Banff Mountain Festival and New Climbing Books for 2020

2018 Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival thank-you card.

Did you see the announcement tweeted from the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival? Well, the festival be will held virtually due to the pandemic, as I reported in my last post; that you knew. The 20,000 guests cannot all attend due to both social distancing guidelines and international travel restrictions. The tweet added some interesting detail: Somehow they will be holding a virtual marketplace and beer hall.

The market I comprehend… but virtual beer hall?

Jon Popowich’s article in Gripped, “The Role of the Banff Centre in Mountain Literature,” didn’t shed any light for you and me about the beer hall thing. Popowich wrote his essay on the influence of the Banff Centre before the pandemic. It was actually heartbreaking, because everything he said was true, and not only has the Centre been forced to make the festival virtual, but it had to lay off three-quarters — 284 people — of its teachers and staff due to decreased revenue.

I was worried that the festival and its Mountain Book Competition would be cancelled. As Popowich showcased the Centre overall and the festival’s role in spurring new creative outlets for mountain culture. In fact, it’s not just climbing and alpinism, as it was when it began; it’s broadened to other subjects as well. As an article competition pre-reader, I even had a submission about a wilderness fly fishing trip that blended personal experience and the wonder of nature, through a scientific lens. Popowich explains, with insight from Bernadette McDonald and others, about how the “voice” in climbing books and stories have been fostered and amplified through the Banff Centre and its amazing team past and present.

Popowich also called out an upsetting trend that the Banff Centre helps counter, at least somewhat, that I have been talking about for years: Climbers today don’t read. In fact, I’ll go a step further: Climbers today don’t read and they don’t know mountain history. Popowich surveys climbers at the gym, as I do, and wherever I meet other climbers here in flat Peaklessburg.

This trend has consequences on what’s published; books of the past were autobiographies and introspective narratives; today climbing and mountain books are often “Trojan horses” carrying an environmental or social message. This isn’t exclusive, thankfully. And I am hopeful about these books that caught my attention, which are set to be released later this year:

NEW BOOK RELEASES FOR 2020

Vertical Reference: The Life of Legendary Helicopter Rescue Pilot Jim Davies by Kathy Calvert (which was released in May.)

Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers by Lynn Martel.

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites by David Smart (I will be reviewing this for you here on T.S.M.)

All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey through Addiction and Depression by Margo Talbot (I’ll share my review of this one on this blog as well.)

Buried: Updated Edition by Ken Wylie.

Altitude by Olivier Bocquet (author of text), Jean-Marc Rochette (artist).

Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season by Bernadette McDonald (I hope to review this one for you here.)

I still have more questions about this beer hall, and whether the organizers can pull it off, I am a little doubtful, no offense. What I do know for certain is that during the festival, and while I am doing my pre-reading, I’ll be sipping a dark brew, thinking of the Banff Centre very fondly. I hope you will too.

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Climber, You are Equipped for Times Like These

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The once elusive K7 West. (All rights reserved)

Climber, you have a gift to help you get through this turbulent time.

Like you, I have been largely at home for nearly 90 days. I haven’t done any climbing, but I hope you have. When able, I read my issues of Alpinist, Climbing, and some books rather than spend too much time on my phone, which has been especially difficult this past week.

And like you, I have a heavy heart. There have been over 375,000 deaths worldwide due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, and for me that includes a loved one. For we Americans, things are dark here, particularly with the uprising around the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Read, Tony McDade, and many more. And there’s been vandalism and violence and retribution. Although racism has been here since European explorers arrived on the continent, it still lurks about in nasty, evil ways. If the myth of American exceptionalism was still still alive, surely we should face up to reality that was always a myth. I recognized that it wasn’t true just a few years ago.

As adventurers, I think you and I are poised to see what’s possible, in justice, equity, and peace. I know you might prefer to face adversity of a different kind right now, particularly without health worries, existential questions, and politics. Part of me wants to flee to somewhere remote and disconnect. No smartphone. No news. No radio. Ernest Shackleton’s fourth expedition to the South Pole actually appeals to me in calming way lately.

