Sorry, Your Summit Didn’t Matter: Here is Why

Mt. Kennedy. (All rights reserved)

After you reached the top of Denali, you tugged at your left mitten with your teeth and let the fingerless glove dangle on its tether. Your hand, covered in a blue fleece glove unzipped your chest pocket and reached in for your camera. You snapped shots of the view, with the ever-changing camouflage pattern of gleaming white and gray cast over the West Buttress by shifting clouds. Finally, you put your arm around your two partners and snap a selfie.

When you tell your story with your family or your Mountaineering Section of the Appalachian Mountain Club, that photo of the three of you always comes out. To you, it was the culmination of so much time, money, and above all, heart. The photo shows the three of you, with grey sky on the left and bright sunshine on the right and in between your heads is snow and indication of a valley, or maybe that’s just dark from a cloud’s shadow. In fact, your other photos, of the North Summit and the West Buttress, and possibly the one of not-so-distant Begguya, were better proof of your arrival on the summit.

The honor system is widely applied worldwide. Climbers generally accept other climbers claims so long as the climber claiming their first ascent or summit is of good character. For infrequently visited summits, if the story is doubted, a summit record is occasionally disputed in the record. Usually only the larger mountains, that are more competitively climbed where climbers doubt and dispute summits.

My favorite example is the dispute of Frederick Cook’s claim that he made it to the top of Denali in 1906, then referred to as Mount McKinley. Cook visited the range, retreated, and suddenly turned around with one lesser partner and returned with news that he had climbed the highest peak in North America. He even had a photo as proof. His story was dubious to knowledgeable climbers, yet Cook published a book and was generally regarded as the first ascentionist among the general public. The doubt spread by climbers incensed at his injustice, and in 1910 Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker, who Cook made the initial retreat with, returned to the Alaska Range and replicated Cook’s photo-of-proof and debunked the climb altogether. Cook went on denying any hoax.

Summit photos are evidence, particularly with landmarks, even at a distance. Narratives are evidence, and the timing and conditions must be reasonable. Maps or even a GPS-tracked route, are very helpful. All of which could be fabricated, but the honor system still holds generally speaking. As Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Trust, but verify.”

Eberhard Jurgalski of 8000ers.com has records, some of which aren’t widely known, of disputes around the summits of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri I, and Manaslu. To be more precise, there are questions of whether the climbers reached the actual summit. And if the actual summit wasn’t reached, has a custom or norm been created where the area surrounding the summit is considered a successful climb?

Over the last year, in between more pressing life things, I have been talking to established climbing researchers and perusing Jurgalski’s website and have been fascinated by the system he and others have developed using peak photos. Through some painstaking work, they have collected quality views from and of the summit, and labeled all of the notable features with letters, A, B, C, and so forth. The photos submitted as evidence of a climb can then be compared to these points. For example, if the rock covered in snow forming a knob, feature E is always in line with peak D in the distance with a certain amount of visibility from the lower peak in front of it, from a southwest camera angle, then you can clearly see where on the climber stood on the summit.

Of course, with so many instances of climbers reaching the top but not actually arriving on the summit, Jurgalski and others have suggested in 2019, for a point of discussion, introducing summit Tolerance Zones. This is essential for the work on 8000ers.com where counting climbers, by name and date, who reached the summit. When it was assumed everyone was reaching the true tippy top, tallying summiters was simple. The photographic evidence has shown the treatment of summits as a, well, slippery slope.

I believe the summit is the summit. We should be reaching the top, even if there is only room for one person at a time. I’ve done that on much less significant peaks. However, I would hate to have my “expedition” scrutinized like this. I like the self-reporting of the Alpine Journals everywhere, but while the Elizabeth Hawley-like verification prevents more Frederick Cooks, I just want to climb, I don’t want to write a book about how I was first. Of course, too many are speaking to corporate circles and giving Ted Talks (supposedly) about their perseverance and vision through their summit of an 8000-meter peak. Fine, go climb and tell. I’m going to find some better peaks that are under the radar and enjoy it for what it is, a summit. And I know there are others, that will find more impressive lines to go up than a summit to verify. Thanks, I hope I’ll stumble on your story.

