Not All Climbing Books Are About Disasters

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Broken snow. (All rights reserved)

I am grateful for Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider for one big reason. Of course, I think his film Meru was better and more representative of great climbing (and I am biased toward alpine climbing anyway.) Free Solo has given the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience a new reference point for climbing. They understand the risk differently than even before the 60 Minutes piece about Alex Honnold.

But on the flip side of this coin, I can’t tell if this novice climbing audience understands that Alex Honnold’s exploits in Free Solo were still outliers among climbers of the future. Well, they probably do and recognize that Honnold is unique. Well, I guess it won’t help people to continue to mistake El Cap for the biggest big wall in North America (it’s not, in case you were wondering.)

What I appreciate more, for being widely well-known, is Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. It’s also more representative of climbing in general. It was a multi-year project. It required years of honed skills. It was not merely about being an extreme outlier. And thanks to a very slow news cycle after Christmas in 2015, the whole country knew of their climb and heard something about the now infamous boulder problem.

But that’s all mountain films and climbing news. Mountaineering and climbing literature has some challenges, and yet really shouldn’t. The mountaineering and climbing genre has some of the most amazing literature in the world and yet, the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience still hasn’t gotten past the tragedies:  The first book about climbing and mountaineering they often think about is Jon Kraukauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. It is “tell-all” book exploiting the tragedy of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight climbers, mostly guided clients, died.

In fact, when new acquaintances learn about my blog they often tell me about how they read Into Thin Air and how it moved them. I think that’s great. No, I am not being sarcastic; I genuinely do. Good climbing books are powerful and insightful about humanity, what we are capable of doing, and finding dignity despite our weaknesses. However, in all seriousness, if they don’t cite Into Thin Air, it’s one of these titles…

  • The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (1997)
  • The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner (2002)
  • Forever on the Mountain by James Tabor (2007)
  • One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkison (2010)
  • No Way Down by Graham Bowley (2010)
  • The Last Man on the Mountain by Jennifer Jordan (2010)
  • Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall (2014)
  • Surviving Logan by Erik Bjarnason and Cathi Shaw (2016)

And there are still miscategorizations of the climbing disaster genre. Just look at this list from Good Reads.

They know these stories because they heard about the event in the news, or even (gulp) Outside Magazine, and decide to pick it up. Unfortunately, they have only scratched the surface of climbing books.

The majority of climbing books are not about disasters. In fact, I’d argue that a disaster is not the prerequisite for a good or even a great climbing book. I have read what critics have called the best or greatest climbing books and articles and I think the best are biographical or auto-biographical and introspective stories of a climb or a life climbing. A good character, a wild landscape, and a transformational journey — that’s worth reading.

I think you might argue that Into Thin Air did those things, and in some ways it did. But there were better ones. Here are five just off the top of my head (sorry if I repeat these too often):

  • The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (1968)
  • Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald (2017)
  • The Tower by Kelly Cordes (2014)
  • Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe (2018)
  • Beyond the Mountain by Steve House (2009)

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What is International Mountain Day?

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Yosemite panorama. (All rights reserved)

For the longest time, even as a blogger, writing here on TSM and elsewhere about mountains, I didn’t really understand International Mountain Day. My outdoors blogging peers and climbers and hikers never seemed to celebrate it the way dads celebrate Father’s Day or Veterans celebrate and are celebrated on Veterans Day.

In fact, I was a little disappointed after learning what it was, that it was a poor excuse to tell the boss that I was taking the day off to go skiing.

So here are the facts:

Still, I wish International Mountain Day was more of a celebration to encourage people to go outside and appreciate these places. Japan does this on their own national Mountain Day — a bona fide public holiday — on August 11th. What do you think…? Do you think the UN’s goals might actually be better reached that way?

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Who Are You Without Mountains?

If you stop climbing, are you still a climber? Or did you used to climb?

If you start climbing again, you just proved that you’ve always been a climber. Right?

