It was intelligent, exciting, gross, at times nauseating and frightening, and I nearly quit reading it. But I am glad I toughed it out because the conclusion was climbing-history informed and damn witty.
Eric Sparling, a writer from Nova Scotia, wrote Peak published by Podium in 2022, didn’t set out to write a horror book about the supernatural. He liked monster movies like The Thing. And he had gathered a lot of convincing knowledge of high-altitude mountaineering that I was convinced and a climber-writer I referred the book to, who also read it, said it was good, “until it went batshit crazy.”
(Side note: I don’t like violent movies and I have never been inclined toward horror stories in books or movies because I think the real world has enough violence and frightening things; so I always try to pull back that veil of fear and find the beauty because of or in spite of the horrible things. I’ve watched a handful of movies, always with friends, and think fondly of The Others, The Ring, but when I tried reading Mexican Gothica by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I couldn’t finish. So for Peak, I got the audio book and listened to it driving between meetings for a week. I need a little more old-fashioned grit, I suppose.)
Sparling tells us the story of Phil Truss, a divorced newly-rich aspiring climber who learned that a brain tumor may kill him within a year. His desires to climb mountains grows and decides he wants to die a mountaineer and what better mountain to climb than the Mountaineer’s Mountain, no not Rainier or even Robson, but K2. He hires Ukrainian superstar alpinist Ivan to be his guide (for the most of his remaining wealth,) and they’re off to the Karakoram.
The first three-fifths of the book Sparling does a reasonably convincing job of describing what the climb would be like from Phil’s newbie-amateur perspective. Phil may be paying the bill, but Ivan is the boss, trying to keep him alive, and more importantly, alive until he succeeds at reaching the top. But along the way, Phil experiences some unusual visions and hears voices. Of course, he has a brain tumor, which could cause that. Ivan even explains his experiences with feeling someone’s tangible presence helping him on a climb, but he was clearly and objectively alone. This was high-altitude climbing and many things can cloud our perspective, Ivan explains.
Phil realizes he can’t ignore the visions and voices he sees of the demon trapped around K2, which he names Varney. Varney chose to reveal himself to Phil because he was the first person ever to K2 wanting life but seeking death. As we read on, as an intriguing detail, we learn that even Aleister Crowley, the Wickedest Man in the World, didn’t have the advantage Phil had in connecting with Varney.
After Sparling’s witting storytelling, my favorite aspect was how Phil dealt with the blog’s, social media outrage, and disgust from other climbers on K2 that he didn’t belong on the mountain. There were opinion pieces lambasting him for being a privileged, rich man buying his way to the top. He weighed that heavily. Was he a fraud? If he lived longer than expected, he would never be a peer to the climbers that climbed and worked for years and decades to top out on K2. He was getting a crash course and practically pulled up the mountain by Ivan, Dawa, and to some extent supernatural forces. In the end, Phil comes to peace within himself about it, but it’s quickly dashed by Varney’s plot being unveiled and what horrifying things Phil must do to transcend into the supernatural.
Other than my reservations about violence and the horrible descriptions of putrid smells (I have to give him high points for “raw vegetables reduced to liquid fermented in a coffin,”) there were two aspects that fell flat for me: First, Dawa, a professional climber on Ivan’s expedition team, was referred to as just “the Sherpa” on several occasions. Perhaps that was intended as a title of respect, but I wasn’t sure it was appropriate today. Lastly, Phil had an amateur perspective that all climbers facing a climbing challenge “storm the gates of hell” to ascend to the top of any peak, especially a dangerous one like K2. That attitude was something I thought too before I started climbing beyond bouldering and reading so many, many more first-hand non-fiction accounts. No climber is so brave and perhaps it was more tied to the book’s theme, but it wasn’t rooted in reality and I think a climber, even one unique like Phil, would understand the calculated risk management that there was no storming anything.
For mountaineering literature, I think it is hard to write something authentic without it being nonfiction. But there are exceptions. Comedy like The Ascent of Rum Doodle comes to mind. And now, for me, so does Peak. I recommend it for climbers and anyone that reads this blog willing to read a supernatural story because the twist at the end is smart and admirable, but you’ll have to go enjoy the whole adventure to find out what I mean.
(By the way, there are two non-fiction books on the market titled Peak. The other is a young-adult novel about a boy named Peak that goes to climb Everest. I read it and recommend it more favorably. Of course, I’m rated G in an R world.)