UPDATE (Nov. 30, 2020): A few days after I posted this essay, the American Alpine Club published an extensive piece by Damien Gildea, Antarctic alpinist and author, about the dilemma of climbers claiming summits they have not stood upon. He goes in depth into the discovery and the challenge it presents to archival accomplishments as well as what we do going forward.

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress, Twitter, and/or Facebook.

Was Reading Your First Climbing Book as Impactful?

Dusk Descent, inspired by cover of Alpinist 69. (All rights reserved)

If you were fortunate to read a mountaineering history or one of David Roberts biographical tales for your first book on climbing, your appetite for more would be difficult to sate.

I got into climbing when I was 12. I was principally interested in peak bagging but walls fascinated me. I bought a copy of Face Climbing by John Long. I manged to learn how to smear and edge, and more fundamentally, to stand on my legs and feet. I climbed in my Timberland boots back then, since I was, still aiming for treeless summits. Saving up for La Sportivas then seemed like too big of a challenge.

I don’t know the date, but I remember the evening vividly. I was in my parents home during my freshman year in college reading in my bed. It was late, and my parents were downstairs watching television. The story was from July 1965, with Harvard Mountaineering Club Members, David Roberts, Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts included one of four article-length versions of the story in an anthology titled Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings of David Roberts (1986). On the descent from the summit, having established a significant new route and the second ascent, the team split up, Jensen and Hale to one camp and Roberts and Bernd to the other. Bernd vanishes in the dark and Roberts spends days alone waiting out a storm running through the vagueness of Bernd’s disappearance. I had never read anything so remarkable, for the story, and the rawness of the story. It seemed fictional, yet I believed that this extraordinary and horrible experience truly happened. I felt as alive as Roberts had in his tent on Mount Huntington.

I returned to the bookstore and found another book with Roberts byline, this time shared by a name I was not yet familiar with, Conrad Anker. Together they wrote alternating chapters of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest (1999). I read it only months later and finished, according to a Post-It-Note inside, on January 8, 2000. I wrote, “This book is an enjoyable read because it mixes the romantic era of climbing in wool and silk with reality and the reality of climbing today and its culture and the history of mountaineering.” I should have edited that better before leaving that note in there.

Although I hadn’t learned the breadth of various climbing styles and disciplines, yet, I now saw the alpine style on Mount Huntington, the siege-style expeditions to Everest, and the modern commercial-style expeditions to the 8,000ers. I think it was that spring that I discovered Ed Viesturs on MountainZone.com, who lead me to read the influential Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. From there I just kept reading climbing books and started subscribing to climbing magazines.

Amrita Dhar, an English professor at the University of Ohio Newark, originally from Calcutta, India, calls mountaineering the most literary of all sports. I think that is true, even compared to the expansive writing about baseball I have read and know there is more to be consumed. Part of this, Dhar explains in the Alpinist Podcast on November 21, 2019, mountaineers often start their journey with literature, climb, and then write about it afterwards. In her vein, I would argue that mountaineering and climbing proper doesn’t include spectator stands, but involves the experience inside the climber as well as the physical route, which is best told as a narrative. Words are powerful, and they blossom in amazing ways from our inner climbing journeys.

Whether I may have fallen just as in love with climbing literature with another author or different books, I can’t say. Even our adventure off the mountain, can have its own unpredictable surprises. But after the last 20 years of reading climbing narratives, I would still be where I am now. Climbing narratives are powerful and best told in words.

Was the first climbing book you read as impactful on you? And what book was it and how did you find it? Send me an email (address found here) or leave me a comment on social media. I would love to know your story.

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress, Twitter, and/or Facebook.

Climbing Publications Merge but Will the Core Hold?

Rock & Ice Issue 102 from August/September 2000.

After a few days camping and being off the grid, I resurfaced to learn Rock & Ice Magazine will be “merged” into Climbing Magazine, while Gym Climber Magazine will remain a distinct product.