But what happens if you get into climbing, like really into climbing, and life offers to move you to a place without the mountains you love? Will you able be adequately continue to climb? That’s the question Travis is asking. Travis recently read my post When Climbing Does Not Matter and he wrote me in an email. He gave me permission to share this here:

I read your blog post entitled, “when climbing does not matter.” When I read that several years ago you lived in DC, I immediately thought of my own life situation.  I completely agree with you about the situations when, in fact, climbing does not matter. However, I am confronting some life choices at the moment that I feel are going to impede my ability to climb in the foreseeable future…
As of this moment I live near the Cascades, and have been fortunate enough to spend my weekends hiking and my work nights in the climbing gym. Over the last two years that I’ve lived here I’ve been slowly making inroads into the world of serious mountaineering, and am just now at a point where I feel comfortable tackling larger mountains.
I grew up in DC and the thought of ever moving back there is, to be frank, quite depressing. However, due to my career in intellectual property, the regression seems inevitable.
I have a final round interview for a position at a firm in Northern Virginia next week, and thus I am forced to grapple with the idea of not being able to climb anymore (should I actually get the job).
Since I would be remiss to not take this career opportunity, I wanted to ask you: how does one continue to be a serious climber when living on the east coast? And how do you find time with all of your responsibilities (career, family, etc.) to train? Finally, I am worried about de-acclimating to the altitude and failing climbs due to AMS if I’m living at sea level.
–Travis

 

I wished I could just tell Travis that he should stay in among the mountains. It’s an obvious choice to me. But life isn’t that simple.

When I was in Washington, DC for those 15 years, I know I was supposed to be there. I wanted to be involved in government and politics. I wanted to understand partisan differences. I wanted to know facts to leverage to bring clarity. So I worked for a Member of Congress for two of his terms, worked for a national financial trade association during the foreclosure crisis that became the Great Recession, before taking a cut in pay to join an advocacy team at a national nonprofit. And one day, just when Natalie’s and the kids’ needs weren’t being served there any longer, an opportunity came that we could move.

But the whole time I was in Washington, DC I wished I was other places. I called it Peaklessburg when I was upset about it. I dreamed about a policy job in Montpelier, Vermont. I even worked with a national insurance company about becoming an agent in Maine. DC was too sprawling, too crowded, and although nature was around me it was difficult to see between the stacks of concrete, steel, and glass. Mountains, particularly in the northeast that I craved, were too far and too costly to reach on a regular basis.

I have come to terms with the truth that I need several things to be happy, though two of them are somewhat conflicting and finding balance difficult: I need nature and wilderness in large doses, but I also need a job that I am called to do (meaning a job I find a lot of purpose.) Hopefully this isn’t your problem!

On the other hand, the Washington, DC can be manageable. There are frequently enjoyable climbing-related events with like-minded adventurers at both Earth Treks locations and both Sportrock Climbing Centers, the new flagship REI in the city, the Patagonia store in Georgetown, and National Geographic. I often took advantage of those.

Most importantly, if you haven’t seen it, I posted this back in 2016, when I was still in DC and expecting to stay there a long, long time: 10 Ways I Cope With the Big City. While I have some tangible advice, the key question was: What are you without climbing? For that matter, what are we if we take away our favorite activity or hobby? If we can answer that, I think we can make better decisions, even as climbers, hikers, adventurers, athletes, artists, and human beings.

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When Climbing Does Not Matter

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

“Climbing matters” has been part of the tag line for TSM since I started writing it while working in bleak, peakless, Washington, DC eight years ago. By “matters” I have always meant important or significant, as in climbing matters a lot, not a set of topics, or climbing matters to discuss. To me, the tag line has always been a solid values statement. It matters to me, and I hope to share how and why it should matter to you too. But I recently have been asking myself, does it always matter or am I just fooling myself?

