Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington Reviewed

2001 edition of Bonington’s Annapurna South Face.

The verdict on what are classic climbing books is still out, for me, which is a reason I keep this blog, but this book is significant for its subject and its approach. Annapurna South Face: The Classic Account of Survival by expedition leader Sir Chris Bonington, published in 1971, broke the mold of what everyone thought an expedition book was supposed to be. And if this isn’t a classic climbing book, it is at least the record of a historic climb.

Although some have found the book tedious with logistical details about climbing expedition management, that is typical of an expedition book. That is, after all, what this book is fundamentally. And Expedition books played an important role; they were the standard way to record explorations into new realms, particularly to guide future explorers and adventurers about what is already known, and, of course, establish a record of one’s accomplishments. Bonington, however, stands out as a writer of an expedition book and a climbing leader, and his book could be a top ten classic climbing book.

First, Bonington is not actually the sole author. As was the case with all expeditions, the leader wrote the chronicle and his (yes, they were all men with few exceptions) team members would attempt the summit. And the underlying idea, from the ethical approach common among big expedition efforts, was that if one person from the team made the summit, the whole expedition was successful. In this case, Bonington included the chapter about the last leg of reaching the summit from the first-person perspective of Dougal Haston who reached the summit with Don Whillians.

These books include a treasure trove of data and stories that is sometimes like going through a box from my grandfather’s business; I found things called paperweights, old photos, hand-written receipts, and correspondence (old fashioned letters hammered out from a typewriter.) For Annapurna South Face, Bonington opened his filing box and spoke about the process of getting official approval from Nepal and traveling, with his team and all of their gear, by boat. Bonington lead a team of team 21 climbers, including Haston, Whillians, Mick Fowler, Tom Frost (the sole American, in case that matters to you,) and several other alpine luminaries. After organizing food and porters to carry their loads, they often slept under the stars.

I don’t know whether to excuse Bonington or call him out for his insensitivity over Nepal’s poverty. During the expedition party’s approach to Annapurna he witnessed the Nepalese children, and observed the fifth and low-quality of living, the poor quality of food, and how their simple, delightful smiles were something noble yet naive to their poverty. The observation was honest, but in fact, he was naive to his party’s own entrance on the scene, which was a juxtaposition of health, fitness and the pursuit of a luxurious challenge.

One of my favorite segments involved Don Whillians during a lonesome wandering on the approach. He returned from reconnoiter as if he had seen a ghost. In fact, he believed he saw an abominable snow monster, the Himalayan Yeti. Whether he had or not, Bonington suspected that Whillians had merely became disoriented, spooked himself, and walked in circles. Whillians long disputed this; it’s worth the your own wandering down a search-engine rabbit hole about this.

Whillians was also handy, and, in order to provide better sleeping accomodations on the wall, Bonington documents the Whillians Box. It was essentially a cube-shaped tent with lumber for support. It could also be described as a port-a-ledge and tent combo. Arguably, it was more protection from falling debris too.

Bonington invited one American on this British expedition. It was good for some added publicity with a news audience across the pond. (Notice I said “news” not media; it was 1970, after all.) But Tom Frost, the American stood out among the team for reasons other than his nationality. The British members drank and smoke regularly. Frost was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke either. It came to blows on the steep flanks, during a multi-day hold up in a tent. The smoke would get to me too; I’ll let you read the book to see how that panned out and affected the rest of the climb with his partners.

Bonington tracked his climbers up their chosen route, starting with a long ice ridge, then an equally long rock face. All combined it took longer than planned: Five weeks followed by three more, respectively. To tell the story of the summit leg, as was the approach in other expedition books like Annapurna, Dougal Haston contributed a chapter with his firsthand account. Haston dropped his personal gear but recovered and persevered. I don’t like to spoil the whole thing, but will say that the story gets better, and there is a tragedy. (Perhaps both are common knowledge among climbers, but reading it first hand yourself is important; it is the primary source, so dive in!)

Bonington was indeed detailed. That is an criticism or a compliment, depending on your opinion. I admit that I appreciated the detail and it wasn’t a dry list, but a rich commentary, with personality, colorful opinions from experience, that was laying evidence for not only what Bonington’s men did but the style, way, and judgments of how they did it. Their gear, the conditions, and the ice ridge and rock face were all subjective to interpretations of strategy. I like to think I was able to see things as the author.