However, Shackleton was not escaping anything; he had a clear objective. He was headed to the South Pole, by nature an adverse challenge. He suffered and he endured. He guided his stranded crew through shipwreck, cold, long days, buoyed ebbing morale, and navigated the high seas. They were missing so long they were presumed dead. And when they all returned safely to an England 497 days later, they arrived in their own new normal, with a world at war. Change is the only constant.

For you and me, climbing matters not only for our appreciation of movement on rock and human achievement in the mountains, but for the superpower of perspective. By now, in your climbing career, you probably realized that there is more to climbing than climbing. In fact, it’s not even Instagram posts of your route or view or even your clever boulder problem around your kitchen cabinets during COVID-19 self-isolation, as joyous as those things are. Climbing is about our inner being; it tests our nerve and our perspective of what’s possible for ourselves and humanity. It has always been about seeing the beauty of a challenge, even if it’s absurd, and pursuing the dream. We build strength, condition our endurance, and innovate equipment and technique to see our visions through.

That mountain or route you daydream about is not itself a challenge, rather how you look at it. El Capitan has been reached without a rope a million times before Honnold scaled it with Jimmy Chin’s camera’s on him — except he took the route no one ever actually free soloed before. A beautiful, ephemeral line that changed how we looked at the world, what’s possible, and our humanity.

This season of COVID-19 exacerbated by grave racial injustice is no different. We need to use our superpower and apply a wide, broad, and long perspective. It’s for safety, health, equity, and a better world.

What do you see when you look at a mountain in your life. An opportunity? A dream? Something futuristic? Maybe we’re not collectively fit enough yet to see how the path comes together, or in our case a route to some normalcy and racial equity. Maybe we need more conditioning to rise to the challenge. Maybe we need to dream, or just endure while holding on to our vision for the future, even when violence and forces conspire to smash our hope. The first way to the top might be just one foot in front of the other. Later, we might go the hard way, maybe ropeless.

How do you see things now?

For your next steps, I recommend clicking over to the Access Fund’s list of actions items to be part of the solution.

Use your perspective and hold on to your vision.

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Climbing Gyms are There for Me but I Cannot Be There for Them

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Pulling Plastic. (All rights reserved)

After three days of wrestling with the question, I realized that it was over. You see, when the pandemic started, and we all shut ourselves inside our homes, I thought, okay, this will be like one prolonged snow day with out the fun of snow. I’m an introvert. I live with my favorite three people in the world. I have plenty of fulfilling hobbies. I can make this work! I even received a polite email from my climbing gym saying that they won’t be charging me, which freed up some of my cash to renew my subscription to Alpinist Magazine right away.

But after several weeks of reading the news and making business decisions for the safety and health of the employees and volunteers of Habitat for Humanity I run, I the complications of the novel coronavirus made clear that this was not a prolonged snow day. And my climbing gym, which I recently bought a membership, was even more complicated than building homes and reopening our ReStore. I might not be returning to my gym until there’s improved treatment or a proven and widely used vaccine. The bottom line, as this article from Gripped Magazine explains, climbing gyms cannot be fully sanitized, and with my family and responsibilities to my employees, I can’t risk spreading the virus or getting sick and being incapacitated for weeks.

While climbing gyms are reopening across the country, here in Pennsylvania, they’re going to be closed for a while. The Governor has a three-phase plan for reopening by region, that works like a traffic light with Red, Yellow, and Green phases based on the number of reported COVID-19 cases per capita. Climbing gyms may only open in the Green phase, and our region is still in Red and has a long ways to go. My gym hasn’t even been posting updates, partly, I think because they don’t have staff to do so, and we can just watch the general news.

