A Royal Robbins Biography and More Mountain Lit News

Mount Riesenstein, British Columbia (All rights reserved)

Hi, everyone! Yep, here I am posting. And it is despite me being in my busy warm-weather season (i.e. kids’ sports and the Habitat building season). So, you know, I think this is worthwhile. In fact, we might be turning a corner.

In the last five years, Vertebrate’s Adventure Books, Rocky Mountain Books, and The Mountaineers Books have been releasing nearly 100 local guidebooks, covering hiking trails, foraging and nutrition, and cycling, but very few narratives. There has been a drought of narratives, particularly new biographies and memoirs of climbers on the market, seems to be coming to an end, or at least a break.

Perhaps the pandemic disruptions to publishers and writers were the reasons. There is certainly enough anecdote from the publishers to suggest that. I suppose the prolific writers were jostled, too, like the McDonalds and Smarts out there. The expected death of the late Great David Roberts hasn’t helped either. It stinks to be mortal. (Then again, the point of life is that it ends, isn’t it?)

Well, there are two in the narrative vein soon to be released. Also, one researcher, who you may recall from a contribution to Alpinist 57 in spring 2017 and this T.S.M. post, is putting a book out on how we really looked at mountains before climbing became a sport, and how what we think what we believed then is flat wrong. Let’s go…


David Smart wrote another biography, and this one is about Royal Robbins. It will be titled Royal Robbins: An American Climber, which is both true and nuanced: Smart is Canadian and has most recently written biographies of Austrian and Italian great alpinists Paul Preuss and Emilio Comici. Smart and his publishers choose the titles carefully so I am interested in the perspective.

My background knowledge of Robbins of relatively wide; he’s instrumental in the history of American climbers and Yosemite in particular. He’s part of so many climbing stories I’ve read, and you probably heard in Climbing Magazine (and now on Climbing Online,) and other books and documentaries. I love the clash between his purist view, and later his own transcendence of that limited perspective, of how to climb big walls. I am looking forward to whether Smart will shed any new light on this, or, just as importantly, give the story a firm written record through this biography.

It will be available for purchase in September 2023. I think I will be getting an advance copy, so look out for my review beforehand.


Graham Zimmerman has written his first book, A Fine Line: Searching for Balance Among Mountains, and will be released on October 1, 2023. Zimmerman is an accomplished climber and savvy in today’s visual communications on Instagram and short, well-conposed videos. Zimmerman fascinates me: I watch his videos with a sincere appreciation but grimmace at his confident portrayal that has a smug quality, yet trying to be knowing instead. He is experienced and qualified, but maybe too young to speak as he does. Even the publisher’s book description says he’s only in his 30s. I think that disclosure is both necessary and notable; his adventures are “legit.”

I am not confident whether this book is an autobiography, a memoir, or a reflection. I’ll call it a reflection for now, since that suits the description from the Mountaineers Books. I am going to review this book too and look forward to it. I suspect his tone in his videos will translate better to reflection in writing and may come across as sincere, interesting, and mature. I am sincerely hoping for the best from Zimmerman.


If you dont remember or know the name Dawn Hollis, you should, and you will. She did her PhD. dissertation on how mountains were thought of before Modernity and the Alpine Club created the climbing game focused on reaching virgin summits or by new lines, preferably as challenging as reasonable and as manly (womenless) as possible. She contributed a piece to Alpinist 57 in spring 20017. I also wrote this reflection her on T.S.M.

Dawn Hollis is in the process of submitting her full-out book to her publisher . It will be published in 2024.

I had the chance to read a manuscript. This book will rock some perspectives and refresh our view of how we, even as climbers, can enjoy the mountains. Alpine Club members attached to the old summit game (my term, not Hollis’) will feel unsettled and attack her findings, and others, like me, will see that the grandness of mountains was indeed heavenly, and always has been. Watch out for it because it’s going to change things for us.

