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:


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.


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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Moonstone Hero by David Sklar Reviewed

Moonstone Hero by David Sklar (2022)

This book is going to be hard to forget. A publicist reached out over email asking if I would review a novel based on a doctor’s lived experiences on Kilimanjaro and having to make decisions about how far his character would go to save another life. I insightful books and thought this could take me some interesting places as a reader and a climber. It left me a little uncomfortable.

The book is Moonstone Hero, a novel written by David Sklar, and is being released on or around October 25, 2022. The back of the paperback, focuses on the first half of the book, where the lead character Andrew must choose between going with the rest of his party to the mountain’s summit or descending in the dark to save a stranger, when no one else will. However, this is only a snippet of what I read in the novel’s 243 pages. The climb (or descent, really,) is just the start of what turned into a romantic story; Andrew pursues Eve, the girlfriend of Barry, who Andrew attempts to rescue. The back of the book did not give this theme the proper weight.

The story starts in Tanzania in 1974 and follows Andrew’s life starting on the verge of summiting Kilimanjaro, when Barry comes down with a serious case of pulmonary edema. It is dark when Barry’s condition worsens; Barry needs to get down just when the group of climbers and their guide were leaving the camp to make the final push. (Apparently it was unsafe to descend in the dark by not to ascend to the summit.) Andrew, is a medical student, and puts Barry’s condition first. The lead guide, Salaam, insists Andrew and Barry wait until morning when its light and they return from the top, but finally relents to Andrew and his opinion, as a medical student, and allows Andrew to descend with Barry immediately. Andrew is joined by the leader’s younger cousin, Koba. The others press toward the top.

I enjoyed Sklar’s character Koba, but I worry that I may be appreciating some Western stereotypes of African males unnecessarily without knowing the perspectives. Sklar shared his fears, their origin from his mother and songs they sang in school, his work ethic and how that approach to his job was, in part, to keep him save from the white man. He had a back story that seemed, as a reader, to be authentically African. Koba pretended not to understand Andrew or Barry on the descent, because he knew that if he spoke it would encourage more questions, and he was being cautious with these white men, and didn’t want to be hypnotized by them. It’s likely that Andrew wouldn’t have completed this leg of the journey without him, and Koba learned to admire Andrew. Koba’s honorable character helped set Andrew as the stories honorable hero.

From this point, the climbing portion of the story is a descent, and the rest of the story all goes down hill. Andrew saves Barry’s life and while Barry recovers in the hospital, he takes Eve on an out of place beach vacation. I was sincerely curious about where Sklar would go once Barry reached the hospital, but by this conversation I lost interest, but I plodded on to the end to see what surprises the book had.

I think the story has greater potential with some rewriting. The third person omniscient perspective left too few, if any, conceal-and-reveal moments. It limited Andrew and Eve to being one-dimensional. In good stories, you feel like the character or understand their worries, fears, and what excites them, and these things you can see the mistakes they make and how they overcome their flaws to become heroes. For Andrew, he just seemed like a nice guy doing the right thing but not getting what he wanted out of life. There were mentions about how he was longing for or obsessed with Eve, but I never felt or understood why, only that the perspective indicated that it was destiny, without saying explicitly so.

I was also perplexed by various little things that could have been omitted and that didn’t move the story along. Why did I need to know Eve was wearing eyeliner on the day of the ascent to the summit? (For that matter, why was she wearing eyeliner on the day of the ascent to the summit?) There was a lot of detailed discussion about travel details that were too instructional, such as how one would visit someone by flying in and whether they took a bus or train. And when things did move the story along, details were too often revealed in long answers of dialogue, which is how we learned that Eve, even on the mountain, was ready for the beach, because she said, in thinking aloud about whether to go, that she did in fact pack a bathing suit in her bag.

Moonstone Hero is about Andrew finally getting together with Eve. It only marginally covers climbing Kilimanjaro. And the conflict, drama, and ethical issues that were promised about choosing to do the right thing over going to the summit and peer pressure, never gets much deeper than what was said on the back of the book.

The story needed some more challenges and the book description needs to be honest. I also think that the fate of Barry was an opportunity to inject more conflict that might have challenged Andrew more and maybe even the circumstances around he and Eve. Andrew could still be a hero, deal with some greater adversity, and he and Eve could still go off into the sunset.

(Don’t buy this one for the AAC Library, Ms. Sauter, it isn’t relevant.)

Rating: 2/5

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Not Without Peril by Nicholas Howe Reviewed

Not Without Peril by Nicholas Howe (2009, 2nd ed.)

Nicholas Howe grew up and around the Presidential Range of New Hampshire with the tallest peak, the Mount Washington, within view of his family’s first home. He hiked extensively, served as a trail and hut steward, and participated in some rescue efforts. In his book, Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire (2009, 2nd ed.,) Howe explains how the mountain trails have changed yet the mountain itself and the people who climbed it have not.

Starting with a grand sentence to lead his book, Howe beckons us to read on: “Mountains were invented in the 19th Century.” We learn about exploration in England’s land in North America and the carriage road up the summit of Mount Washington. We read about Frederick Strickland, an Englishman scientist, who has a tragic mishap in 1849. We follow enthusiastic mountain climbers, and evaluate their situations in 1855, 1886, 1900, 1912, the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1950s, 1986, and the deadly 1994 season.

