The Mountains and Plains of Walt Disney World Resort

Space Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

Earth’s natural mountains were formed and shaped around two billion B.C. from powerful geologic forces and erosion. The most visited mountain was constructed in Florida on sandy soil by homo sapiens between 1972 and 1975 A.D. for tourists and vacationers and actually had no resemblance to Earth’s surface or its mountains.

It was called Space Mountain, the first indoor roller coaster, and was the first of several man-made mountains to enhance the plains of Central Florida thanks to Walt Disney establishing his Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando. You may have heard of it. You may be among the more than 250 million people that have rode it since it opened.

I hadn’t planned on bringing Natalie, Wunderkind, or Schnickelfritz there. We had a list of reasons (or objections) rooted in our values. We were capitalists like Walt but we preferred using our travel money and time related to hiking, bicycling, making s’mores, and our own wood-fired pizzas. Then the kids’ grandpa had a burning need to take them on a milestone American trip.

He offered his grandchildren one of two choices: A trip to Mount Rushmore or Disney World. Everyone should see both, in his opinion. To his daughter, Natalie, she, like me, couldn’t figure out why Mount Rushmore was being offered at all. To me, we were being offered either a man-carved mountain or a set of constructed mountains.

Natalie and I had once discussed whether we were going to ever bring the kids to Disney World. Now that this trip was being offered on a silver platter, the choice between this or taking all four of us South Dakota, it was more a worry that grandad would be disappointed and complain to us about the accommodations. A hot dog for lunch wouldn’t be a problem, but at least in Disney World he could find decent oysters on the dinner menu. Disney World had become a foregone conclusion. Once the pandemic restrictions lifted sufficiently to enjoy the destination freely, we’d be there.

I didn’t want to go, for all the reasons Natalie and I discussed before. I floated the idea of staying home and working for half the week, but Natalie said we were all expected to be there, so I was committed for the week. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do there; I didn’t like fast, jerking rides. Not for motion sickness, but I tense up, and then immediately afterward feel ashamed, with a bruised ego, for not shouting “Wee” at the top of my lungs with my arms outstretched. So I knew I would be relagated to Sherpa dad, carrying water bottles, stuffed animals, souvenirs, light sabers, and a tube of sunblock. I would be constantly in search of iced water, shade, food, and the next great ride with the shortest line.

I tried to find something about the trip that would interest me. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios was the obvious one, but that was just one objective for a whole week. The other was the food, especially at the sit-down restaurants, so we made reservations, but it didn’t seem truly enticing. Golf was an option; but I decided the courses didn’t seem to justify the greens fee and it was going to feel like the peak of summer during a heatwave at home when I don’t play, so that was out. I really thought the resort complex would have a neat climbing gym or fitness center with a bouldering wall. Perhaps I would be hanging off a hold in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s iconic head. But it doesn’t. Orlando has gyms, but all were impossible to reach with the Disney bus and monorail system.

We sought advice from friends and family, though only a minority of which had real experience with Disney World. Two made a strong case for us to stay at the Wilderness Lodge hotel. It’s modeled after the grand Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Well, if we weren’t going to Yellowstone, let’s bring Yellowstone to us.

When we arrived, the background theme music began. It was a steady stream in whatever public setting you visited. We checked in the great lobby with balconies and balconies of log cabin railings. There were taxidermy bison heads and beaded Native American art, which seemed true to Yellowstone, and then there were enormous totems, which have no relationship to Yellowstone. And, of course, there was a man-made geyser outside near the pool. The design was a hodge podge of white Western heritage, an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts, and inauthenticity.

Our room was the final straw: It was too small for the four of us and couldn’t fit the rollaway bed we requested. They could have told us that six months ago, but instead we looked for alternatives. In the end we moved to The Contemporary next to Magic Kingdom. It’s so fanciful and tried to be futuristic in the 1970s that it was what it was and in that was more authentic and functional than the Wilderness Lodge. I preferred it.

Forbidden Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

The background theme music resumed, albeit with a new theme, at every park we visited. My mind started to dull. The parks, from Magic Kingdom to Hollywood Studios, were like watching television; I didn’t have to challenge myself. Well, other than the quest for iced water, shade, and the next great ride. I downloaded a Robert MacFarlane audiobook to listen to in snippets while I waited for the family. Except even with the sound turned up, the theme music and chatter from everyone wearing Mickey ears drowned out anything read outloud.

Animal Kingdom was the one park that engaged the mind not just the senses. The safari was the fastest-paced by-vehicle zoo tour I ever experienced, it was the most interesting activity. I wasn’t merely in awe of nature, I learned about baobab trees and how important hippopotamuses are to Africa’s ecosystem.

Animal Kingdom also hosts an area called the Annapurna Sanctuary, and includes a river rapids ride and a roller coaster with a theme of a Himalayan myth. Expedition Everest is a coaster ride answering the question of whether the Yeti is real. (Of course, you can just ask Don Whillians.) I have never been to the Himalaya or the Karakoram so I don’t have a real world experience to judge it by, but I felt like I stepped into the scenes of a Patagonia catalog.

