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. 

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.

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.

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How the Pandemic is Disrupting Your Favorite Climbing Magazines and Journals

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Even on a good year for climbing magazines and periodicals, meeting publishing deadlines are a Herculean effort. Despite that we’re in the midst of a global health pandemic and social uprising over grave injustice, publishing is just as hard, if not harder, to climbing publishers. And it could be easy to dismiss our climbing magazines and journals as unimportant, however, climbing is where people congregate and put whatever values — for health or racial equity — into practice and express ourselves in the subtle ways that matter.

Like everything else, the work of our favorite publications all stopped in shock — twice — first with the shutdowns to public health, and then again after the uprisings around George Floyd and many others. I asked several magazine and journal editors whether they would be publishing as normal through the end of the year. Some were fortunate to get the very-much in demand, but too scarce, Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) financial assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration under the CARES Act. Advertisers have pulled back, according to all of those I checked in with. Everyone said something to the effect of, “If nothing else happens…” they will be publishing as normal through the rest of the year.

And I also checked in with Katie Sauter, the Director of the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library, to get a global view, because they receive all of the publications. As of a few weeks ago, the magazines were coming in but that she recently learned that from the New Zealand Alpine Club that their magazine and journal will not be printed this year, but many other club journals and magazines have continued to stream in.

Here’s what the editors reported:

ANNUALS

  • American Alpine Journal — Dougald McDonald, the Editor of the AAJ, says the 2020 edition is a month behind schedule but otherwise on track to deliver a full issue to AAC members this fall. However, with no climbing in Alaska, no spring Himalayan season, probably no Karakoram season, and so forth, the 2021 edition will be briefer than typical editions.
  • Accidents in North American Climbing — The American Alpine Club, which also publishes the AAJ, suffered in its revenue from the pandemic shutdowns, and as a result will be offering a digital version of Accidents only. So when AAC members receive their box this fall, it will not contain a hardcopy of this important book. It was a necessary sacrifice to still provide all of the AAC’s valuable content.

PERIODICALS

  • Alpinist Magazine — Height of Land Publications, the parent company, has declared their operations as “business as unusual,” in what actual seems to be business as usual for most media today, even before the pandemic. Despite some advertisers pulling back, they expect to publish roughly on schedule for the next couple of issues.
  • Rock and Ice Magazine — Although the issue recently released during the first three months of the stay-at-home orders was delayed by two weeks, Francis Sanzaro said they’re hard at work but no telling whether it will be on time or a week or two delayed.
  • Climbing Magazine — Matt Samat — who, I suddenly recalled, edited my first piece in Alpinist about eight years ago — is the Editor and he told me, “We are on schedule for our next two issues, and fingers crossed for our annual (final issue of the year).” The magazine has emphasized its digital content while everyone was home, and started a Contributor Fund.
  • Gripped Magazine — There were delays at the printer initially, as the vendor temporarily shutdown. David Smart (yep, the author of Paul Preuss,) Editorial Director, said with the printer back up and running and everyone at Gripped to a regular work schedule means they expect to publish the regular number of issues through the rest of the year.

GOING FORWARD

The next several months we will receive our favorite magazines, perhaps a week or two late. But the effects of the pandemic with climbing publications hasn’t stopped there. The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, which hosts the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival, is a large educational institution on a global stage. Due to financial constraints, the Banff Centre was forced to permanently lay off 75 percent of its workforce — 284 people. The Festival, which also hosts the Banff Mountain Book Competition, normally hosts 20,000 from around the world over a week’s time every fall, but due to global travel restrictions, and public health concerns, the event will be held virtually this year.

Over the last four months you were probably thinking… let the subscription lapseonly the social change happening now matters… And you were right. Yet the real change is going to happen, not over social media or even in policy, but in our day-to-day interactions and habits over the coming months and years. Our habits seep into everything else we do. Better health choices for everyone’s safety, and relationships that respect everyone’s dignity regardless of the color of their skin, in our ordinary interactions are where the change happens. It will happen at school, work, churches, and our recreation. So it matters in climbing too, and these publications aren’t just about being better climbers, they are exhibits of us being human and, hopefully, better people.

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Life in the Mountains and Modern World through the Eyes of Bree Loewen

Avalanche risk. (All rights reserved)