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I have a reoccurring dream that starts by arriving at what seems like an amusement park’s parking lot with big, bold signs and lots of cars with lots of people in a natural rock amphitheater. The attraction is through a turnstile entrance in the bottom of a rock wall and everyone, including me, files through. On the other side, everyone is gathering backpacks and water bottles in dusty and trampled woods. I put on my old favorite Jansport pack, which has been long-gone in real life and I start to walk slightly uphill.
In some of the dreams I am with my wife, sometimes the kids are with us, in another version I am there with my sister, and sometimes I am going solo. In all of them there is a way station and a camp a little further up from there. I remember peculiar details about the station, like quality of the wood, the knots in the step, and the pattern of the pine and leafy deciduous trees behind its lichen covered roof. In some of the dreams, I went much farther.
From the camp, the steepness increases and the trees fade into fog and the fog into snowy terrain, as if going through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe, and coming to a precipice. The cliff, in the dream, is just a viewpoint of the next leg of the journey. From there I see snowy peaks, most of them resembling K2, the Matterhorn, and peaks I once took in during my pilgrimage to Alaska. The biggest mountain, and it was a mountain not merely a peak, dwarfed them all, and was still far away. It was both intimidating and welcoming me.
I like to think of my imaginary mountain as a make believe interpretation of Denali, capping off or crowning a continent. I have the dream periodically, but have gone years between reaching the precipice to take in the great mountain. And I considered my dream frequently as I read Katie Ives’ first book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams published in 2021 by The Mountaineers Books. Ives shares a reoccurring dream of her own and stories from fact, fiction, a mix of the two, sometimes spiritual objectives, and a hoax intended to shake up the new direction mountain climbing was taking among the outdoors community after World War II.
THE CRUX HOAX
In the 1962 issue of Summit, the climbing magazine of the day, there was an anonymous contribution with an enticing photo of multiple alpine big walls broken up with hanging glaciers with several routes marked. The accompanying story told of attempts, but no first ascents. The caption read: “[T]he unclimbed summit of ‘Riensenstein [sic],’ approximately 8,100 feet, near Prince Rupert in British Columbia.” These big walls were tantalizing and different from the walls of Gunks and Yosemite. They were exotic and waiting to be climbed. It was in a specific place and had a story that convinced most readers. Some went to British Columbia seeking these walls, only to be confused by the story and the landscape.
Did these mountains exist? If not, why would someone tease the readers so? Did the editors know and were they in on the prank? The mysterious Riesenstein in Summit was proven years later, by Al DeMaria and Pete Geiser’s article in the 1966 American Alpine Journal, was in fact an overlooked part of the Alaska Range called the Kichatna Spires. Even Bradford Washburn, who photographed most the range and knew of them, discouraged young alpinists from visiting there later because the precipitation clearly funneled to the spires’ valley.
Katie Ives digs deep in her book into the story behind the hoax as well as the deep seeded reasons we want to believe, seek, and even conjure imaginary mountains. It’s an entrancing journey into a world where humans create ideas and places to believe in, and even stories for the real places in our lives to give them more meaning. Ives takes you on a tour of the Seven Cities of Cibola, Mount Hooker and Mount Brown, Diamond Mountain, Shangri-La, Minya Konka, Amye Machen, Nanda Devi, and even Narnia. Some are fictional, some are real, but the stories are sometimes both at the same time.
The hoax was created by Harvey Manning, Ed LaChapelle, and Austin Post coming together. While each had a significant contribution from their special backgrounds and skills, Ives reveals that Manning was the instigator. Manning was best known for being a coauthor of Freedom of the Hills, the classic mountaineering instruction guide. He had successfully tried other hoaxes before, but this was his greatest; Manning hadn’t fooled people into believing in a new technology that didn’t exist this time (because he had,) no, for his greatest act, Manning would move a whole mountain! As his reward, readers looked on in wonder, climbers went searching on expeditions, and both dreamers and fools were made.
Ives reveals that Manning was a dreamer himself and sought to recreate an innocent mystical experience in nature, an experience had in the hills and that could only be duplicated there. Manning had found some secrets of the outdoors and that most people, even the new outdoor enthusiasts of his day, were missing it. New gear from sleeping bags, backpacks, and camp stoves, to name a few, were all being developed from the military industry birthed in World War II and now promoted to improve the outdoor experience for everyone, just at higher prices. Manning felt it was unnecessary and greedy. At the same time, a new kind of climber was coming onto the scene; they needed untrodden peaks where “no one” had been, or no one had recorded going, to fill new entries of alpine journals with their name on it. Manning thought it was “a pretentious bullshit thing,” according to someone who knew Manning and listened to him laugh about the climbers declaring they would be the first to ascend the Riesenstein. Reading this made me consider how even I preferred my simple Jansport backpack and Timberland boots when I started hiking to the new, “technical” gear from Eastern Mountain Sports with specific brand names I started acquiring when I began earning a pay check. Did I need it for the most wonderful experiences in nature?