That’s all I had to tell you for now. I’m going back to building homes and getting my kids to the course, courts, and camps, and such. The winter is just more conducive to reading and writing more.

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Dougald MacDonald Awarded for Literature Excellence by the AAC

Your invitation to the 2023 AAC Annual Benefit Gala, March 10-11.

On Monday afternoon, as I was packing to travel to a conference, Natalie was going through the mail and handed me a modest postcard and said, “You’re invited to a dinner.”

How quaint. Usually, someone just calls or emails me for dinner. But this wasn’t from a friend or a donor from work. This was very different. New York City would be the site of this year’s Annual Benefit Dinner of the American Alpine Club.

I put it on my desk next to a list of questions for a future post about the future of the American Alpine Journal. I had three interviews to do, questions for Dougald MacDougald, the Executive Editor of the AAJ. Dougald and I have been exchanging messages about when to talk, but work (the day job,) has been dominating my time.

I should have reached out to Dougald sooner. He came up in my social media feed associated with that sharp gala logo as soon as I returned from my conference: Dougald was being honored as the H. Adams Carter Literary Award for Excellence in Climbing Literature.

If you’re wondering why Dougald, well, he hasn’t written a smashing best seller or wrote about a dashing first ascent in pure style for Alpinist, rather he has been conveying news and curating the record of the world’s most significant climbs in the annual American Alpine Journal, periodic updates online, and a podcast. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Dougald’s list of climbing-book recommendations was the best, of literally thousands, on the Web.

His influence and character have ripples everywhere he goes. For example, he’s helped me with content and given me encouragement. And I am clearly not alone in that regard; Dougald’s Facebook friends responded warmly to his understated news of his recognition by pointing out his contributions to various publications and their own work as well as the enjoyment they share in the publications he leads.

Here is what the ACC included in its Meet the Awardees page about MacDonald:

“After learning to climb as a teenager in New England, Dougald MacDonald published his first climbing story (about ice routes on Maine’s Mt. Katahdin) in Summit magazine in 1983. Professionally, he spent the first quarter of his career as a business journalist, eventually serving as editor of the weekly Denver Business Journal for five years.

“In the early 1990s, he switched to climbing journalism, writing hundreds of articles and a book, Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener. He has been editor-in-chief of two climbing magazines—Rock & Ice and Climbing—and co-founded Trail Runner Magazine. Since mid-2012, he has edited the American Alpine Journal currently hosts The Cutting Edge podcast and supervises other AAC publications.

“He considers his greatest career accomplishment to be mentoring dozens of writers and editors over the years. After decades of climbing, he still gets out at least once a week at home in Colorado and travels frequently—often with his wife, Chris Blackmon—for climbing, trekking, or skiing.”

Dougald wondered whether what he did was actually literature. Well, if journalism is indeed literature in a hurry, Dougald has nothing to be concerned about, but I do consider the AAJ an invaluable part of climbing literature.

So, to all of you heading to Manhattan for the gala, and even if you’re not, be sure to raise a glass to Dougald on March 11th.

Well, thanks for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining my email list, which is the best way to get updates. (I am on Facebook and Twitter too, but make sure your preferences will allow you to see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!

Mislead by the Olympics: Born to Climb by Zofia Reych Reviewed

Born to Climb by Zofia Reych (2022)

The arrival of climbing as a medal sport in the Olympics was celebrated by the competitive climbing community, and some others looked on with curiosity if not interest. Although the competitive climbers viewed it as an indication of its validity as an athletic pursuit, climbing, by-and-large, did not reach an evolutionary peak. Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes by Zofia Reych had a opportunities to address or refute this evolutionary development, but instead it tells a story that gives too much weight in connecting Olympic climbing to climbing’s very beginnings.

Zofia Reych was born and introduced to climbing in Poland and was introduced to pulling plastic later in the UK. She also studied anthropology and applied it to Born to Climb, published by Adventure Books / Vertebrate Publishing in 2022. Born to Climb was released in 2022, the year after competitive climbing debuted in the 2020 Olympics (which, of course, was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and actually held in 2021.) The timeliness poised this book to tell a story based around the milestone, which was both why I wanted read it and its flaw.

