once you have your visa or immigration papers, you’ll need just two books: 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies by Bill Corbett, which I recently reviewed, and Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies by John Martin and Jon Jones. Both have been updated with new editions in full color this year.

When the Weather is Warm

Now, let me tell you about Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies...

31088265465_a4db25989a

There are other guidebooks for the area, but this one has been updated most frequently and most recently. In October 2016 the 7th Edition was published. It also covers the biggest territory; not only Banff National Park of Bow Valley, but that and more in the neighboring and contiguous valleys. In total, it covers over 2,300 routes including climbs in Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise, Kananaskis Country, and the Ghost River region.

It’s a genuine techincal guide to the region and the routes. Most of the content are illustrated through topos, rather than photos. There is a reason for this and some practical benefits: First, the valleys are narrow and portions are blocked by other nearby features. Properly descriptive photos are broadly impossible, however, there are photos wherever they were practical.

Secondly, with the majority of the images in topos, the guide lets you see in clear terms what might not appear in a photo, such as belay stations, or a chimney that might only be viewed as a shadow. The minimal descriptions in prose make these maps something to get lost in just in planning.

Martin and Jones have updated the guidebook with this 7th Edition to account for the radical changes brought on by the 2013 rain-on-snow floods. Some routes start lower, due to excessive erosion, while others are starting much higher because of deposited rock and soil. This has complicated some approaches and the start of some climbs. The authors recommend a long stick clipper in these areas, which the guidebook points out.

It’s a beautiful guidebook whether you’re moving to Canada permanently  just visiting, or live in the area. Regardless who you wanted to win America’s 2016 presidential election, you can forget all about it here in the corners of the Bow Valley.

Appreciative Note

I also want to thank my good friends in Alberta, Joanna and Jason, who separately extended an invitation to Natalie, the kids and I if we had to flee the states after the election. (And they offered way back in the summer before election day; that makes some good friends!) We appreciated the offer, but Natalie and I decided to stay; the American crags, parkland, and climate needs more voices to weigh in loudly here.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

10 Ways I Cope with the Big City

City living. (All rights reserved)

I once tried to leave Washington, DC, uproot my family, change jobs, and settle permanently among the Green Mountains of Vermont. Ultimately, I called off the effort and decided to stay (at least for the time being,) and I can happily report that I am at peace about it. I talked about this experience in June as part of my post How Your Mountain Dreams Might Be a Trap, and it spurred a lot of comments and a few direct messages.

The biggest question was how did I make peace? Well, after a lot of introspection, I identified some things that work for me almost like therapy. Coincidentally, it came to 10 things. The list could have been eight or nine, but without trying it’s 10. However, there are two things about my situation that might give them a little more context…

City’s Wilderness

When I was younger, my Uncle Tom brought me on adventures hiking and climbing in the Adirondacks. Those trips make up many of my formative experiences. When he passed away from cancer, too young, shortly after I moved to Washington, I lost the only person I knew who understood wilderness from experience. I moved to Washington for my career, and for the first 10 years, while I was fulfilled in my job (and still am,) I felt lonely except for my wife and work colleagues. Nobody I knew shared my interest in the outdoors like I did with my uncle.

During that time, I was frustrated by what most people I met thought of when they thought of outdoor recreation. In fact, saying you love the outdoors or mountains means a lot of different things to different people:

  • Camping. When I say I love camping someone might want a road-side camp involving a stereo, cooler, charcoal grill, and a big motorboat. I want the backcountry with quiet, a small stove, and having walked in.
  • Trails. When I say I love trails someone might want to be on an ATV or dirt bike. I love trails for walking in the backcountry free from motor vehicles, and sometimes free from mountain bikes and horses too.
  • 4WD. When I say I love my four-wheel-drive vehicle someone might mean that they love off-roading, mudding, and driving for thrills across big, open landscapes. I mean that I love my Subaru and that it gets me through the snow to ski country and down dirt roads to the trailhead, and once it gets me to the big open area, I prefer human-powered activities like hiking, climbing, kayaking, cycling, and so forth.

So just like in Upstate New York, there were a lot of people around me that didn’t share my values or experiences. Without making city living an “us against them” game, which I was doing, I had to be blunt with myself about what I valued. I think, fundamentally, this is why I have always identified more with climbers than someone who calls himself or herself a hiker. When I did find people of similar interests and values for the outdoors, they were typically climbers with a naturalist bent. And most climbers on social media and the events that I have made friends with typically are.

Since I realized this, I worry about millennials that came to climbing through a gym and have none or little background in respect for climbing outside, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Access issues outside Nat Geo HQ.

Access issues outside Nat Geo HQ.

Who are You Without Climbing?

In Alpinist 54, Hayden Kennedy shared in his article”Light Before Wisdom,” how climbing and climbing-success consumed him, and after an injury, he was forced to face a question similar to mine: “Who am I without climbing?” He came to realize that there was more to alpinism than climbing.