Ives sprinkles her book with many little stories of other climbs and points of mountaineering history that even I hadn’t come across. And, having known quite a bit about the real history of the Kichatna already, I was very pleased that she relayed their whole story from their first obervation by Westerners in 1898 to the real first attempts. (After reading Ives’ book, I feel that Manning’s hoax story was practically prophetic in nature about how the first attempt would go.)
Most of all, I appreciate how Ives isolated the notion of what we seek when we go into nature looking for adventure through examining Manning’s life. It’s intensely personal and sometimes it’s fundentally about the imagined story and narrative we tell ourselves.
RIESENSTEIN AND BRIDGING GENERATIONS
Coincidentally, my first issue of Alpinist Magazine was issue 36 in autumn 2011. That was when Ives first wrote about the Riesenstein Hoax. I started conversing and later working with Ives on a couple of projects of my own or Alpinist around the same time. Then I thought I was just catching up about the Riensenstein and that this story was lasting and legendary in the mind of romantic climbers, like me (though I am much more romantic about climbing than I am a climber.)
Actually, it was relatively new to Ives too. She re-discovered the Riesenstein Hoax from Andy Selters through his 2004 book Ways to the Sky. (I haven’t read Ways to the Sky yet, but I can tell you that it was a Banff Mountain Literature Competition winner in the history category, which is a gold-star level recommendation to me.) Thank you, Mr. Selters for reintroducing it. It might not have caught Katie Ives’ eye until much later, if at all.
Digging into the whole story of the Riesenstein Hoax also reintroduced us to the magazine, Summit, and its publishers Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness. However, in the early days they used pseudonyms and and published letters to the editor addressed “Dear Sir,” because when the magazine started in 1955, Crenshaw and Kilness were concerned their magazine wouldn’t be taken seriously if readers knew it was being run by women. Later, it wasn’t the case after the magazine ran for a few years.
Katie Ives is celebrated today for her writing and leadership of Alpinist Magazine. She started almost from its inception, and watched it go out of business and be resurrected with the help of Michael Kennedy. But Ives gentle and influential editorial touch (which I experienced as a contributor) gave it a unique place among climbing periodicals; you didn’t have to be a world-class climber to contribute, art was welcome, and many diversified viewpoints were encouraged and sought. In Alpinist and in her book, she makes a point to use indigenous names of destinations and mountains in parenthesis in a persistent effort to overcome the, as Ives wrote in the book, “[A]ttemped suppressions of the heritages of Indigenous people–first with colonialist myths and imagined blanks projected onto maps, then new boundaries drawn across conquered lands and new names imposed on ancient rivers, valleys, and peaks.” There have been other female publishers and editors in climbing — several I still read and admire like Alison Osius (check out her biography of Hugh Herr) — and having this connection between Ives and Crenshaw and Kilness through the Riesenstein and this book brings me joy!
(For a brief read, before you buy her book, please read about Ives’ visit to Crenshaw and Kilness in 2014 in Alpinist 49: “A House of Stone and Snow.”)
YOUR IMAGINARY MOUNTAINS
My reoccurring mountain dream may be organic, just as I dream about my wife and baseball too, but many of us are seeking mountains in our day dreams. We watch Reel Rock, YouTube videos, buy climbing magazines, and read books. We want something from these mountain experiences. And Katie’s exploration of Manning’s hoax has me wondering about whether I really want, or ever wanted, the first ascent and a fresh entry in an American Alpine Journal. Manning didn’t and thought it was an unjustified ambitious desire when we didn’t have to feed ego to take joy from the mountains and wilderness. Perhaps Summit‘s companionable and accessible approach to the mountains is enough.
I recently read Grace Lin’s novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In it, there is a peak named Never Ending Mountain on which you can reach our nearest celestial neighbor. At the top, the protagonist doesn’t solve her problem or her riddle, but takes a giant leap in learning how. I like to climb, and hike, and spend time in the outdoors, and search for answers, peace, and joy that I can put in my backpack for later. Manning shows us a different way, and Katie introduces us to all kinds of wonderful new paths to look.