I enthusiastically sought out Born to Climb to read because I was curious about the author’s lens on just that story. Reych explains, in what could be irony, why climbing was welcomed by the Olympics into the fold as it welcomed snowboarding in after the success at the X-Games. Reych also goes farther back in her research and lets the reader consider the factors that resurrected the ancient games and why it was actually reestablished. There were fascinating discussions on the establishment of sports for the affluent and the workforce in the 1800s, and the economics of the Olympics over the 1900s. It made me a little more cynical about the populism of sports in general.

Climbing, as we know it today, evolved from the 1800s. And ever since then, climbing has varied by different ethics and arguments about pro, various styles ranging from traveling in pairs to big heavy expeditions, and broader categories from alpine mountaineering, ice climbing, trad climbing, sport climbing, bouldering. Climbing was complex in the 1800s, and with the multitude of new branches of climbing categories sprouting in the 20th Century, with their own ethics and styles, have made it even more complicated. Drawing a line from the past to the Olympics made me pick up the book, but there is no straight line, and it made Born to Climb informative but not significantly insightful.

Born to Climb is misleading, in its timing of publishing, and the drive the story takes in telling the adjacent, but not parallel, stories of how climbing and Olympic developed and changed through the 1800s and 1900s. Although Born to Climb states no thesis about the ascension and crowing of climbing as a medal sport, the book is merely a good history lesson mixed with some current day climbing anecdotes, told through autobiographical details.

Reych does an exceptional job of educating the reader about how climbing changed from the Greek and Roman times to the alpine ascents in a pure sporting fashion in the 1800s, and the first rock climb (ropeless, by the way) at Napes Needle in 1886 in Wasdale, Lakes District by Haskett Smith, and all the way to contemporary competitive climbing. If not a thesis, at least a key point she makes in different ways, is that all forms of climbing “stem in a straight line from the ideals and ethics that were born in the Alps in the nineteenth century.” While competitive climbing is the hot topic, what about ice, mixed, and dry tooling climbing?

Reych shed new light for me in her review of the cultural conditions that women climbed in the 1800s. More women climbed than maybe recorded, but those that did were viewed as potentially harming their bodies and could border on vulgarity. Women climbers were part of the “new women,” which was a pejorative term.

While reading I was questioning whether the personal stories Reych sprinkles throughout the book advanced a theme or illustrated other points in the book. It was a little more biographical, which was sincerely charming, but didn’t initially move the story along. But later, it shined insight into contemporary culture around climbing as it entered the Olympic era, for instance when she speaks of a notable climber dying climbing outdoors. She makes herself an example of the current climbing culture, which is descended from the past.

In the end, Born to Climb is well researched, but having read many of the works she cites, I am not sure this was added more to the climbing shelves other than added one celebrating the 2020 Olympics. I appreciate that it embraces and looks to climbing history, searching for a thread from the top of Mont Blanc that isn’t there, other than climbing itself, but I am not buying a copy to give to my friends.

Rating: 3/5

Was this a classic? It was an excellent history. I wished it was available ten years ago, though it couldn’t have been. It might be valuable to some readers, and might be a good reference for a long time, but it won’t compete with sagas of remarkable attempts or biographies of great climbers.

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Boardman Tasker Winner Deep Play by Paul Pritchard

Deep Play by Paul Pritchard won the 1997 Boardman Tasker Award.

Four stories up, by Mr. Wooley’s physics classroom, a young Paul Pritchard looked down well-like spiral stairwell, and dropped down. He saw a classmate that passed too quickly to shout to, and recognized the school’s heat radiators as he flew, and the red tiles at the bottom by the pool before he blacked out. Pritchard woke up in the hospital. No one dared him. He wanted to see if he could do it.