If you’re a subscriber less in the know than me, here is the background: On October 9th, Pocket Outdoor Media, which owns Climbing, announced that it acquired Big Stone Publishing, which owned Rock & Ice and Gym Climber. Pocket Outdoor Media’s CEO Robin Thurston said, “By merging Rock & Ice into Climbing, we’ll be better positioned to deliver exceptional content and cover all of the sport’s disciplines—trad, sport, gym, and alpine climbing—in ways not possible before.”

Publishing companies have been simplifying through acquisitions and mergers and paying less for content (meaning paying writers less and less) for years. It’s not a new trend, which is why combining Rock & Ice and Climbing into one publication does not surprise me. After all, several climbing publications have come and gone over the years and Urban Climber is my favorite example for my generation’s lost magazines. The space for the nontraditional climbing magazine has since been filled, in a way, by Gym Climber. I still haven’t read Gym Climber beyond it’s website, but it does effectively speak to the namesake audience without bothering with helmet and ice axe reviews, when the latest comp format and training protocol is spot-on relevant.

The two merging magazines could be confused by some readers. They both covered rock climbing, in all of its forms, ice and alpine, bouldering, and even indoor climbing. However, on the newsstand Climbing is mere dollars while Rock & Ice was twice that. Why? Because Climbing publishes 10 issues annually and shares news, profiles, skills, and hacks. They also share an advocacy update from the Access Fund regularly, which as a monthly donor, I enjoy reading. Rock & Ice had more features, investigative stories, and tales for the more seasoned climber. Also, Rock & Ice was printed on heavier grade paper and glossier, if that’s a suitable description; I don’t mean to be negative on that facet if it sounded that way. Climbing is the magazine I read to catch up on the latest, and Rock & Ice was the publication I bought to be immersed. What the new Climbing will look like, as well as its price-point no one I have asked knows.

Climbing, you readers and subscribers know, was changing a bit earlier this year. They moved to a digital subscription model for premium content and training programs. (By the way, the training programs are effective.) This will likely be how Rock & Ice content — features, long form, and photography — will be made available.

Also, you may recall that the publishers and editors of Rock & Ice adopted the annual long-form publication Ascent, which predates the existence of Rock & Ice. I like to think it will endure the consolidations. Is it valuable enough to Pocket Outdoor Media to put limited staff bandwidth and marketing, among so many brands, for climbers’ benefit?

Climbers, however, all like climbing their way. And there are different flavors, greater than just sport, trad, alpine, and so forth. Some of us are more athletically focused, and others emphasize the natural and even the metaphysical benefits. Merging a publication, in theory, is fine. But what gets emphasized comes at a cost. I think there is room for many different climbing magazines because climbers have a variety of things they prefer and seek them out. The best thing is to tell Climbing and Rock & Ice what you like about them; they need your guidance now so the new Climbing can meet our expectations.

Thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress, Twitter, and/or Facebook.

On Eve of Awards, A Winner Needs Your Help

It is a sign of the times, and a little ironic, that just as the Banff Mountain Literature Competition finalists were announced, the winner of the article competition these past five years has asked for your help.

I asked for help on their behalf too. On April 10, 2020, not even a month into pandemic misery, I urged you to buy or renew a subscription to Alpinist Magazine right away and buy something from their online shop. I followed my own advice. I ordered a new a subscription (I had intentionally let it lapse in February, intending to buy two issues from the newsstand and pick up in the summer.) I also bought one of those amazing route maps their team creates. I chose the most iconic the Eiger’s North Face.

Magazines, which are steadier contributors to our reading culture than books, can fail under poor economic conditions. Climbing magazines come and go. Remember Urban Climber? Do some of you even remember Mountain? Alpinist Magazine is a unique long-form quarterly featuring retrospectives, art, poetry, which is distinct from the other periodicals that cover skills, current events, and trends. And it nearly failed after a 2008 bankruptcy.

I read every issue of Alpinist cover to cover. It’s best enjoyed in an Adirondack chair on the patio, or in bed after the kids are asleep. The introspection and story telling is deeper than most things I read and often enlightens more than the climbing experience, but what I like about life in general. It’s because the editors work with the writers to pull out the best story-telling and prose of each contributor. They all make me feel like I am there with them, feeling what they feel, and closer to the mountains than I am from my station in this suburban outpost.