If you are looking for magic places, whether it’s your real summit, a mountain pass, Middle Earth, Narnia, or the transformative power of a walk in the woods without a map, I highly recommend you read Katie Ives’ ImaginaryPeaks. No, you have to read Katie Ives’ Imaginary Peaks. When you’re done, leave her a good review in stars, and maybe shoot me an email and let me know your thoughts too. I’ll pass them on to her publisher so she can go write the next one!
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I have seen his name on the spines of a handful of books and his picture in Patagonia catalogues but haven’t really understood why that was. His mountaineering exploits never stood out front and center and he seemed more of a travel writer. I didn’t actually understand why he kept coming up. Now I know.
Ridgeway has written his autobiography, A Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map, published by Patagonia Books in 2021, and it’s beautiful, both for the cover, the photographs, and his life’s story. It could almost be mistaken for a coffee table book, like many of new volumes from Patagonia Books today. It could easily have been a paperback without all of the coffee table elements and have become a dogged-eared copy in a young person’s backpack guiding them on an unconventional path to success.
Despite climbing Everest and being among the first Americans to summit K2 in 1978, Ridgeway was never the most important person in the events he was part of and witnessed. He was a team player. He grew into the role of mentor and coach, doling opportunity freely, including to Jimmy Chin, and he guided characters like Dick Bass and Frank Wells to climb the Seven Summits (the Kosciuszko version) for the first time, regardless of which Pacific-Australia peak they climbed. From there, he filmed for television and documentaries, including Patagonia’s 180° South, and fostered his love for birds into wildlife in general and took to advocacy. But the lasting impact on me, has been his lasting relationships, often expressing gratitude to people, like Chris Chandler, who invited him to climb Everest.
Chandler’s invitation changed Ridgeway’s life course. Ridgeway’s life was off to a difficult start: During his high school years, his father burned down the house his family called home, committing insurance fraud for his mother’s and his sake and vanished into the South Seas. Ridgeway moved into his best friends parent’s Airstream trailer while he finished school. Ridgeway’s mother saw her son’s interest in mountain climbing (through applying his book learning from Freedom of the Hills on Mount Baldy,) and needing somewhere to send him during the summer, enrolled him in Outward Bound.
Everest started a great journey of friendship for Ridgeway, during his expeditions to Everest, K2, and into once-forbidden China to attempt Minya Konka. On Everest expedition, Ridgeway met Jonathan Wright. Wright took Ridgeway on a significant detour prior to the ascent to visit a monastery. Ridgeway learned meditation and found inner peace, or at least the seeds of it, within himself. Wright would also speak up for the less experienced Ridgeway during the climb and gave him advice, as if he were sharing tips for being a good factory worker together: Be patient and don’t slack when it’s your turn. It later got Ridgeway to the summit of K2.
Ridgeway also became a documentary filmmaker on K2 by happenstance. He filled in for an absent teammate on the factory-work-like slope of the seige-style expedition, learned a new skill, and grew a new branch in his career. He would go on to film for CBS, Patagonia, and other nature documentations.
When Ridgeway met his wife Jennifer, she was a jet-setter of the 1970s and early 1980s like he was, both traveled widely to exotic places but for contrasting lifestyles. Jennifer was a purchaser for Calvin Klein. Ridgeway and a friend tried coaxing her to join them on a trek for a National Geographic assignment. They even offered that they could get her good boots in a nearby neighborhood of Kathmandu; but she declined gracefully, explaining that the farthest she walks is from a New York City taxi to the doors of Bergdorf Goodman. They made it to dinner instead and rendezvoused on other occasions. They both learned that had lost important people in their lives and supported each other in healing. They later married at his beach shack near Montecito, California.
Rodgeway knew Doug Tompkins and Kris McDivitt Tompkins before they were married, and before establishing Esprit. Kris and Doug would sell Esprit, with its brand The North Face, to save millions of acres in Patagonia for conservation. Doug was a friend and adventure buddy with Yvon Chouinard, and Ridgeway was with them on the fateful kayaking trip in 2016 when Doug’s boat flipped and he died of hypothermia.
The story that touches me the most about Ridgeway was the extended story of Jonathan Wright. Shortly after the Everest expedition, and Ridgeway’s historic K2 summit, Ridgeway and Wright joined Yvon Chouinard and others to climb in China for the first time since the People’s Republic of China closed Its borders from Western travelers. They’re destination was Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for Gongga Shan, which its summit was 7,556 m./24,700 ft. above sea level. It had only been climbed twice before, once by Americans in 1932 and the Chinese in 1957. This time, they were going to put up a new route.