Adam Campbell, an Arc’teryx ultra-marathoner, lawyer and reader, helped illuminate this idea a little more. He wrote an essay in the 2015-16 fall-winter issue of Arc’teryx’s Lithographica publication titled, “The Passionate Divide”.  I shared the importance of this to me back in April:

Campbell loved three things: running, legal challenges, and reading. They are his passions and while he considers himself fortunate, as many people don’t have even one passion, he is simultaneously cursed by having more than one. His ambition made him want to do well at both. Except improving at one meant sacrificing time that could be used to improve on the other.

Campbell talks about the quest so many people talk about everywhere: elusive work-life balance. Natalie has learned, and sometimes reminds me that balance doesn’t mean 50-50; balance can be 70-30 if it makes sense and you accept it. She’s right. But I haven’t figured out what the right arrangement is either.

The conflicts Campbell faced broke up his marriage and ended his time at the law firm where he worked at the time. And he stopped racing. He worked to find his motivation again. Then he realized that the idea of balance is all wrong — which is more to Natalie’s point to me. Campbell wrote, “balance means that two things are in opposition with one another; they are counterweights with nothing in common.” But we both know that isn’t true. Campbell’s passions are part of his whole. My passions are part of me combined. As Campbell also wrote, “Integration was the path to less internal conflict… Be gone guilt.”

For me, separating my career in Washington from my love for the outdoors and mountains, I realized was a problem. I could be in one place and love the other. Because I did and that was the truth about me. If that doesn’t quite make sense, I had to mull over this notion for months until I even started to put it into practice. But the guilt (or frustration with myself) is nearly gone now.

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

10 Ways to Cope in the Big City

For those of us in a densely populated urban area, some interests and hobbies are more easily fostered than others. Baseball, like all pro sports, for instance is easier to come by. It’s broadcast half the year, ballparks are almost everywhere and people of all ages can participate, even if it’s just softball. While on the other hand, a passion for mountain life must be conjured-up and summoned in different ways.

These are the things that I have learned to practice that help me cope with my unsettled need for the mountains and outdoors.

  1. Gyms. Embrace indoor rock climbing. I’ve always climbed indoors, but I never really embraced it as legitimate climbing and a place to enjoy. The gyms are almost everywhere these days. There you can go and keep practicing your footwork and knots with purpose. Once I got over being the old guy at the gym that boulders alone, I started visiting regularly and loving it. As a general principle, the act of climbing (hiking or whatever) is more important than reading and discussing it.
  2. Visit. Visit isn’t actually the right word; rather make pilgrimages to the mountains and treat them as such. Keep the time special and disengage. Really disengage. Even if it’s only once a year.
  3. Sanctity. Have some sacred things. For me it’s a fleece pullover, my boots, and my tin camp mug. They only come out when we go outdoors, even if it’s just Cactoctin Mountain.
  4. Reminders. Buy souvenirs when you’re at the places you love. They’re only tacky in the shop. When you get home, people see that hat or mug from your destination and strike up a conversation and boom: You’re talking about your trip.
  5. Subscribe. Subscribe to your favorite climbing magazine. For me, it’s Alpinist. Having something fresh arrive in my mailbox periodically about climbing awakens my senses, at least in my daydreams after reading.
  6. Clubs. Join the American Alpine Club, Access Fund, and whatever local conservation group is in your area. Then show up to the local meetings or special events when they come through.
  7. Advocate. I do advocacy and government affairs for a living, but my favorite work is when I am volunteering to support the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Alaska Wilderness League, or responding to whatever call-to-action the Access Fund or Patagonia sounds. Speak up for what you care about, even if you’re just signing a petition or persuading a friend (without fighting) to change their position.
  8. Gear. I don’t mean getting new gear. New gear without being put to action empties the wallet and doesn’t fill the void in your heart. I used to buy gear and gizmos (I have a backpack fetish, it seems) to fill the void of actually going outside and playing. So resisting buying things I don’t need was important to put money into the gym and the pilgrimages. In the end, I got way better value.
  9. Read. I have always been reading climbing books, from classics by Dave Roberts, to long forgotten like books by John Long. Reading books nominated for the Boardman Tasker Price for Mountain Literature or Banff Mountain Book Competition never disappoint either. You have to be careful when you get jealous over the subject’s dedication to the climbing or vegabond life sometimes. If that happens, take a break and look at yourself as a whole again.
  10. Wheels. If you can, drive a car that suits you. A Jeep, a Subaru, a Mitsubishi, or (gulp) a Land Rover. Natalie, the kids, and I love our Subaru
    Working for Banff on the subway.

    Working for Banff on the subway.

    and it’s our getaway car for reaching quiet places where we can skip stones. Just don’t cover your new ride with stickers if you’re over 30. And if you’re not living in it, which I’m guessing you’re not. Save those stickers for your laptop.

If all else fails, move to the mountains. Get the support of your loved ones. Transfer the job or find a new job. If it doesn’t work, then you tried. I tried; the timing wasn’t right, and I’m more at peace for trying so damn hard.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.