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.

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A Life Lived Wild by Rick Ridgeway Reviewed

Life Lived Wild by Rick Ridgeway (2021)

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.

Rating: Three-and-a-half burritos out of five.

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Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington Reviewed

2001 edition of Bonington’s Annapurna South Face.

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.

Rating: 3.9 burritos out of five

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.

Good to see you again and thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter.

What Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald is Missing

Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald.

Someone was bound to write this book and we are blessed that it was by Bernadette McDonald. Winter 8000 is a near-complete retelling of all first attempts and ascents of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, except K2, which was the only summit where the winter ascentionists had not yet reached.

At publication, the chronicle Bernadette McDonald starts in her latest book published in 2020, Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, was only a little over 90 percent complete. Who could blame her? No One expected the last domino piece, less-than-a-tenth of the saga, to fall so soon.

WINTER CHALLENGE

There are 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters above sea level and all of them are in the Himalayas and Karakoram across Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet. Climbers made their way to their summits for the first time between 1950 and 1964. After the first ascents, the climbers sought other challenges, such as more difficult routes, or in the case of Andrzrej Zawada, an alpinist from Poland, harsher conditions to make their names. Polish climbers, who were blocked by Soviet travel restrictions and lacked resources, had more access in the late 1970s and wanted to have an impact on climbing history. Zawada lead the way for winter warriors, first from Poland, to climb in the colder and darker months.

From Bernadette McDonald’s other books, particularly Freedom Climbers (2011) and Alpine Warriors (2015), I was familiar with the attraction to winter ascents by the Poles and Slovenian alpinists as well as by other climbers. And even then, Alpinist Magazine filled me in on other stories about climbing the 8,000-meter peaks in winter, including the more recent attempts, mishaps, and successes McDonald’s earlier books didn’t or couldn’t cover.

Winter 8000 is a compendium of the ascents. She pulled the essential facts from that year’s ascents records from the various alpine journals, and then went deeper with interviews with the key actors and even family, like the widow of Tomek Mackiewicz, Anna Mackiewicz. McDonald traveled extensively to bring the stories and a tactile feel to the experience, from the wind on skin from fallen mittens, to the inner turmoil of the little decisions at high-altitude, where the brain and body only growing weaker. The result was a book I eagerly anticipated, but at first was dismayed at it’s format. I was, of course, worried for no reason.

STRAIGHTFORWARD YET DEEP

With the book in hand for the first time, flipping pages to see how it was organized it didn’t look like McDonald’s typical compelling page turner. It looked like a textbook or a guide. There were 14 chapters addressing each of the 8,000-meter peaks, one chapter at a time. And the titles were the subject mountain, without more description or characterization.

However, the writing is true to the style McDonald always employs, presenting mystery and a facet deserving of awestruck. Once you start Winter 8000, McDonald presents a mystery, through the introduction of a noteworthy figure, on the very first page and you are compelled to read on. The prose is asking the obvious, Why climb in winter? In this case, she starts with an exchanged with Zawada when McDonald at a mountain festival in Katowice, Poland. His response was terse, and amusing for an old, veteran alpinist (just read it, and keep reading.)

Despite the simplicity of fourteen chapters for fourteen peaks, the climbers McDonald profiles spill from one peak and chapter to the next, giving her retelling of these ascents the sense of a generational or family saga. At first one Pole set off to be a supporting climber on an attempt, only to grow into a weathered veteran and lead an expedition in winter a few years later. And, in the more recent attempts, the alpinists would cross the stories of ascents, such as when Adam Bielevki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jaroslaw Botor left their attempt on K2 to rescue Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat that same winter in 2018. The book is a proper history, which could be a student’s textbook, but it is immensely readable.

EVENTS WE CANNOT CONTROL

Winter 8000 was released four years after thirteen of the world’s fourteen highest peaks were topped out. K2 was elusive. It was all that remained and no one knew which winter season would bring success. From a publishers standpoint, this was the moment, when a general audience could focus on the final step in one of humanity’s grand quests of adventure; write the book that explained the significance better and everyone would want to read it. How would anyone know when K2 would fall so soon afterwards?

A mere seven months later, K2 was summited in winter, in January 2021. It was done in historic fashion. On that climb, ten alpinists, native from Nepal, made the summit together. They waited ten meters below the summit until the group could coalesce and reach the pinnacle together. It was a historic moment for the Nepalese, including Sherpa, to not support a climb, bit lead themselves into history.

Winter 8000 could already be considered required reading for anyone seeking to climb one or all of the fourteen peaks in winter. Yet now, after a brief interval, it has a knowledge gap on K2. In a way, the last chapter of the book is dated and anchored to the years between 2016 through 2020. Of course, McDonald must have accepted that this would be the case. Clearly, The Mountaineers Books, the publisher did too. Readers could go Online to access the news. But considering the immediate timing, could the next edition provide this critical update?

McDonald concludes Chapter 14: K2 by writing the obligatory “as of this writing, K2 in winter is still waiting…” We waited seven months. Perhaps a year since she penned those words. Even if McDonald is satisfied with the outcome and unwilling to do the research and interviews to share the K2 outcome, perhaps another writer, or an alpinist, could contribute an addendum or afterward to the second edition.