Pritchard was the climber many people, possibly even my parents, had in mind when they thought of a rock climber: A risk taker that wakes up after “accidents” in the hospital, if he wakes up at all. He fell, went unconscious, and woke up in the hospital at least three times, including the flight from Mr. Wooley’s classroom, in his 1997 book Deep Play: A Climber’s Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls. This was before his horrible and life changing fall on Totem Pole in Tasmnia. He suffered from a severe head injury that has impaired his use of his body’s right side.

I put Pritchard’s book on my Short Long List because it interested me and I wondered whether it could be a climbing classic. Part of this was that Prichard had climbed on many amazing climbs I read about when I just started reading about climbing. These routes were the big wall climbs of my daydreams: Mount Asgard, Paine’s Central Tower, Trango Tower, and Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and Pritchard tells his story of these routes in his book.

Deep Play is a memoir told through a series of essays told chronologically. He starts at the beginning of his life and I adore the first sentence: “I was born on top of the quarry.” There he and his friends played with explosives, found a dynamic climbing rope, and learned to climb with some real climbers. From there, he and friends developed routes along the sea wall cliffs of England, which appears to earn him invitations to bigger climbs. Later, he says, the Garwhal Himalaya was the “coolest” place he had ever been.

Pritchard was always poor. He lived off unemployment and relied on friends to help him out. His caring character and mischievous spirit earned him his adventurous friends, who were quite loyal. Scrounging and dealing for food, gear, and transportation was a perpetual theme.

What I don’t like is not knowing what actually happened at times. His writing is mesmerizing and kept me interested throughout the book. My favorite chapter was On The Big Stone; he retells one of his early climbing road trips in snippets and clues. It resonated with me and felt like the carefree and sometimes frantic qualities of an adventure with friends. But, there were a lot of details that I wanted to know that went unaddressed. For example, upon leaving, he says he forgot his pack with his gear, but it appears that they kept going, but they might have turned around and got the bag. Yet, they were low on gas. Does that mean they kept going and Pritchard used someone else’s shoes? Did he need shoes or was he climbing in his everyday sneakers? I don’t know and Pritchard doesn’t say.

David Stevenson addresses this in his review of Deep Play in the 1998 American Alpine Journal:

When I say “one gathers,” I mean it literally—it’s hard sometimes to tell exactly what happens. Pritchard quite consistently abandons the literal for the figurative, imaginative, impressionistic. The reader can’t always tell exactly what happens, but nonetheless has arrived (if he’s patient) at a sense of what has happened that’s somehow larger than the literal.

David Stevenson, 1998 American Alpine Journal

Stevenson was harsher than I want to be. He wondered whether we would be complicitous with Pritchard’s next great accident if we consider to praise him. I don’t think that would be the case. As read in Deep Play, Pritchard has been both daring and reckless since arriving at the quarry. Still, it was an ominous question as Pritchard had his life-changing fall on Totem Pole the year Stevenson’s review was published.

Deep Play was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Mountain Literature Award with Against The Wall by Simon Yates, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Icefields by Thomas Wharton, Spirits Of Place by Jim Perrin, and Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson. These are well-respected writers, even if people (like me,) disapprove of some of the stories they told (which is a tale for another time.) Pritchard’s writing was not comparable and it is a little surprising it surpassed these works.

However, Pritchard’s climbing resume, told in Deep Play, has a gravitas, and his disjointed writing is still understandable to the reader even if details (which aren’t always critical for the wonderfully mesmerizing tale anyway) are discarded with abandon. It’s a passionate, authentic, and whirlwind of an adventure that you feel much more than you see. You enter Pritchard’s dream-like memories of the climbs, and road trips, and late nights at the disco between adventures.

I recommend it to meet Paul Pritchard and feel the mountain through his writing alone.