Disney World’s Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom’s Annapurna Sancuary (All rights reserved)

Expedition Everest is a roller coaster that is both indoors and out and it rolls around Forbidden Mountain (the larger peak in the photo,) and a man-made Everest is visible in the distance. I enjoyed sitting and wondering here and admiring the detail as much as taking in the geeky nuances of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios. That said, the background theme music was incessant at the Annapurna Sanctuary. But at Galaxy’s Edge, it was all sound effects of space vehicles landing and taking off, as if you’re at a spaceport.

When I returned to work, my colleagues asked me how my vacation was. It wasn’t a vacation, it was a trip, I replied. On a vacation, I pursue something I enjoy and ususally return to work feeling renewed. I was tired and I looked forward to coming back to the office. Disney was a novelty. My wife and kids definitely enjoyed it a great deal. The grandparents made a lot of memories with the grandkids.

Well, there was one moment that surprised me and touched me and reminded me of my childhood. Again, we were in Animal Kingdom, and the pontoon with the live drummers making the theme music sailed past. Earlier in the day we saw Mickey and Minnie wearing khaki explorers clothes. Mickey, notably, was not wearing a pith hat, as old drawings of him did. He wore a bucket-style cap instead; which distanced himself from colonial symbolism. At this special moment, there was a broad shouldered duck in a leather jacket and leather hat and goggles. It was Launchpad McQuack from Duck Tales. Launchpad was the pilot that only landed by crashing but took his boss, Scrooge McDuck, on some amazing adventures. No one seems to remember him. My kids didn’t know who he was and were completely unfamiliar with the television series. But I made eye contact with Launchpad and he waved more vigorously. Perhaps he was grateful to connect with a knowing fan too. I felt like Disney reached out to me that once.

At the end of the day, the destination was good. I was glad my kids experienced things their grandparents cared about. It prompted some good conversations about some American pop culture. But the place didn’t replace my desire, or my wife’s and kids’ desire, for the outdoors, whether it’s our trip to New England’s mountains or even Assateague National Seahore. Disney was an authentic amusement park, but it didn’t replace our interest in authentic nature and adventure.

Well, thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter. And if you value this blog, please consider giving me a tip to support the blog by buying me a cup of coffee to keep it (and me) going. Thanks again and be well!

Four New Climbing Books — Narratives — for 2022

Mountain Singe (All rights reserved)

How many new climbing books are coming out this year? Maybe more than 20, but these four books caught my attention. Why? Because they are not advice on climbing a higher grade or improving your skills, like assessing avalanche risk; I mean, you could search the Internet for that.

These are narratives, book narratives. Climber Paul Pritchard explains why this is significant in his 1997 memoir Deep Play: “A magazine that readers dip into, not knowing what kind of excitement they are looking for, and so only happening across a piece of your life, is not a place for such intimate subjects. In a book, on the other hand, readers must go out and find, already knowing that they want to learn about you or read what you have to say.”

Here are my brief notes, and I hope you find at least one worth picking up:

NONFICTION NARRATIVES

Science on the Roof of the World by Lachlan Fleetwood (May 2022) — Lachlan shares untold stories, well untold until now, that give perspective on the nexus of empires and mountains and even sheds light on one of the reaons “dependence on indigenous networks” was erased in order to make knowing the world possible. If that doesn’t compel you to read, well…

Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneer to Olympic Athlete Culture by Zofia Reych (June 2022) — Reych of Fontenbleua is an anthropologist by training that works in climbing media. They also established the Women’s Bouldering Festival and as of this month, released her first book tracing the rise of climbing to the Tokyo Olympics.

FICTION

Peak: A Novel by Eric Sparling (January 2022) — Sparling tells the story of Phil Truss, diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, turns to not just a modest goal of climbing Rainier but the Mountaineers’ Mountain: K2. Except, after hiring the best guide, he faces a grand demon that has tried to transcend his cage before. The story is gruesome and witty. I reviewed it here.

Native Air by Jonathan Howland (April 2022) — Howland’s first book (and novel) tells the story of Joe Holland from when he was young and climbing free with his partner Pete Hunter, and the story of returning to climbing after Pete’s death. What intrigues me, based on an interview by Chris Kalous, Howland starts the story in the 1980s and leapfrogs to modern gym climbing.

Well, thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter. And if you value this blog, please consider giving me a tip to support the blog by buying me a cup of coffee to keep it (and me) going. Thanks again and be well!

Peak, a Witty Horror Novel, by Eric Sparling

Peak: A Novel by Eric Sparling (2022)

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.)

Well, thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter. And if you value this blog, please consider giving me a tip to support the blog by buying me a cup of coffee to keep it (and me) going. Thanks again and be well!

Seek More than Summits: Imaginary Peaks by Katie Ives Reviewed

Imaginary Peaks by Katie Ives (2021)

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.

Mount Riesenstein, British Columbia (All rights reserved)

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.)

Ives’ Map Remnant (All right reserved)

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’ Imaginary Peaks. 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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Two Things I Learned from David Roberts

Mount Huntington, Alaska Range (All rights reserved)

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.

LONGEURS

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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Is this what the End of Climbing Looks Like?

Summit hole. (All rights reserved)

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?

FORCED CHANGE

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.

Golf emoji, golf happy. (All rights reserved)

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.

Evolv Defy’s at Spooky Nook Climbing Gym. (All rights reserved)

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.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook, or Twitter. If you’d want periodic email updates on my posts, shoot me a kind email and let me know you do. And if you value this blog, please consider giving me a tip by buying me a cup of coffee.