There is some dispute about the avalanche risk assessment or whether there was one, but above Camp II Ridgeway and others glissaded down the slope to show off and return, hallering yahoo as they went. The subtle yet unmistakable and dreadful whump sound from the snow released the snow sheet on the slope and threatened everyone. Jonathan Wright, Ridgeway’s best friend, was killed. They buried him on the mountain.
The team retreated home and Chouinard shouted and cursed the mountains for what happened. He even complained that, “These mountains are too high,” which made me consider whether they were (still am, actually.) A guide from the Tetons blamed Ridgeway for triggering the avalanche because he was too preoccupied making the documentary of the climb to assess the risk.
Jonathan Wright was survived by his wife and infant daughter Asia Wright. Ridgeway wrote about Asia’s request to him that he take her to the slopes of Minya Konka to visit her father’s resting place in his book, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father (1998.) I saw this book in paperback in 2000 when I started reading climbing books but quickly dismissed it; it appeared too sentimental and not adventurous enough. After reading A Life Lived Wild I now think that I was too young to understand. Now that I am 43 and a father, I am planning on reading it.
So Rick Ridgeway is more than I expected. My friends, Alex and Caleb in Alexandria, have been involved with Patagonia stores in Washington, DC and the newer shop across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA for the last 20 years. One of them is an assistant manager. They have met many of the filmmakers, authors, and subjects of the company’s communications when they have come through for employee and public events. They were first introduced to Ridgeway just after 2000 and speak fondly of him and hold him in high regard. He seems to hold a different place compared to the other athletes that tour their shops. As they mention to me that when they first met him that he wasn’t as tall as they expected, they brush past that facet and talk about 180° South or the initiatives at the company he lead since 2005. They talk about his life’s work, the work on his book, that I recommend, A Life Lived Wild.
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Someone was bound to write this book and we are blessed that it was by Bernadette McDonald. Winter 8000 is a near-complete retelling of all first attempts and ascents of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, except K2, which was the only summit where the winter ascentionists had not yet reached.
At publication, the chronicle Bernadette McDonald starts in her latest book published in 2020, Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, was only a little over 90 percent complete. Who could blame her? No One expected the last domino piece, less-than-a-tenth of the saga, to fall so soon.
There are 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters above sea level and all of them are in the Himalayas and Karakoram across Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet. Climbers made their way to their summits for the first time between 1950 and 1964. After the first ascents, the climbers sought other challenges, such as more difficult routes, or in the case of Andrzrej Zawada, an alpinist from Poland, harsher conditions to make their names. Polish climbers, who were blocked by Soviet travel restrictions and lacked resources, had more access in the late 1970s and wanted to have an impact on climbing history. Zawada lead the way for winter warriors, first from Poland, to climb in the colder and darker months.
From Bernadette McDonald’s other books, particularly Freedom Climbers (2011) and Alpine Warriors (2015), I was familiar with the attraction to winter ascents by the Poles and Slovenian alpinists as well as by other climbers. And even then, Alpinist Magazine filled me in on other stories about climbing the 8,000-meter peaks in winter, including the more recent attempts, mishaps, and successes McDonald’s earlier books didn’t or couldn’t cover.
Winter 8000 is a compendium of the ascents. She pulled the essential facts from that year’s ascents records from the various alpine journals, and then went deeper with interviews with the key actors and even family, like the widow of Tomek Mackiewicz, Anna Mackiewicz. McDonald traveled extensively to bring the stories and a tactile feel to the experience, from the wind on skin from fallen mittens, to the inner turmoil of the little decisions at high-altitude, where the brain and body only growing weaker. The result was a book I eagerly anticipated, but at first was dismayed at it’s format. I was, of course, worried for no reason.
STRAIGHTFORWARD YET DEEP
With the book in hand for the first time, flipping pages to see how it was organized it didn’t look like McDonald’s typical compelling page turner. It looked like a textbook or a guide. There were 14 chapters addressing each of the 8,000-meter peaks, one chapter at a time. And the titles were the subject mountain, without more description or characterization.
However, the writing is true to the style McDonald always employs, presenting mystery and a facet deserving of awestruck. Once you start Winter 8000, McDonald presents a mystery, through the introduction of a noteworthy figure, on the very first page and you are compelled to read on. The prose is asking the obvious, Why climb in winter? In this case, she starts with an exchanged with Zawada when McDonald at a mountain festival in Katowice, Poland. His response was terse, and amusing for an old, veteran alpinist (just read it, and keep reading.)