The world is mostly made up of nonclimbers. While people say that climbing has reached the mainstream, the feats of great climbers has always been promoted to the nonclimbing world, and climbing is indeed more accessible, but there is still an opt-in clause to climbing. And even then, is Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo going to inspire my nonclimbing film-going friends take up even gym climbing? Maybe it will for some kids.

Life is more than climbing. For me climbing is a lens to see not just mountains but my life. Brandon Leonard in Sixty Meters to Anywhere that climbing centers him. Nick Bullock and Kevin Jorgeson, through separate experiences, both claim climbing changed their lives. And still, there is more to life than climbing. We still go to a job to make money, support a lifestyle, be responsible (at least to some degree, right?), celebrate birthdays, and spend time doing nonclimbing things with people we like to be with.

I recently stumbled back to this brief passage in Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower, by chance. Here, Cordes arrives in Patagonia a year after Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk debolted the Compressor Route:

When I arrived in El Chaltén in January 2013, I had a hard time seeing the outrage over the debolting I had heard and read about. Climbers and trekkers were everywhere, locals were busy dealing with the tourists, and unprecedented spells of good weather had settled over the massif.

Nearly everyone I met was kind and welcoming, despite many being stressed and overworked. One day, I spoke with a year-round resident named Poli. Her observations matched those of most non-climbing locals. She said she doesn’t know anything about climbing — these “nails” [Maestri’s old bolts] everyone was talking about last year were things she couldn’t even identify. Of course she knew about the controversy, everyone did, but to her it didn’t matter. She would never go to Cerro Torre, she said.

If you know about “these nails,” folks knowledgeable about Cerro Torre’s history or that read Cordes’ book, it’s hard not to have an opinion of Cesare Maestri, Hayden Kennedy, and Jason Kruk. They’re either heroes, liars, cheats, or assholes. Maybe a little of each. I think a case could be made that they’re all audacious for different reasons. I personally don’t care if you know about the the Compressor Route and it’s history, though I think it is very interesting and that there is a lot for everybody to glean from it. Overall, I think the drive and cleverness of the men and women of action that made them go to the mountains in the first place is critically important to us being human. Still, I could see why people don’t bother to look into climbing’s stories.

And if you really don’t know about “these nails,” life is busy enough with out them, right? We are all working to support our lifestyle or reaching for the next higher lifestyle. Whether we are poor and trying to earn food, rent, and keep the heat on, or trying to be middle-class buying better food, paying off the mortgage, and saving for a nicer car, everyone is busily keeping up with their life. And it’s hard. We make it hard, especially in Western society, keeping up with a standard of living we have or are pretending to have. Nick Bullock, a mountaineer and author of Echoes: One Climber’s Hard Road to Freedom (2012) and Tides: A Climber’s Voyage (2018), was told the formula for a successful life by his father: You should get a good job that you’ll keep forever for financial security, one day marry, and one day die. I was taught that too, in fact. But it lacks any beauty, inspiration, or soul, doesn’t it?

Even if we take Bullock’s father’s formula as doctrine, we still pause to think about things being easier or better with ease, don’t we? Unless we’ve shut that part of our imagination off. To help us break free of the formula, Bullock found climbing and so did I.

But for a lot of people, that’s not true. To those for whom climbing doesn’t matter, climbing is inconsequential, mere recreation, and, at worst, pure and dangerous frivolity:

  • Climbing does not matter when you’re content.
  • Climbing does matter when you need the world to slow down.
  • Climbing doesn’t matter when your cup runs over with responsibility.
  • Climbing does not matter when change in and around our community seems unrelenting and we cannot keep up.
  • Climbing does not matter when we need food, shelter, and clothing.

The nonclimber’s opinion of it as mere recreation and frivolous doesn’t worry me as much as dismissing climbing as inconsequential. Fortunately, it’s not a climbers-versus-nonclimbers struggle. There are lots of degrees of appreciation. Even Poli doesn’t have to climb to appreciate it; at least she recognizes it as part of her community.