Rating: 3.9 burritos out of five

NEXT POST, LIFE’S EVOLVING CHALLENGES

As for life here in Peaklessburg, my Habitat affiliate has embarked on a five-year building plan. Since it’s a nonprofit and requires fundraising, pledges, visits, and such, it could easily be likened to the five-year voyage of the starship Enterprise visiting new worlds. The most complicated part, though not necessarily the hardest, is finding suitable sites for new homes, which takes a lot of due diligence for feasibility and, at times, negotiating.

Suburban life has sucked me in a little more. With two cars compared to our one in DC, I have shuttled our kids around more often than I ever considered I would have. Thank goodness for wireless devices and Bluetooth connections.

In TSM news, I’m stopped and will finish soon Rick Ridgeway’s autobiography, Life Lived Wild (2021) from Patagonia Books. I Ridgeway’s books never seemed that compelling to me, but I now see why he has been so important, at least to the Patagonia company and brand over the years. I’ll explain that later.

Good to see you again and thanks again for stopping by. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter.

What Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald is Missing

Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald.

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.

WINTER CHALLENGE

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?

Rating: Three burritos out of five.

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

Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman Reviewed

Chris Kalman’s second self-published book with cover art by Sarah Nicholson

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’ta 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.

Interior art by Craig Muderlak.

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.

Rating: Three-and-a-half burrs out of five.

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

Down the Everest Rabbit Hole: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott Reviewed

The Third Pole by Mark Synnott (2021)

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. 

Rating: Three-and-a-half burritos out of five.

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.

Climbing is a Therapy Not an Antidote: A Review of All that Glitters

Margo Talbot, an ice climber, a leader for women’s climbing, and an advocate for mental health published her autobiography in 2011. It was self published because Talbot is stubborn and refused to quit when the publisher’s warehouse burned down. The 2020 publication of All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey through Addiction and Depression by Rocky Mountain Books was made possible because of Talbot’s stalwart attitude in 2011 and reader response to date, including being a 2011 Banff Mountain Literature Finalist. RMB knew, like I have realized, more people need to read this book.

Talbot was born in Frederickton, New Brunswick in the 1960s to her disconnected parents. Her father was an un-involved father, which was typical of the era but compounded by being an orphan and claiming he doesn’t know how to raise children. Her mother was neglectful with her girls and showered attention on her boy. The girls, except Margo Talbot, all got pregnant early. Talbot left on a journey the was an Odyssey with characters and the 1980s and 1990s twist with alcohol and drugs.

One of my favorite lines came after she spent time as a sugar-baby to a wealthy, married, addict, drug dealer named Jay. She challenged him to tell his wife about her, which he does, and the situation explodes sending her back to Jasper, Alberta where they had originally met. She wrote, “Whenever I went to the post office or to do my banking, women would stop me and tell me how great I looked, how thin I was. I wanted to tell them that my secret was an eight-month diet of cocaine followed by betrayal and intense emotional upheaval.”

Talbot discovered climbing through one of her lovers and another addict. She continued to struggle, and things were dark, but she explains how the effort of climbing matched the intensity of her depression. While she climbed, she felt better. That’s not to say that there weren’t pressures from climbing that crept into her life; it did. When she started climbing in competitions, the stress often prompted bouts and periods of deep, darkness.

I like to believe that climbing is a cure or at least a therapy for many things, as climbing helps me deal with stress and centering myself. But Talbot’s story made it very clear to me that climbing is not an antidote to depression. Getting out of depression as deep as Talbot’s still requires exorcising demons, which is a hard, long process — possibly years long. Talbot does show that ice climbing is a helpful tool during the process of alleviating the pressures and triggers of depression, but does not necessarily mean the condition was healed.

While I think there is a valid case that this book is about climbing, I do not call this a climbing book, if that is what you are explicitly seeking. In fact, this is the second climber biography that was distinctly not about the climbs as well as the climber. (The other being Sixty Meters to Anywhere by Brendan Leonard in 2016 which had a greater focus on climbing than All that Glitters.) There is a trend these days of climbers and adventurers writing their book involving a mountaineering goal but using it as a Trojan horse to convey a message or illustrate a point about the fragility of the planet or mental health.