Despite the simplicity of fourteen chapters for fourteen peaks, the climbers McDonald profiles spill from one peak and chapter to the next, giving her retelling of these ascents the sense of a generational or family saga. At first one Pole set off to be a supporting climber on an attempt, only to grow into a weathered veteran and lead an expedition in winter a few years later. And, in the more recent attempts, the alpinists would cross the stories of ascents, such as when Adam Bielevki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jaroslaw Botor left their attempt on K2 to rescue Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat that same winter in 2018. The book is a proper history, which could be a student’s textbook, but it is immensely readable.
EVENTS WE CANNOT CONTROL
Winter 8000 was released four years after thirteen of the world’s fourteen highest peaks were topped out. K2 was elusive. It was all that remained and no one knew which winter season would bring success. From a publishers standpoint, this was the moment, when a general audience could focus on the final step in one of humanity’s grand quests of adventure; write the book that explained the significance better and everyone would want to read it. How would anyone know when K2 would fall so soon afterwards?
A mere seven months later, K2 was summited in winter, in January 2021. It was done in historic fashion. On that climb, ten alpinists, native from Nepal, made the summit together. They waited ten meters below the summit until the group could coalesce and reach the pinnacle together. It was a historic moment for the Nepalese, including Sherpa, to not support a climb, bit lead themselves into history.
Winter 8000 could already be considered required reading for anyone seeking to climb one or all of the fourteen peaks in winter. Yet now, after a brief interval, it has a knowledge gap on K2. In a way, the last chapter of the book is dated and anchored to the years between 2016 through 2020. Of course, McDonald must have accepted that this would be the case. Clearly, The Mountaineers Books, the publisher did too. Readers could go Online to access the news. But considering the immediate timing, could the next edition provide this critical update?
McDonald concludes Chapter 14: K2 by writing the obligatory “as of this writing, K2 in winter is still waiting…” We waited seven months. Perhaps a year since she penned those words. Even if McDonald is satisfied with the outcome and unwilling to do the research and interviews to share the K2 outcome, perhaps another writer, or an alpinist, could contribute an addendum or afterward to the second edition.
Of course, the Winter 8000 is complete. It is accurate as of its printing. An analogy with another book is applicable here: Golfer Bobby Jones, out of popularity and public interest, wrote an autobiography in 1927 after he won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open Championships in the same year, an incredible and unheard of feat at the time. He was just 25 years old. He proved that his book was a set in time when he outdid himself by winning those same tournaments plus the British Amateur and the British Open Championships, the first ever so-called Grand Slam of golf in 1930. He never wrote another autobiography.
I can live with it. But should we be as content?
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Cochamó Valley in Chile is as close to Yosemite National Park before it had roads, crowds, and park rangers as it can be to when John Muir explored its wilderness in the 1880s. I first learned about Cochamó from Chris Kalman when he and I crossed paths nearly 10 years ago over writing assignments. Since then, I have, and perhaps you have too, learned how wrapped up he is with the valley, the Cochamó Valley.
When Chris first visited Cochamó he thought he knew how Muir felt first coming to Yosemite. And like Muir, Chris made first ascents, some free soloed, in the untouched valley. Kalman grew into a champion of Cochamó conservation because he admired its beauty, and he knew it could be ruined with a dam, mined for minerals, or trampled by crowds and luxury hotels. Muir knew Yosemite Valley needed to be preserved, and Chris likewise took action for his Valle when he established Friends of Cochamó to help protect this unique place on Earth.
Although you may not be as familiar with his favorite valley in Chile, you may be familiar with him if you consume climbing content these days. Chris has written for Alpinist Magazine and often conducts podcast interviews for the podcast The Cutting Edge, run by the editors of the American Alpine Journal, which Chris is an editor, of course. He’s also authored a guidebook and two fiction works. His first novella was As Above, So Below, which was self-published in 2018, and his second, despite the punny title, has everything to do with loving and protecting places, especially like Cochamó Valley.
Chris’s 2021 work, Dammed If You Don’t — a 2021 Banff Literature Competition Finalist — takes us on the lifetime journey of John Mercer. Mercer visits South America and finds grand potential in the fictional Valley of Lahuenco. He awakens the eco-tourists and backpackers of the world through social media and slide shows to it peril. The valley quickly becomes trodden with campsites with an few visitors carelessly scaring grasslands from tent sites and littering. He discovers a new species of salamander, and valley becomes more valuable and even more popular, since it suddenly has a mascot and a new gimmick for visiting, even as it brings the species to the brink of extinction.
The story explored all of the possible permutations for Lahuenco with Mercer as the central agent of change. Chris presented the reader with the unintended consequences of Mercer’s affection for Lahuenco and the commercial or capitalist opportunities, as carried out by the antagonist Señor Ackerman, and asks not only who wins, but who is actually in control? The populace? Those with money? Those with the land?