Natalie, the kids, and I have been cooped up on our suburban homestead for a month now, trying to do our part to beat a pandemic with everyone else. Other than my bouldering pad being used as a crash pad next to the rope swing, we haven’t taken to staging climbing the house, kitchen cabinets, or even the fireplace.
Sticking to our routine has been our key to sanity. For us, it isn’t too much different than a normal day, except we’re eating out less, I don’t have a commute (which I really like,) and I moved my office to our cellar for more privacy during phone and video calls. Plus I can close the office door and officially “leave work” at the end of the day.
I still workout every morning and read and write, though most of my writing is about housing issues these days. We’re working on ways to prevent evictions with landlords and foreclosures with lenders, especially after the 90 day forbearance periods end. Reading time has been my favorite part. It was before this self-isolating and quarantine period too. And I finished the next book on my tick list: Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue by Bree Loewen (2017).
(First off — and I am not being paid to tell you this — Found is published by The Mountaineers Books and they are still shipping and even offering 25% off right now; use discount code TIMETOREAD at checkout.)
Found by Bree Loewen
Loewen’s book won Gold in the Heroic Journeys category of the 2017 Nautilus Book Awards, but it came on my radar when Paula Wright interviewed Loewen on the Alpinist Podcast. Loewen said she used to conduct her rescues and be so affected by the passing of an adventurer, another person like her, that she used write down the story — the story of the other person — and then burn them or make paper boats and sail them out on Puget Sound, because they weren’t after all, her story. Or were they her story too? And that was enough to intrigue me. One of my friends even confessed to have read this book twice already, and it just came out three years ago at the end of last month.
Found is about juggling the crazy life we have today: A foot in the mountains and a foot in our own hectic, modern world, while finding purpose and meaning in the modern world. Loewen is a dirtbag climber that became a volunteer member of Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) and retells, after years of reluctance to share, the stories from the rescues and the recoveries of someone’s loved one. She explains and contemplates how she is a bystander to someone’s life, whether its an accident or a tragedy. She and her teammates take charge in the backcountry by helping the patient focus on their job to trust the rescuers to lift them back to care and shelter. And sometimes she is collecting pieces of teeth and someone’s jaw, which Loewen feels is an incredibly intimate act; perhaps their mother should be doing this, but their mother can’t be there, so Loewen fills in.
Loewen’s narrative covers several rescues and she blends in her real life seamlessly, showing the tension and trade-offs of having a foot in each world. Loewen is a wife, to another SMR volunteer named Russell, and a mother of a preschooler with big blue eyes and pigtails named Vivian. Vivian gets accustomed to her mother getting paged to join the park rangers and fire department with other SMR volunteers on a moments notice and never leaves anywhere without her bag of the most important things, including a stuffed animal and a pink polka dot security blanket. Loewen drops off her daughter at grandma’s or leaves her with Russ, if he isn’t at work, and heads to her mission in her compact car.
Unfair Judgment
Generally, Loewen and Russ don’t go on rescues together. They try to take turns, going one at a time, but Loewen is the full-time mom and always committed volunteer to SMR. Why is she so committed?
When they both go on a mission together, leaving Vivian at grandma’s, the question is especially complex for Loewen. Russ is the bread winner and the life-insurance policy holder, filling the traditional role as head of the household. When they are the most qualified volunteers on site and look to rappel down to the injured, should Vivian’s mom go too? Is she risking making Vivian an orphan? Who gets blamed in this situation? Was Loewen short-sighted and irresponsible?
Loewen examines this and calls it a Catch-22 because she is a woman and a mother. Because Loewen considers the alternative: What message is she sending Vivian if she backs off and does not go help? Is she telling Vivian that women are too conservative and can’t be committed enough to do good work? She concedes that no matter what, what people think of you has real consequences.
What We Want Most
Throughout the story, Loewen is trying to find what the next step in her career will be as she finishes her era as a stay-at-home mom. She investigates being a full-time fire fighter and settles, the reader is slowly revealed, in nursing school. But why is she so committed with SMR, answering the calls, and letting grandma care for Vivian while Loewen goes on all-nighters in the snowy woods without food. During these forays she usually isn’t even thanked by anyone, and abruptly gets back into her compact car to race home and pour the breakfast cereal for herself and Vivian.
Loewen says she believes that hardship increases camaraderie. And that is what she wants most out of this world. Everything she does is about a human relationship of proving character and trust to her teammates, daughter, husband, and the people she meets on her search-and-rescue-missions. They are all people and human beings like herself, trying to find purpose, belonging, and an expression of human affection, even though it’s rarely ever a hug. The affection is delivered in competence, in coming at the call, and being there for teammates and the person that placed the call.
I highly recommend this story and hope that you read every word, maybe sometimes twice, like I did. It was enriching.
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The Short Long List of Books

Winter in the Adirondacks. (All rights reserved)

So here is my list of books.

It started as a mere 36 titles in December which grew to about 60 in January, and now, a month later, it stands at 98 books. It’s no longer a list of just classics, but books that could be modern classics, and ones that are trendy or influential, and those that simply interest me. The goal, as I mentioned in my previous post, is to help me be more intentional and satisfied in my reading.

I reviewed all of my clippings in Evernote and my notebooks with book recommendations, names of authors, and then looked over Banff Mountain Book Competition winners in the Mountain Literature category, and winners of the Boardman Tasker Award. Then I removed books that didn’t interest me and I did not think, from what I knew about it, would be a classic or modern classic. I could always change my mind.