The threshold of appreciating climbing, where it starts to matter, it seems, is acknowledging a restlessness inside us, or that we seek something more than the world where some things do not matter. Maybe what we need to recognize is that we want to matter. Do we matter? Do you?

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Contraindications by Alison Criscitiello Nominated for Banff Article Award

Squamish bouldering (All rights reserved)

The Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival is in the fourth year of going beyond honoring great films and books to also awarding great mountaineering articles. This year there are four finalists that are all outstanding, but for different reasons.

James Edward Mills wrote “The Force of the Soul” in the Alpinist 60 to profile a racially significant, yet underrated climber named Hughes Beauzille. Andrew Allport wrote “Suicides and Pirates” in the March 2018 issue of The Climbing Zine, which was a personal tour of the climbing life that I have since reread twice (making a total of three reads.) Ed Douglas wrote “The Other Annapurna” in the July 2018 issue of Rock and Ice, which goes into a significant climb on Annapurna’s South Face by Yannick Graziani and Stéphane Benoist that was overshadowed by the frenzy around another alpinist on the same face (sorry, there is no link to the article available.)

Alison Criscitiello wrote the most haunting of the finalists in “Contraindications” in Alpinist 59.

As Alison points out in her bio, she loves the cold. To make a living, Alison is a glaciologist and Technical Director of the Canadian Ice Core lab at University of Alberta. She also serves as a climbing ranger for Parks Canada and has guided expeditions to peaks in the Andes, Alaska, and the Himalaya. Her track record and consistency has also earned her grants to help her climb professionally, including the 2016 Mugs Stump Award (here is the announcement from Alpinist), which she received with her climbing partner Anna Smith, to attempt Brahmasar II and The Fortress in the Garhwal Himalaya, India. That’s where Alison’s bio stops and where “Contraindications” takes over.

Alison opens with several anecdotes, that, if like me, upon first reading, you don’t know why these stories of she and Anna in the mountains are so important to what is about to happen. We learn how close they were, and how much Alison deeply admired Anna. Alison’s prose in each one are both precise and mysterious — precise in that I can see and feel the cold air and pine trees below, but I feel like we’re destined to see a spirit.

Her language is precise in illustrating through examples how different she and Anna were. Before they leave for their big expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya, Anna texts Alison to say how nervous she was. Alison replies even if they didn’t make any summits, she would guard Anna’s life like a sister, and she would still be happy. Anna texted back: “Oh, I’ll get over it.” Was it the nervousness or the summit? But Alison successfully established their bond.

In the Garhwal, Alison and Anna had to change their objective because of the effects of the monsoon on their destination. After consulting Freddie Wilkinson, who had established “daring” new routes in the region a few years earlier, they headed for the Himachal Pradesh, sheltered from the monsoon where, according to Wilkinson, there was “alpine gnar galore.”

As the two of them had done dozens of times in less remote locales for years, Alison and Anna went into the backcountry seeking unknown objectives. Here, Alison tells us of examples of what I think we all do when we go to new places a little excited but completely unfamiliar, we think of comforts: ” I felt as though I were rising through layers of dreams. Flashes of home life — turning on the kettle for coffee, watering the jade plant that sits on my pine desk — came vibrantly to mind, then faded away.”

After arriving at their advanced base camp they started to advance to the peaks, but Anna lips turned white and turned short of breath then vomited. It looked like AMS. They started to descend back to ABC, but it became clear that it was ketoacidocis — complications of diabetes. For three days, Alison watched Anna as she “shuffled around slowly in a thirty-foot radius of our base camp tent.”