Sponsored content has not been their thing, in order to keep their content authentic and genuine. They’re trying to resist freezing budgets, reducing staff, and foregoing freelancers so the content we have enjoyed can remain at a consistently high level. But, in an attempt to keep going strong, Alpinist Magazine made their own plea for your help this month. If you feel that Alpinist enriches your life, or if climbing enriches your life, then there are a couple of things you should do today:

  1. Subscribe to the magazine or extend your current subscription
  2. Give a gift subscription
  3. Make a purchase in our online store
  4. Contribute to the Alpinist Podcast

Other quarterly, quality long-form publications of a similar caliber cost $75 annually. At $14.95 an issue, the newsstand is $59.80 for the whole year. But a year’s subscription with four issues of Alpinist is a bargain at just $49.95.

This is not a sponsored post. I am a humble subscriber, occasional contributor, and a fan of their whole operation. Please join me and give ’em a hand right now for you, me, and other climbers.

Well, I’ll post for you again in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, let’s stay in touch on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for stopping by!

Your Town Needs a Boulder Park

Next to the baseball diamond in Davis, WV is the accessible and playful Tucker Boulder Park. (All rights reserved)

The family and I were escaping the heat, the crowds, and (we hoped) our pandemic-reality by taking a break from our jobs in the Monongahela National Forest. I loaded our luggage, outdoors gear, and clipped my rock climbing shoes onto my daypack, just in case.

I dropped my climbing gym membership when they reopened, not wanting to risk breathing in coronavirus-infected indoor air. So I haven’t climbed anything since March 11th. For the Mon I recall a lot of cliffs that were short and chossy, and giant boulders covered in roots or moss. Seneca rocks, the Mon’s prime rock climbing destination wasn’t far, but wouldn’t be a family outing for us.

So I looked up bouldering in the Monongahela and the first thing that came up was the Tucker Boulder Park. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a facility with memberships and a daily fee, or something else. After reading a little more, it was clear that it was an outdoor playground. But it wasn’t just an ordinary playground with slides and a swing, this playground had two top-out boulders.

When we drove through town, I couldn’t find the park. I assumed that it would be front-and-center. Davis, WV is the highest town in West Virginia and it’s also within the confines of the National Radio Quiet Zone, meaning, because of an observatory and a Navy communications facility, radio, including cellular service, is limited. My GPS didn’t work and the best cell signal I could find was 1X and it faded as you went south of town and disappeared altogether. In town, I saw Stumptown Ales just fine (and their Bewildered Hippie was delicious!) We did not return to Davis for days. Out of town, the trails were peaceful and I found lots of large moss-covered boulders in Otter Creek Wilderness, though never anything suitable for a crag. Maybe there was, but with our kids’ little legs, we couldn’t hike as deep into the backcountry as might have been necessary.

Stumptown Ales in Davis, West Virginia.

One afternoon, before we drove back to Davis for dinner out, I checked my map for the Tucker Boulder Park when I was at our cabin’s wifi. It seemed pretty obvious where it was, so we went there first. But when I drove to the edge of town, the intersection where you are supposed to turn seemed to lead to a long row of houses, not a park. So we turned around and went straight to Milo’s Cafe and we filled up on burrito’s and pork nachos. Afterward we drove to the edge of town one more time.

I kept driving past the intersection I thought the map referred to and saw a fence that held in a baseball field. At its far end were two top-out boulders and no one on it. The road I was looking for, if you could call it that, was actually a narrow gravel path. I shouted and pointed and the kids saw it too and shouted for joy; they knew their father’s curiosity was turning into a lark.

We sanitized our hands and picked some holds to rainbow. Nothing was labeled with tape. I followed the kids around a little as they need some guidance. After a few burns they needed longer breaks from pulling plastic and I got to jump on a backward leaning problem. I’ve neglecting my fingerboard since May, which didn’t seem to matter now. My legs pushed me and core held. Schnickelfritz asked me to help him on a problem he set his eyes on, where the holds were bigger and a ledge, he thought would get him to the top of the little boulder. “Help” meant holding his waist as he worked on the footholds; an ab workout for me too, since he’s getting bigger! It was as if we had been looking for a prime skiing resort but discovered a little slope with only a two-seat lift, only the locals knew about and had much more fun.