Although Mercer’s adventure has similarities to Chris’ experiences with Cochamó, Mercer is a modern likeness to John Muir. Fit, constantly in motion, and fire-like (both a bright light and able to ignite combustibles,) Mercer carried his case for protecting Lahuenco to the world through advocacy and fundraising, instead of the President and Congress, as Muir had done with Yosemite. I won’t ruin the end for you, but tempt you to read it for yourself by stating that Mercer’s solution, though a little trite, was worth me pondering for days after I finished the book.
Kalman makes wonderful observations about how the world works. It’s heavy at times. I don’t agree with the dark shading of values he used to illustrate Señor Ackerman’s reasoning and strategy for exploiting the Lahuenco Valley, but his points were valid, and did — despite his direct statement to the contrary — did make him appear to be a real-world Bond Movie villain. (Tangentially, it mildly inspired me to write a parody where Ackerman hangs Mercer from an overhanging cliff above a pile of sharp scree and forced his girlfriend on a tourist-attraction zip line that when passing would cut the rope. Exit Ackerman cackling before the she reaches the dangling rope.)
Dammed If You Don’t is fundamentally a discussion piece. Chris packed in a very long winding tale into a small package, and hits on the theme of preservation in several ways, with land, and Mercer himself to name two. Chris used a third-person narrator with limited perspective that limits the story from having even more impact; I wish I had gotten to know Mercer better. Though his values and how he dealt and overcame his challenges became apparent, I would prefer if I could have read it through stories and dialogue rather than being told first and shown later. For this reason, John Mercer doesn’t become a character I was emotionally attached. When his climactic moment arrived, I saw it unfold, but without a sense for how he would turn out after the book. But again, it’s definitely worth having a discussion over (shoot me an email if you read it, because I would enjoy debriefing about the book with you.)
Go buy and read Chris’ book and shoot me a message. And I will look forward to visiting the Cochamó Valley with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz one day. I think Chris’s book will help it stay beautiful until I get there.
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I was thrilled that Emily Canders at Penguin Books’ Dutton asked me to review another book by Mark Synnott. I enjoyed reading The Impossible Climb (2018.) But when I saw that Synnott wrote about an expedition to Mount Everest, I worried that he sold out; Everest is for wanna-be mountaineers, not genuine off-grid climbers like Mark, right?
Synnott’s new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest(2021) was released by Dutton on April 14, 2021. It’s title has the feeling of having been used before and bordering on cliche, the subject of Everest is overdone, and yet, having read it, does add something valuable to the conversation about climbing today.
Until The Third Pole, Synnott had embraced mountain adventures that are not in the mainstream and tourist destinations. They were off the beaten path and sometimes truly exploratory in nature. Synnott explored the remote wilds of Baffin Island and wrote a beautiful guidebook about it in 2008. He lead expeditions for The North Face Global Team and National Geographic to remote island peaks and big walls climbers never considered before because they were barricaded by thick jungle. If it had been done, and there wasn’t a compelling new challenge, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. I would not expect Synnott to go to well-trafficked Denali, Mont Blanc, or Everest.
Yet, Everest has a magnetic draw. When Jon Krakauer went to Everest in 1996, that was not his first choice either. Krakauer had climbed off-grid climbs in Alaska. He did big routes and went alone. Everest was on-grid and crowded. Yet, he had an assignment from Outside Magazine and got caught up in the modern endeavor and fervor of climbing Everest and got swept up in history. That year, a major storm struck when many commercial expedition climbers were on the mountain, and many were left unable to return safely if at all. Eight climbers died on May 10, 1996 while trying to summit. Krakauer, as a good journalist, investigated what happened and told the story in his 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air. Synnott went looking for something historic, and he got it, similarly to Krakauer.
I am restraining my criticism about the topic of Synnott’s book, however. This is because what piqued Synnott’s interest in committing to an Everest expedition would have tempted me too: The mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, long before the commercial “expeditions” that have dominated since the 1990s, going back to 100 years ago when Mount Everest was off the grid. For most informed about this episode in Everest history, it’s not much of a mystery in a way; I don’t believe that Mallory or Irvine made it to the top in 1924 as some still like to speculate. Mallory’s body was found on May 1, 1999 on the north face of Mount Everest, but on that visit were actually looking for Irvine. Why were they looking for Irvine? Because Irvine was most likely carrying the Kodak camera and it may hold clues as to what happened to the duo on the first real attempt at the top. It even has the potential of holding a summit photo.