Rating: 4/5

So that was the review. Now let me consider whether Deep Play should be advanced from my Short-Long List to be a candidate for a climbing classic? It is about significant climbs, told authentically by the author, but I am not sure if the writing and how Pritchard conveys his experiences is worth naming a classic for the good of the readers of the final list.

I am undecided. Or perhaps my reservations could put it on a to-be-determined list. Maybe it would be most suitable to be an honorable mention since the language and communication techniques are unique.

Pritchard has written other books, including about his accident on Totem Pole and a new book out this year, The Mountain Path. Perhaps after reading those, or hearing your take, I might have my opinion on the book’s place more firmly positioned.

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Stop Shopping Take a Break and Go Outside Already

Creeksgiving (All rights reserved)

From now through the December holidays we we will be inundated with marketing and, perhaps, tempted to give in and shop and buy. Gift giving is part of our cultural game, and some of us must, but you should use this December to rethink how you approach things.

Do you remember REI’s move on Black Friday? Close on Black Friday to allow employees and customers to go outdoors and play rather than shop. REI chose to “Opt Outside,” and it encouraged other consumers and retailers to follow their lead. You were supposed to go outside.

Yet we are still getting emails and mailings promoting new products for gifts and ourselves. Including from REI. They come in the name of gift giving and suggest was to improve our kits. And we always need to refresh our clothes since things wear out, which is true. But the whole point of all of it is to help us have suitable clothing and gear for whatever we want to do outside.

But to get what we really want and what we really need for wellness and health, spending money on the latest gear unnecessarily doesn’t solve our predicament. We spend too much time at work, on our devices, and on activities that we fool ourselves are just as important and more important than breathing and moving, especially out among nature.

We consume a lot. Clothes and accessories, toilet paper, paper towels, garbage bags, kitchen gadgets, food, sporting goods, wrapping paper, gifts with loads of packaging, electronics, homes, cars, exercise equipment, games, books, and everyone must replace their single-wall water bottle with a large insulated one, because someone gave us the idea that it was superior, and power tools; don’t forget the power tools. Somewhere among those things we need to use our walks or hike or bike rides and ski runs to connect to what really makes us feel alive.

Daylight is one of our most precious commodities during the winter, and we need the sunshine and the fresh air that comes with it. The pandemic supply chain challenges illustrated how big box and overstocked grocery stores, and instantaneousness of online ordering spoils us. You should take a walk during your lunch break or, with your work-from-home schedule, squeeze in a short hike or trail run.

When you live somewhere flat there is a temptation, in between pilgrimages to the mountains and wilderness, to gear-up. Shopping without purpose but under the guise of preparation, is foolhardy at best. Browsing and researching gear has a purpose, but if it’s a substitute for actually moving about, then you’re doing it wrong.

Things can facilitate our activities, such as a game to spend time with everyone after a meal, or the compass or paper map to not be reliant on AllTrails app on your phone on your next hike. But the point should be doing. Move. Move together. Just take the time to move.

I have been using the same backpack for 12 years now. The pack has outlasted two patches I put on. Natalie knows that I will make a beeline for the backpacks at every outfitter, but I don’t buy a new one because my pack works and hasn’t let me down yet. One day it will. To do so too soon would be wasteful, plus I would rather just take my stuff and go. Don’t overcomplicate this.

Go outside. Your old footwear is just fine. Your daypack will carry your essentials. Have fun. Be well.

Well, thanks for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining my email list, which is the best way to get updates. (I am on Facebook and Twitter too, but make sure your preferences will allow you to see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!

Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan Ward Reviewed

Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan Ward (2022)

Years ago, I found Meghan Ward on Twitter. She what Natalie and I called a new mom, which is a mother with young kids undergoing the conditioning to competent parent. At the time, Natalie and I were new parents trying to navigate urban living with one then two children. Ward on the other hand, was facing the same challenges, but wherever her travels would take her, her husband Paul Zizka, the photographer, and their two girls.