Bouldering has become a go-to option for more climbers, seemingly than ever before. Actually, I’ve been bouldering long before it was more popular, but trad and sport climbers disparaged bouldering as a lesser activity. Though I agree that dedicated boulderers, me among them, were weird. I should have had more self-confidence. I’ve been vindicated by how bouldering is part of a diverse form of training for trad and sport, as well as a specialized discipline that has a new trendy following. I thought bouldering-only gyms in Chicago and New York City were wonderful, but this Tucker Boulder Park has something more going for it.

Climb safe and have fun, thanks to Davis, WV.

Because the Tucker Boulder Park is a public apparatus, there are no waivers to sign. Rules and guidelines are posted. The rules sign is inviting, rather than discouraging, and the best line is this: “Climb at your own risk.” The town has accepted the risk within these guidelines. In a way, it reminds me of a public swimming pool when there is no life guard on duty. It’s not like a private gym, which is concerned about staff oversight and liability. It was the closest pulling plastic got to the real rock experience with rules I have ever experienced.

Your town needs a boulder park. My town needs a boulder park. Put on your rock climbing shoes or your sneakers. Bring your own crash pad. Volunteer to set routes for your neighbors with the parks department. No ropes, except for adaptive climbing, of course. And the rules are reasonable. No paperwork. No fees. Just a fun time in your community.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll post here on T.S.M. again for you in a couple of weeks. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Do Climbers Read?

A beautiful day in the Brooks Range. (All rights reserved)

In a recent article about the Banff Centre’s role in mountain literature at Gripped.com, Jon Popowich talked about how mountain literature moved him as a young man: “There were many times when I encountered words that were not just of actions, but were of reflections and feelings, as the writers tried to make sense of the landscapes within them.”

As one of my regular readers, you’re here because you enjoy climbing literature, or perhaps you just like reading about adventures in the mountains. You read. However, many of your peers do not. By read, I am referring to narratives and biographies, rather than guidebooks, magazines and digital content.

In the article, Popowich quoted Geoff Powter, who is a climber, author, and editor, about the general lack of readership:

Powter noted there is a general feeling that people are not reading as much now, at least books. “The proportion of people who climb and read is way less. At the gym, I asked people “what’s the last mountain book you read?” Hearing nothing, I then asked “okay…what’s the last book you read?” Not many. People spend a lot of time searching online or reading magazines. So that’s the critical component of the literary side of Banff.”

Jon Popowich, “The Role of the Banff Centre in Mountain Literature,” retrieved from Gripped.com on June 17, 2020.

Even before I started writing this blog (over 10 years now), I met climbers and nonclimbers that did not read anything not on a screen, and that did not include ebooks. They had not heard of Annapurna or No Picnic on Mount Kenya, influential climbing books and arguably classics. This is why I drifted from discussing alpine climbing news and history (which I still do occasionally) to sharing books about climbing and sometimes sharing stories of famous ascents; they had never heard of them.

Publishers of climbing books like Rocky Mountain Books, The Mountaineers Books, and Vertebrate Publishing continue to publish narratives and biographies annually. Margaret McDonald and David Smart have books both being released in the next several weeks. And non climbing-specialist publishers, like Penguin and its imprints, continue to publish quality mountaineering and climbing sagas periodically. They are clearly selling. I wonder whether climbers are the ones actually reading these books?

I also wonder whether the lack of readership among climbers is part of the modern cultural trend with digital content. Consumers want snippets, speed, instant access, and the ability to move on to the next thing swiftly. Books are not sips, they’re gulps. They’re an immersive process, rather than a quickly satisfying espresso, and they are, for most, longer commitments than a day of binge watching a series on Netflix. The trend of lengthy experiences is also in decline in popularity, from long, meandering backpacking trips, needlepoint, nine-inning baseball games, and playing a full eighteen holes of golf. They’re just too long and committing for the modern general audience.

For me, I’ll keep reading and sharing climbing books and passing on a little about my Who’s Who in climbing history as I go along.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll post here on T.S.M. again for you in a couple of weeks. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter and/or Facebook. Read on!