As a reader, I genuinely enjoy getting to know the climber as a whole, but I enjoy it most when the story is about human achievement in the mountains, and how they succeed or fail in life as a secondary theme. For instance, I am currently reading tennis champion Maria Sharapova’s autobiography and I want to know about her early life in Sochi, but if the book rarely addressed how it helped her compete against Serena Williams I would say she misunderstood her audience. For Talbot, however, I suspect that more people are drawn to her because of her nonprofit work and her Ted Talk on mental health. I am the rare climber-reader looking for more climbers’ stories.

Of course, Talbot is a climber and her love for climbing is woven through the book in subtle ways. She identifies as a climber, as the book’s subtitle points out, and the chapter titles are taken from names of ice climbing routes (my favorite being Polar Circus for obvious reasons.)

Talbot found ice climbing and mountaineering before she overcame depression, and yet, her climbing life blossomed after her battle.

It is a very quick read and a page turner but this book was not what I was expecting. There were far fewer climbing stories and anecdotes, proportionate to the pages, than I anticipated. Yet it reminds us, as an audience passionate about the mountains, that life is more than our interests. Talbot concludes that relationships are the most valuable things we have in life. The power of relationships over us can be precarious, with the potential to cause lasting damage if repressed, or empower us to thrive and climb to the heights.

I recommend that you read All that Glitters because I learned things I may not have been exposed to elsewhere and I needed to know, and Talbot does it all with a hopeful and sensitive tone. You will be a better climber and person for reading her book.

Rating: Four burritos out of four.

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

David Smart on the Remarkable Rock Climbs of Emilio Comici

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites by David Smart and published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2020.

I wish I would be permitted to simply say that fall is upon us. Normally thats when my outdoor playtime dwindles, I drink more coffee and beer, and enjoy longer evening reading sessions. Yet, there is a cloud of circumstances that make things so unsettled, doesn’t it? Perhaps all the more reason to read fiction and biographies. And I have a biography for you that was, quite seriously, more engrossing and enjoyable than I expected.

As an American, I still have this myth in my head that Americans created rock climbing in Yosemite. Now that I have been tinkering with climbing and it’s books for nearly 30 years, I know that this is not true, but there are still subtle undertones in stories of legends that indicate that to be so. Last weekend I finished David Smart’s latest book, a finalist at the 2020 Banff Mountain Film & Book Competition, Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites from Rocky Mountain Books (2020), which includes the first desert rock climb, years before Shiprock’s ascent, and free soloing big walls. No, it didn’t start in Yosemite.

The book is a climber’s biography, not the story of one gallant ascent, which means it’s about facing one challenge at a time while rebelling or going with the times. For Emilio Comici, that means overcoming his urban impoverished life through spelunking initially and later rock climbing, to the societal trappings of Italian fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. Emilio Comici handled life the way you and I do, which is he made it up as he went along, learning and making adjustments, and hoping for a big break.

In 1920s Europe, rock climbing had been established separately from mountain climbing. The rock climbers were living in the legacy of Paul Preuss, the greatest rock climber and free soloist of the day. Preuss climbed by strict edicts: Climb only what you can climb down and the use of climbing aids invalidates a climb, except under special circumstances. His legacy were climbers opposed to the use of pitons and other aids. Preuss was gone before Comici ever started climbing, having fallen to his death while climbing. Smart wrote what amounts, in the context of Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites, a prequel in Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss (2019), which I reviewed last year. However, because of the Great War, and the environmental abuse from the war in the Dolomites, leaving pitons in the rock seemed negligible and petty. In fact, the rock climbers of Eastern Europe adopted piton use much earlier than Western Europe, and Comici was the person who demonstrated what was possible.

David Smart discovered some of the origins of Comici’s chosen routes. He started spelunking, and after a daring rescue, he started climbing rock walls. He applied his spelunking skills with ropes and aids to the mountains. On the mountain walls, not just any line would do, it had to be a direct line from the base to the summit, or as he described it, as following the water drop from the top. Comici claimed that an English climber first used the water drop description, though he did not know any Englishmen or Englishwomen, and the reference hasn’t been found anywhere else.