It’s a tragedy, but here’s where I will let you read the article for yourself, but with this one passage:

At night, I shattered into the landscape. Images of Anna — skipping across the river ahead of me, watching tennis and eating sesame bagels in Canmore, shaking the tent on Mt. Robson with laughter, running and climbing and drinking whiskey in Skaha — suddenly lost shape and faded, and I descended into murky, bogged woods where a shape-shifting threat waited behind an oak tree at night, hiding something behind its back. Terrified of getting out of my sleeping bag, I talked to Anna and clenched tiny prayer flags in my fist. I repeated Om mani padme hum for hours until the sun rose, dim auburn on the horizon. My only true belief is in science. It is absolutely absurd and out of my character that I was chanting. I did anything I could to distract my mind.

I had to look up contraindications in the dictionary. It’s mainly used in medicine and is the opposite of indications, as in indicating and directing the use of a particular medicine. But contraindications are the signs that point to not using medicine. After Alison sent messages to Anna’s mother and Anna’s partner from base camp, Alison contemplates the hardest question of love and risk: “What, really, was contraindicated? Oxygen-starved alpine objectives and a family and community at home held close? Climbing and falling in love?”

I read all four finalists, and I think Alison Criscitiello’s “Contraindications” in Alpinist 59 is deserving of the Banff article award. Read it for yourself and let me know what you thought, email, send me a message; I’m not hard to reach.

For a little more background on Anna Smith and her final visit to the mountains, the CBC published this online article with several photos that also appeared in Alpinist.

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Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei

2018 Banff Mountain Book Competition Nominee, Tabei’s and Rolfe’s Honouring High Places.

When my friend Rick Wood was still working at Rocky Mountain Books, the mountain book publisher in British Columbia, he and I exchanged emails about some of their upcoming projects. The one he was most excited about he couldn’t talk about, at least not yet. He just said: just wait!

Several months later what I was waiting for arrived in my mailbox. It was a significant new book for the publisher and the English language as a whole. Helen Y. Rolfe worked with texts from Junko Tabei, whom Rolfe knew, to bring Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei to life. It was written by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe and translated by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books 2017.) Although we all know that she was the first woman to reach the top of Mount Everest and the first woman to complete the seven summits (the Puncak Jaya or Messner version,) there was less context for the challenges she overcame to accomplish so many great climbs.

What shined through Honouring High Places is Tabei’s spirit, which was extremely aware of herself and everything and everyone around her. And she wanted everyone to share in what she saw in the world, though she seemed to encourage it by urging her readers to go outside and explore new challenges for themselves.

Tabei wrote about how her birth in Fukushima Prefecture, a rural community, first distinguished her among her urban classmates in the city, later in life. She had a country girl accent, which stood out. She was also the dreamer, yet conscious of everyone’s limited imagination: When her women’s mountaineering club was organizing an expedition to Mount Everest, Tabei writes: “A common response was: ‘Wow! Himalayas! I would love to go, even just to see Everest.’ Then, ‘But … I don’t have that much skill, or time, or money….,’ and so on. I found it difficult to hear people crush their dreams with the word ‘but,'” (Tabei 128.) In fact, her attitude of “I will go on” without any excuse or any “but” to offer was her hallmark.

There was a disproportionate amount of chapters on the Everest expedition, for my taste. While it is what she is most known for, the other seven summits were much less encumbered with expedition and media politics; perhaps for that there really was more to tell; there certainly was more drama. Learning about her roots in the country, to trying to come to form in the big city, and navigating the mountaineering clubs hierarchy, was the most unique and enriching part of her story.

Rolfe bound together Tabei’s writings from several sources and leveraged Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved as translators to get to, what Rolfe understood to be, Tabei’s original tone and intent, regardless of the change of language. While previous interviews with Tabei have an affectionate and admiring tone, here Tabei’s energy and everlasting enthusiasm and observations left this reader impressed by the contrast to previous works, as well as feeling ready for my next challenge, regardless what the final outcome might be (Tabei’s enthusiasm is infectious, even in the written word.)

Tabei’s and Rolfe’s work with Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved has since been nominated in two prestigious competitions: Banff Mountain Book Competition (literature-nonfiction category), and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

It’s a significant book that deserves a place on your bookshelf.

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