Solving a 100-year old mystery in 2019 involves historical investigation because there is no one to interview, gear to acquire for detective work, comfort, and survival, and physical training and preparations for the hard climbing at altitude just shy of how high jetliners fly. Synnott goes to England to conduct his investigation and gives us a charming lens on Irvine’s 1920s and the 1924 expedition, as well as a contrast to his own in 2019. Many of Irvine’s records are at Merton, where he attended school. Among other things, the Merton Library holds Irvine’s receipts from his preparations, which includes gear and clothing of natural fibers, mostly mailed away, or which he traveled to procure. Synnott comments on the receipts, explaining how they alone are works of art with their hand writing and letterhead. Irvine’s receipts were personal and intimate compared to Synnott’s e-receipts for his equipment mostly ordered impersonally via the Internet.
Synnott traveled to Everest with Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists for his multi-media art on canvas and giant rolls of paper done in the mountains,) who was also the team’s photographer and drone specialist. Drones were one of the modern and special gear used for the detective work. Everest’s North Face, where Irvine’s body was believed to rest, was fairly steep. At high altitude, and without arousing suspicion by other climbing parties or the Chinese officials, conducting a thorough search by a small group of mountaineers was impossible; a drone was partly what made this 2019 search for Irvine possible. Synnott shares an amusing, and hold-your-breath encounter with the Chinese authorities with the team while the drone was illegally flying, and it suddenly ran out of power and started to return to them.
The support of Sherpas on the mountain, which are so often misunderstood, was discussed at length. They are increasingly less overlooked in climbing stories and are competent and skilled mountaineers in their own right. Many of them came to the work at Everest and other mountains in the Himalaya and Karakorum because the work is lucrative. And the pay is better for more experienced Sherpa, including how many summits they’ve achieved. This presented a challenge for an expedition focused on finding Irvine’s remains below the summit. The Sherpa wanted to reach the top, and climbing without intending to reach the summit was out of the question. Synnott’s telling of his conflict explains how Everest isn’t just the destination of passion for climbers like Mallory and Irvine, but the source of mountaineering Sherpas’ livelihoods and the conditions their family lives.
The book shifts its attention significantly as a major storm strikes. Like Krakauer, Synnott was at Everest during a major catastrophe on the mountain. You may recall the infamous Instagram photograph by Nims Purja showing the long, line of climbers heading up Everest’s south route, which was taken before the weather went foul. Later that day, the jetstream shifted and a blizzard stranded climbers stranded high on the mountain. Eleven people died. Synnott was still in basecamp, watching the other line on the northern route, similar to the one Purja photographed. Synnott followed the event’s aftermath and covered the human stories, including the story of Kamaldeep Kaur, or Kam, whom everyone assumed was lost and dead.
Synnott takes a rumor and makes it a full-blown conspiracy theory about why Irvine’s body wasn’t discovered by his teammates and himself. The story is worth an acknowledgement but I think it may be given too much credence. If some evidence arises that proves it to be true, then that’s what this book will be most remembered for and should be. In the meantime, it should not.
The Third Pole feels like two stories in one. It’s not Synnott’s fault; he went to participate and retell the story of Sandy Irvine and witnessed another Everest tragedy firsthand. In this way, it is a valuable report on the state of the mountain, including the work underway to preserve its history and the commercialization of the challenge to climb a great peak.
I am torn on how I feel about this book; I am as conflicted as the intent of the book as with it’s outcome. It is as if I turned on ESPN for baseball highlights and only got legal analysis about the star football player charged with battery in a domestic dispute. I wanted Sandy Irvine climbing Everest’s Second Step and what I got was a conga line. And yet, everything Synnott said was true. And I have to remind myself that even Everest is what it is. And it is today what it is and has always been: The highest mountain in the world and a great challenge. Although I am deeply interested in human adventure in the mountains, I generally steer clear of Everest to avoid its pettiness and sensational news, but Synnott got me caught up without feeling like I needed a shower.
I was also tempted to recommend that you skip this book and to read it’s precursor by Conrad Anker and David Roberts, The Lost Explorer (1999,) where they actually find the body. But that wouldn’t be fair to you and would leave you lacking some relevant insight on the nuances of a topic most readers don’t get below the surface. Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole is the book for anyone interested in Everest today, even if you don’t want to be interested in Everest like me. I would also say — and this is not on a limb by any extent — that this book is for every climber that despises the on-grid climbing of Everest. Read it and be better for it.
Thanks again for stopping, especially during my blog sabbatical. I should be back in July with more regular content. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.