Before reading this book, I was less familiar with the Eastern Alps and the Dolomites, and I appreciate Smart for not talking down to me; I enjoyed looking up maps and images of the routes. And I have to hand it to Rocky Mountain Books for knowing their audience so as including a map with the collection of unique, relevant photos, was not critical for the book’s success. The book documents Comici’s progression on rock from the North Faces of Sorella di Messo, Dito di Dio, the West Face of Croda dei Toni, the Northwest Face of Civetta, and the peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which was Comici’s nemesis. Cima Grande, it’s central summit, now stands symbolic of Comici’s vision, boldness, and his lifelong journey with rock.

Emilio Comici’s Cima Grande. (All Rights Reserved)

Cima Grande was the biggest wall yet climbed. And it was all about the rock wall, rather than the mountaineering ascent with a single piolet per climber. Comici made the top of the overhanging wall as he had learned on the previous climbs with pitons. It was criticized by the older climbers, and ignored as an ascent altogether by others. Yet, it was merely another milestone in Comici’s progression. He would return to climb it’s neighboring peaks, and one day, free solo his water-drop line in the style of Paul Preuss.

David Smart’s research provides a depth of context for what made Comici’s life challenges in many ways just like our own and in others very different. Comici grew up in Trieste and worked in the shipyards. His climbing trips were limited to reaching Val Rosandra, a few hours away on his motorcycle. He wanted to climb more and the only way he felt he could was to move to the mountains and guide. After his elders tried dissuading him, Comici moved to the Dolomites, though he contrasted with the guides with steady work. The local guides were local farmers, rigidly Catholic, and were more than a good rock or mountain climb, they were an authentic piece of the Dolomites. Despite Comici’s accomplishments on rock, his local in-authenticity, and his reputation for daring climbs, prompted Dolomite visitors to ask for his autograph rather than his services.

Comici was also smitten by the stereotypical roles of a fascist hero, popular of the day. Such heroes were awarded and paraded for their rescues, accomplishments, bravado, and immature wanderings such as Comici’s forays from Trieste to Val Rosandra. Of course, Comici had some challenges to overcome; he still received funds from his mother and lived at her home in Trieste when injured or retreated, and as one romantic partner complained, he wouldn’t be an adult with this climbing. As Smart’s research points out, Comici did grow in his self image and his affection for Mussolini’s fascism was all an attempt to fit in and be recognized as a masculine hero. Comici had Jewish and ethnic friends, and Smart presents evidence that he did not believe the fascist racist statements would ever be taken seriously or that a concentration camp would be in his home town. Among other changes, Smart points out, after Comici saw Mussolini speak in person for himself, he may have been disappointed and even disturbed because he never mentioned the Duce in his journal again.

One of the traits of a fascist hero Mussolini projected was the awarded man that could be paraded as an example for all particularly children to aspire. Comici wanted this validation of his being for most of his life. Yet, Comici was passed over at various opportunities through his life, including a rescue while spelunking and his proud first ascents, by anyone not just an Italian, of Cima Grande. It wasn’t until after his early death from a fall during a climb done in haste, that he was awarded a title posthumously, and for a lesser climb. Still, as Smart points out, Comici clearly understood that Preuss’ achievements survived his death. Comici’s accomplishments survive his own.

Having read extensively about Cesare Maestri’s Compressor route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, where Maestri irresponsibly bolted a line up Cerro Torre with a compressor drill, David Smart surprised me with a reason Comici’s climbs were brought up after Maestri’s infamous route-making. Smart explained that some critics looked for precedent and connected Maestri to Comici. Smart draws a clear distinction why this isn’t fair, but you’ll have to read the book to learn why. As well as the earliest form of dirt baggers I’ve found (they were German,) and how Comici was haunted and saved by spirits on his climbs. I highly encourage you to read Emilio Comici to see what climbing was before you even thought there was real rock climbing in the world, because there was and it was serious, committing, and intense. I loved it. I know you will too.

Rating: Five out of five burritos.

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