Meghan Ward wrote a book that gives me all of the backstory of those Tweets and blog posts that gave me some courage during those years, titled Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure and Parenting (2022.) In a podcast about women adventurers by Rocky Mountain Books, Ward explains that she set out to write a travel book that chronicled their adventure, but as she wrote it became increasingly personal and revealed aspects of a traditional mindset that had to be overcome or surpassed to be herself. In the end is the memoir I wanted to read.

Ward takes the reader to Baffin Island, Malta, Everest Base Camp, Hawaii, New Zealand, the Caribbean, and many more places, often with two little ones strapped to her or close nearby. She traveled mostly on a shoestring budget, so these were not all-expense-paid trips to resorts. The transportation challenges, and her commentary of the stress of moving from one place to another (with or without kids,) could overshadow the freedom of travel. For example, they could fly somewhere else because bad weather or the bugs were dominating the experience, but the gamble of traveling somewhere to make flights earlier, let alone get to the airport, was daunting. Add the combination of being sleepless from an infant needing regular feedings, and the trip takes on a whole new level of complications.

After Maya, Ward’s and Paul’s first, was born, they went hiking from a backcountry lodge. There they met some other parents, albeit with older children. One mother said what Natalie and I had heard for years: You can still travel with kids, but it’s not the same. They realized that staying in one place longer and staying in the same time zone, would be helpful. That, and finding coffee as frequently as possible would combat the new-parent sleeplessness.

Ward surprised me by her background. No, not that she grew up in suburban Ottawa and had a Narnia-like woods to explore, but that she grew up a P.K., a Preacher’s Kid in an evangelical Christian community. In that community, children are expected to be good kids (in a neat and clean way reminiscent of Leave it to Beaver, oddly,) seek parent’s approval for big decisions, marry other Christians, and attend church, among other things. I grew up in that environment. Meghan tells how the turning point of her life, to move to the Rockies, explore the world, and meet and marry non-Christian Paul, started when she grew skeptical of some of the miracles described in the Bible.

Freelancing makes Ward’s travel happen. She sells articles and later blogs and writes this book. There is plenty of worthwhile anecdotes about getting content and meeting client’s needs. I feel that Ward’s calling was to showcase the humanity in the world, whether another culture or her own as a mother. So far as I know, this book is significant in that it addresses travel from a new parent’s perspective.

My only complaint about the book is something typical of a travel chronicle; I wasn’t always compelled to read the next chapter. I was confident — and somewhat bored by the idea — that I knew Meghan would go somewhere interesting and come back home. But there wasn’t an objective other than visit destinations and observe. She wasn’t delivering life-saving medicine by crossing a glacier; she was observing people and places to understand herself. I do that too! Reading that alone wasn’t enough for me.

Although I will read a book about a particular destination, say Japan, if I am interested in Japan, I usually don’t read a world traveler’s book about their last decade in various countries. The thing that kept me going was my sincere curiosity about Meghan sorting out her independent self and parenthood9. On the other hand, I think that should be sufficient for you too.

By contrast, I read climbing books because I enjoy the quest for the objective the author or subject undertakes and (mostly) skimming until I reach a longueur where the protagonist is usually in camp, or benighted on a ledge, and thinking about everything with added self-doubt and, usually, realizing how the dream of glory is overrated. Then as they struggle and face challenges how they often untie a mental knot through continuing on the process of climbing. Gritty things can be cathartic.

Lights to Guide Me Home was like a climbing book to me. A climbing book is always about an objective or an ideal in style and pushing yourself to whatever the limit to make it possible. Yet, for the climber, they discover their human frailty in either accomplishing the goal or changing the objective. Meghan climbs life and changes objectives, smartly and willingly. The climbing, or in the case of Lights, the travel, isn’t nearly as enlightening as the human challenges she faces in her relationship with Paul, her parents, and her role as a mother, while navigating life.

Rating: 4/5

Well, thanks for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining my email list, which is the best way to get updates. (I am on Facebook and Twitter too, but make sure your preferences will allow you to see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!