Often the demises of hikers lost were due simply because they were unprepared. They were without appropriate clothes, nutrition, and navigation. Many died mere meters away from shelter they could not locate due to snow, wind, rain, fog, or the dark. I feel like several disaster stories (including Simon Joseph’s and Joe Caggiano’s) start out “three friends from Boston decided to go climb in the Presidential Range…”

Howe introduced me to Jesse Whitehead. She was the daughter of Alfred North Whitehead, a British-born Harvard philosopher, and she was a scholar of ancient Arabic languages that maintained a prominent place in Boston’s society. Well, she was also a hiker, skier, and a serious climber “long before anyone thought such a calling would include women,” as Howe explained her pioneering ways. Whitehead, with three men, made the first ascent of the Pinnacle in Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine. Later, she climbed in the Alps, including the an attempt on the Matterhorn. But it was another attempt in Mount Washington’s other major eastern ravine, Tuckerman’s Ravine, that Whitehead makes Howe’s book. She and her partner, a less experienced gentleman, fell from a ghastly height. Howe traces the accident and the rescue (not a recovery) that includes Bradford Washburn, which almost seemed like a cameo in the story.

Howe’s treatment of these stories combine the enthusiasm we share for mountain adventure and is simultaneously clinical enough before leaving the reader sad. After the accident, Howe starts to evaluate the situation for lessons and explains the search and rescue process and tells stories from their perspective with as much ferver as going into the range. Each chapter I read I went with the traveler Howe profiled, full well knowing it wouldn’t end well, and they examined the maps and mistskes by flipping pages back and forth. I’m grateful to Howe and the subjects, like Joseph amd Caggiano, for their anecdotes as I prepare better my next hike.

Howe also taught me about the early visitors approach to the Presidential Range and Mount Washington in particular. They believed the mountain would largely be ascended by horseback, which was why the carriage road and the halfway house was built. The observatory on the summit was not the only purpose. In fact, other early routes attempted to rise up via gradual grades much longer than our uphill trails we rely on today.

I was drawn to reading Howe’s book because of David Roberts’ books about his own adventures with the Harvard Mountaineering Club and retelling of stories of fellow-Harvard alumni Bradford Washburn. Those tales taught me about the significance of climbing Mount Washington, in spite of its relatively low elevation of 1,918 m/6,288 ft. I learned that it was not only the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, but it was also a cold, windy place that was the best “local” training for Alaska and beyond.

I climbed it in 2002 in a round-about way via the Ammonoosuc Trail from the West. I was an experienced hiker from dozens of trips up the Adirondack 46rs, but I didn’t have more than a simple map for directions. I was surprised by many things, from the large lodge known as the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, that I was able to easily make it to the summit of Mount Monroe by a short detour, and that the bald rock was not in fact relatively smooth like the Adirondack peaks but rather enormous boulders evenly spread out; stumbling could easily mean a twisted ankle. I knew the summit had a large weather station and a cog rail train and auto road brought tourists, but it was weird summit experience after walking alone (with joy and meditation) for hours. It’s only taken on a more significant role in my imagination.

Howe’s book is worth reading if you frequent the Presidential Range or if you hike and scramble over peaks often. The anecdotes and historical tidbits, along with practical takeaways for the trail, are valuable and downright charming.

Rating: 4/5

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Four New Climbing Books — Narratives — for 2022

Mountain Singe (All rights reserved)

How many new climbing books are coming out this year? Maybe more than 20, but these four books caught my attention. Why? Because they are not advice on climbing a higher grade or improving your skills, like assessing avalanche risk; I mean, you could search the Internet for that.

These are narratives, book narratives. Climber Paul Pritchard explains why this is significant in his 1997 memoir Deep Play: “A magazine that readers dip into, not knowing what kind of excitement they are looking for, and so only happening across a piece of your life, is not a place for such intimate subjects. In a book, on the other hand, readers must go out and find, already knowing that they want to learn about you or read what you have to say.”

Here are my brief notes, and I hope you find at least one worth picking up:


Science on the Roof of the World by Lachlan Fleetwood (May 2022) — Lachlan shares untold stories, well untold until now, that give perspective on the nexus of empires and mountains and even sheds light on one of the reaons “dependence on indigenous networks” was erased in order to make knowing the world possible. If that doesn’t compel you to read, well…

Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneer to Olympic Athlete Culture by Zofia Reych (June 2022) — Reych of Fontenbleua is an anthropologist by training that works in climbing media. They also established the Women’s Bouldering Festival and as of this month, released her first book tracing the rise of climbing to the Tokyo Olympics.


Peak: A Novel by Eric Sparling (January 2022) — Sparling tells the story of Phil Truss, diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, turns to not just a modest goal of climbing Rainier but the Mountaineers’ Mountain: K2. Except, after hiring the best guide, he faces a grand demon that has tried to transcend his cage before. The story is gruesome and witty. I reviewed it here.

Native Air by Jonathan Howland (April 2022) — Howland’s first book (and novel) tells the story of Joe Holland from when he was young and climbing free with his partner Pete Hunter, and the story of returning to climbing after Pete’s death. What intrigues me, based on an interview by Chris Kalous, Howland starts the story in the 1980s and leapfrogs to modern gym climbing.

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Peak, a Witty Horror Novel, by Eric Sparling

Peak: A Novel by Eric Sparling (2022)

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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