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.

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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

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Mountaineering Artifacts and the Banff Grand Prize Winner

Escape from Lucania by David Roberts (2002)

I have two special things to share with you today. Both mountaineering and book related that you don’t want to miss:

BRADFORD WASHBURN CAMERA

Mountaineering literature gives the reader a chance to participate with the story or add a new chapter. After reading about a first ascent, someone may be inspired to do the second and do it in a different style. Another reader might inspect maps and photos and be inspired to visit the place. Anything nonfiction can do this, but adventure stories and mountaineering sagas are loaded with potential Part IIs. Places and locations on Everest and the Eiger take on the status of a historic site. And artifacts, like the compressor Ceasar Maestri left hanging on the side of Cerro Torre, are a evidence of true stories.

It feels like how I felt when I saw a nuclear attack submarine for the first time on a visit to Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. I had recently read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. It was like seeing the genuine starship Enterprise was parked in parking lot at Target. The myth becomes reality.

Which brings me to David Roberts’ book Escape from Lucania (2002) and the detective work of Griffin Post and Luke Copland. The book recounts the 1937 adventure of Bradford Washburn, the photographer, mapmaker, Alaska mountaineering pioneer, and head of the Boston Museum of Science, and Bob Bates in an attempt to climb Mount Lucania in the Yukon Territory. They flew and landed on the glacier but it was clear another landing to get them home would not be possible. They would be hiking out. They made the first ascent of Lucania, took one of the most remarkable summit photos (or at least I think so,) and descended into the wilderness following the waterflow, hunting for food, and keeping dry.

Post read Escape from Lucania and became interested in a particular passage about their gear. Washburn had to pack light to leave the mountain range, so he and Bates left a cache packed with equipment, including Washburn’s 1930s high-end technology cameras. He worked with Copland and enlisted a glaciologist, Dora Medrzycka, PhD, to see where the glacier may have relocated the package, and potentially, strewn its contents.

After a discouraging inital visit and a subsequent ski-in to follow a hunch (my oversimplification) this year, they found the entire cache, including the cameras. You cannread more about their investigation and field work on ABC News site here.

It’s my understanding that there were no photos on the cameras, but perhaps that’s coming in another update.

BANFF MOUNTAIN LITERATURE COMPETITION

On Thursday (November 3rd,) the 2022 grand prize winner of the Banff Mountain Literature Competition was named. The category winners, made known prior to the festival, are eligible to be the grand prize winner. The grand prize winner is announced at an in-person reception on the final Thursday of the two-week event.

I had not read all the others so had no real sense of what titles would be in contention. There can easily be several five-out-of-five candidates. I gave Native Air, a novel, by Jonathan Howland that rating and thought it was surprisingly good enough to win-over the judges, even over all the amazing nonfiction that usually wins.

Well, Howland won and deservedly so according to the judges. I reviewed Native Air after it was named a finalist, or a category winner for the grand prize, and recommend you check it out and that you go read the book for yourself. You’ll be better for it!

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Native Air by Jonathan Howland Reviewed

Native Air, a novel, by Jonathan Howland (2022)

The Banff Mountain Literature Competition named Jonathan Howland’s novel Native Air its winner in the poetry and fiction category. Ordinarily I would be celebrating too, but for today, I just don’t care as much. Allow me to explain.

The chatter about Jonathan Howland’s Native Air picked up when it was nominated by the Boardman Tasker Award and made the short list for the Banff Mountain Literature Competition (in Banff’s Fiction and Poetry category) in September. I first heard about his novel when Chris Kalous interviewed Howland on the Enormocast podcast in May. Kalous, a climber, praised the book. Howland said he wasn’t aiming to earn accolades from climbers, adding, “That would be too easy.”

Would it be too easy?

Writing a climbing work of fiction doesn’t mean it will stand up among climbers or that it was significant. By significant I mean cover new ground or a new topic. Among climbing fiction, Rum Doodle was original and a spoof of classic expedition accounts and it was brilliant. I can even chuckle during a re-reading. Peak by Roland Smith is a young adult book that was a great introduction to Everest and professional climbing, and though heartwarming, wasn’t adding anything new. Peak by Eric Sparling was about a demon on K2 and a guided climb, which had a new twist on some climbing lore that makes it worth the read (if you can stomach the gore.) Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman dealt with a theme and is a wonderful conversation starter about loving a place to death.

But what made Smith’s book good and Howland’s novel great was that they both used climbing activities to tell a very human and compelling non-climbing related story. (And arguably Kalman’s was too, but it focused more on the theme of conservation and the story about the protagonist was a means to speak about that topic.) Howland says he aimed for a general audience, or perhaps a literary audience. He didn’t try to appeal to climbers. His theme was grief and his chariot for taking the reading on his tour was rock climbing.

The novel is told from the perspective of character and narrator Joe Holland about his friendship and deep partnership with Pete Hunter, and his relationship with his life partner and wife Nor Rhodes and Pete’s and Nor’s children, particularly Will. When I try to write the summary without spoilers like this it really makes the saga appear to be a dull read. It’s not. Joe and Pete are badasses on the rock from the Adirondacks to South America, but mostly in the Valley and Sierras.

I really enjoyed the contrasting perspectives of climbing in the 1980s outdoors to the early 2000s and climbing gyms. There is a brief but important moment when Joe returns to climbing about ten years after parting ways with Pete for seminary and enters an indoor climbing gym. Howland includes all the things I have thought about transitioning from my own grungy gym in Niagara Falls, NY in the 1990s to transformation of my gym in Alexandria, VA after 2010; I went from insider to stylish and at risk of being a poser looking for the post-send lattes.

I have only two issues with the book. Pete and Nor met during the college years and Nor went on to being an emergency room physician. Nor had been living and being educated in conservative Northeastern schools and yet she kept returning to visit Pete in his dirtbag lifestyle. Perhaps that was actually part of the appeal to her. I was also surprised by how every character, except Astrid, climbs and even Nor replaces Joe on some difficult routes with Pete. It made perfect sense for the story, but that element may have been contrived.

As a more minor criticism, Pete’s speech about the forefathers of climbing around the campfire was wonderfully laced with names climbers and mountain literature book nerds (like me!) recognize. It established Pete’s awareness of his part of climbing’s legacy, but Howland could have skipped it and it would have still been understood. I thought it was a bit awkward.

But by and large, climbers don’t read. They should, but they don’t. But they should read Howland’s Native Air. You should read this novel. Most of all, I read it because I was curious about this decades-long climbing saga Kalous presented on his podcast. Now that I have read Native Air for myself I am going to remember it for the emotional response of overwhelming love and relief that it drew out me. I was overcome by the conclusion and I practically cried. It made me want to hug my wife and kids and celebrate us being together.

Most of all, I loved that it was unashamedly, without interruption to give a technical explanation about how climbing was done (but once on my count) a story around climbing activities and obsession, but a human story that could have been about an obsession over ocean diving. It was brilliantly constructed.

Sometimes you and I learn that a book that just won a best-of award, the conversation abruptly shifts in the excitement of the news. What the author did to write it, and what the author is doing next, rather than what the book did that earned such merit falls far below the fold. For now, and for this review, I don’t care that Howland won, because I want simply encourage you to go read it. It will make you want to go climbing and it will make you a more loving person.

Rating: 5/5

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