To get myself started, I then looked over the list at what excited me most and decided to focus on those. I will either obtain them from a library, my local bookstore (not a chain,) or Top of the World Books in Vermont. My short list — the start of a tick list — was supposed to be 10 titles, but I decided to include both of Nick Bullock’s books and Andy Kirkpatrick’s books, so it came to a rounded list of 10:

  1. Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonnington (1971)
  2. Tides by Nick Bullock (2019)
  3. Echoes by Nick Bullock (2012)
  4. Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson (1969)
  5. The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (1959)
  6. Espresso Lessons by Arno Iglner and Jeff Achey (2009)
  7. Psychovertical by Andy Kirkpatrick (2008)
  8. Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick (2011)
  9. Found by Bree Loewen (2017)
  10. The Bond by Simon McCartney (2016)
  11. The Villain by Jim Perrin (2005)

While I was developing the list I have been reading Found by Bree Loewen (2017) as I knew it would make my list and I already owned a copy.

If you look at the spreadsheet I included, I have a handful of obscure titles about Alaska. I love Alaska, so my list has another bias regarding the state’s mountain adventures.

During this project, which will take years, I am still going to read Alpinist Magazine, books on fundraising, management, social issues, and fiction but the books on this list are part of a different quest. I am seeking their insight about climbing, humanity, and drawing on the power they felt among the mountains. And it is not romantic bullshit. As Amrita Dhar, professor in English at the Ohio State University at Newark, said, “Mountaineering is the most literary of all sports.” We go, we come back, we write and the best writing is the introspective that borders on the metaphysical. It’s a theme that has been done by hundreds of climbing writers and it makes the best climbing stories. And most interestingly, it’s unprompted. We haven’t been taught how to write about climbing, but those of us that have been brave enough to go into the mountains have come back talking deeply about our humanity.

One day I hope to make a list of what would be the must-reads, having read many of them. I will probably add to my list of 98 and maybe even remove a few to keep the list manageable. But regardless, I hope to learn from the writers and apply it to my own more modest mountain adventures. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

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My Strategy for Fulfilling Reading in the Year of the Rat

Annapurna 1952 Color-Gravure of Lionel Terray at fixed rope above Camp II.

While I am considering better ways to satisfy my climbing reading interests this year, it’s a funny coincidence that we are in the year of the rat. The year of the rat is about demonstrating inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I read a lot in 2019, but I don’t think it was entirely fulfilling; perhaps some rat characteristics will help me.

In 2019, I read 18 books and all four Alpinist issues, which is a book unto itself. That was more books than I read in 2018 or 2017. However, I read far fewer climbing-related books last year, which saddens me because there are a lot of climbing books on my “short list.” In fact, you won’t be surprised that one of my ambitions is to become extremely well-versed in climbing literature.

So isn’t this as simple as just reading more climbing books in 2020? Well, no. Reading more has been my strategy for years, but I rarely look back and feel that the books I read helped me make progress toward my goal. And at times the book, while germane in scope, was not especially moving, though it was unique in its story. In fact, the long-form articles in Alpinist Magazine are more consistently stirring. So now, at the beginning of 2020, I realize that my standards and hopes have risen.

I have read 80 to 100 books (I think) about mountaineering, climbing, the mountains, and skills. However, the quality and enjoyment has been mixed. My strategy has, however, been haphazard. Whatever books I find I acquire for my shelf. I like the process of discovery at used book sales, which can mean many used book sales before finding a gem or even a popular or semi-popular title I do not own or haven’t read.

So what do I need to do in 2020 in order to read more climbing books?

First, I need to make a plan. Or perhaps it’s a list of books. I now have a list of 60 or so titles about climbing subjects along with their authors, and the year the book was first published. I have to consider the books on that list and whittle what I haven’t read and do not own.

Second, I need to change some habits. In previous years, I would read in the evenings, weekend mornings, and several pages scattered during the week after lunch, sitting in waiting rooms, on subways, or while I waited in the car with Wunderking and Schnickelfritz while Natalie ran into the market. Now that I drive (I in Lancaster, PA now sans-subway,) my work is a little more all-encompassing, and the kids are older and less likely to leave me to sit quietly by their side to read a few pages. I think evenings and an occasional weekend morning might be my best steady time slots.

Third, and lastly, I have restructured some of my overall priorities. I have asked after my responsibilities as dad and a housing nonprofit leader, what is the best use of my time? Well, I’ve narrowed it down to nutrition and fitness for overall health followed by my hobbies, and climbing literature is at the top of my list. I grow miserable without my hobbies, and I decline in energy and health if don’t focus on nutrition and fitness. So I will be reading more and training four days a week to be a V6 boulderer that isn’t sloppy or scrappy, rather I want to climb with deliberate movements, and transfer that to some walls.

So here goes with inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I am going to share some of the book lists I used to inform my list of classics-plus. I have interests that also extend into Alaska, Western Canada, Baffin Island, Patagonia, and New England and the Adirondacks. And there are also newer books, like Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains that could be called a modern classic. But we’ll see.

Of course, it’s also ironic that I am thinking of reading and rats. Unless we’re talking about Templeton from Charlotte’s Web, rats don’t read. Of course, Templeton may have only recognized words. Would Templeton have found me a scrap of Climbing Magazine had I asked him, “Mountains, Templeton, mountains!”

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