Of course, the Winter 8000 is complete. It is accurate as of its printing. An analogy with another book is applicable here: Golfer Bobby Jones, out of popularity and public interest, wrote an autobiography in 1927 after he won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open Championships in the same year, an incredible and unheard of feat at the time. He was just 25 years old. He proved that his book was a set in time when he outdid himself by winning those same tournaments plus the British Amateur and the British Open Championships, the first ever so-called Grand Slam of golf in 1930. He never wrote another autobiography.

I can live with it. But should we be as content?

Rating: Three burritos out of five.

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Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman Reviewed

Chris Kalman’s second self-published book with cover art by Sarah Nicholson

Cochamó Valley in Chile is as close to Yosemite National Park before it had roads, crowds, and park rangers as it can be to when John Muir explored its wilderness in the 1880s. I first learned about Cochamó from Chris Kalman when he and I crossed paths nearly 10 years ago over writing assignments. Since then, I have, and perhaps you have too, learned how wrapped up he is with the valley, the Cochamó Valley.

When Chris first visited Cochamó he thought he knew how Muir felt first coming to Yosemite. And like Muir, Chris made first ascents, some free soloed, in the untouched valley. Kalman grew into a champion of Cochamó conservation because he admired its beauty, and he knew it could be ruined with a dam, mined for minerals, or trampled by crowds and luxury hotels. Muir knew Yosemite Valley needed to be preserved, and Chris likewise took action for his Valle when he established Friends of Cochamó to help protect this unique place on Earth.

Although you may not be as familiar with his favorite valley in Chile, you may be familiar with him if you consume climbing content these days. Chris has written for Alpinist Magazine and often conducts podcast interviews for the podcast The Cutting Edge, run by the editors of the American Alpine Journal, which Chris is an editor, of course. He’s also authored a guidebook and two fiction works. His first novella was As Above, So Below, which was self-published in 2018, and his second, despite the punny title, has everything to do with loving and protecting places, especially like Cochamó Valley.

Chris’s 2021 work, Dammed If You Don’ta 2021 Banff Literature Competition Finalist — takes us on the lifetime journey of John Mercer. Mercer visits South America and finds grand potential in the fictional Valley of Lahuenco. He awakens the eco-tourists and backpackers of the world through social media and slide shows to it peril. The valley quickly becomes trodden with campsites with an few visitors carelessly scaring grasslands from tent sites and littering. He discovers a new species of salamander, and valley becomes more valuable and even more popular, since it suddenly has a mascot and a new gimmick for visiting, even as it brings the species to the brink of extinction.

The story explored all of the possible permutations for Lahuenco with Mercer as the central agent of change. Chris presented the reader with the unintended consequences of Mercer’s affection for Lahuenco and the commercial or capitalist opportunities, as carried out by the antagonist Señor Ackerman, and asks not only who wins, but who is actually in control? The populace? Those with money? Those with the land?

Although Mercer’s adventure has similarities to Chris’ experiences with Cochamó, Mercer is a modern likeness to John Muir. Fit, constantly in motion, and fire-like (both a bright light and able to ignite combustibles,) Mercer carried his case for protecting Lahuenco to the world through advocacy and fundraising, instead of the President and Congress, as Muir had done with Yosemite. I won’t ruin the end for you, but tempt you to read it for yourself by stating that Mercer’s solution, though a little trite, was worth me pondering for days after I finished the book.

Interior art by Craig Muderlak.

Kalman makes wonderful observations about how the world works. It’s heavy at times. I don’t agree with the dark shading of values he used to illustrate Señor Ackerman’s reasoning and strategy for exploiting the Lahuenco Valley, but his points were valid, and did — despite his direct statement to the contrary — did make him appear to be a real-world Bond Movie villain. (Tangentially, it mildly inspired me to write a parody where Ackerman hangs Mercer from an overhanging cliff above a pile of sharp scree and forced his girlfriend on a tourist-attraction zip line that when passing would cut the rope. Exit Ackerman cackling before the she reaches the dangling rope.)

Dammed If You Don’t is fundamentally a discussion piece. Chris packed in a very long winding tale into a small package, and hits on the theme of preservation in several ways, with land, and Mercer himself to name two. Chris used a third-person narrator with limited perspective that limits the story from having even more impact; I wish I had gotten to know Mercer better. Though his values and how he dealt and overcame his challenges became apparent, I would prefer if I could have read it through stories and dialogue rather than being told first and shown later. For this reason, John Mercer doesn’t become a character I was emotionally attached. When his climactic moment arrived, I saw it unfold, but without a sense for how he would turn out after the book. But again, it’s definitely worth having a discussion over (shoot me an email if you read it, because I would enjoy debriefing about the book with you.)

Go buy and read Chris’ book and shoot me a message. And I will look forward to visiting the Cochamó Valley with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz one day. I think Chris’s book will help it stay beautiful until I get there.

Rating: Three-and-a-half burrs out of five.

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