GYMS ARE ADAPTING

Climbing Business Journal reported on how gyms are reopening. Face masks and removing your street shoes prior to entry are mandatory at a gym in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another gym is limiting the number of climbers according to the square footage. But the key question for me is about all of the surfaces; one gym is making sure the holds are cleaner by ensuring the climbers are cleaner with hand sanitizer readily available. But one gym is focusing only on the climber, not the holds or ropes, admitting that it is just to difficult to manage. Oh, and rental gear…? That’s a thing of the past at a gym. Some gyms renting out harnesses will be putting returned harnesses on a “time out” while any virus riders die off.

A set of survey questions from Vertical Life, the app, shed some light into what gym owners are thinking. However, as they explain in the survey introduction, “…these proposed measures have not been tested, nor do they have to necessarily be implemented at your gym in the way described, or at all.”  Here is a link to the Vertical Life Survey.

  • Limiting your time at the gym.
  • Scheduling climbers to visit throughout the day. (The survey asks specifically about our tolerance for alternative hours, such as early morning, lunch hour, weekends late.)
  • Using an app or other scheduling tool to check the current number of people checked in at the gym, booking visits in advance, paying fees online, contactless check-in, and being notified about new routes.
  • Limiting routes and boulder problems in order to promote social distancing.
  • Limiting area and choices of routes or problems.
  • Wear a mask.

LIQUID CHALK

Ph.D. Chemist Andrew Abeleira on GymClimber.com says, “The short answer is maybe, but not in the way you’d expect.” Abeleira goes on to explain that the liquid chalk won’t prevent the virus from lingering on your hands, but it would reduce the airborne matter in the gym, thus providing less surface area for the dreaded organism to ride to its next victim. I suppose that I’ll be retiring my chalk bag to the shelf as another relic.

I’m not giving up on my — albeit modest — climbing goal of bouldering V6, but I have extended the timeline by a year or more. I am 41 and need to work out hard now to keep from aging poorly, keep up with my kids, and keep hiking the Adirondacks and the Presidential Mountains well into my 80s and 90s. I still have some time to keep climbing, but now the circumstances of climbing at the gym five minutes from my house, just are not right for me.

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Original K2 Photos May Have Been Sold to Cover Costs

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Mystery K2. (All rights reserved)

We are in the seventh week of a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic, and Natalie, the kids, and I are still healthy and haven’t gone totally stir crazy. We’re pretty self-disciplined with lots of healthy habits, so I think that’s keeping us buoyant.

I am very concerned about the future of my climbing gym. When this whole thing started, I thought I would just return whenever it reopened, but I know now that this won’t be the case. Until a adequate testing is available in the states and, hopefully, a vaccine, climbing gyms will have a lot of challenges with social distancing and cleanliness. It’s making me seriously consider building my own 40-degree training wall in my garage, which I had planned to do when we relocated here.

Work has been the greatest source of stress, as usual, so I have been going through old TSM files. I thought you might appreciate this brief follow-up: Last fall (on September 6, 2019 to be precise), I received a reply to an email I sent to Anne-Christine Clottu Vogel on February 21, 2013. I know; it came quite late, but TSM is still active and my interest in this inquiry hasn’t waned. A.C. Clottu is one of Jules Jacot-Guillarmod’s granddaughters, and the thorough and well-written reply came from A.C. Clottu’s first cousin’s husband, Jean L. Des Arts. If Jules Jacot-Guillarmod rings a bell about K2, well, it should…

WESTERN EYES ON K2

In 2013, I wrote a three-piece series on the cover photo of Alpinist 37, which was not in high resolution, wasn’t in color, and was not suitable for Instagram. The image, however, was one of the first photographs and proper representations of the second-highest peak in the world. K2 was always difficult to see and was remote, even for people that lived in the Karakorum, which is part of the reason why the designation by T.G. Montgomerie stuck; names like Chogori or Dapsang only somewhat recently became known. The view wasn’t artistically drawn, it was tangibly real. What I wanted to know was how did that photo become lost and suddenly resurface only now?

My inquiry, initially only to Alpinist Magazine editor-in-chief Katie Ives lead to a series of introductions. I already knew Greg Glade at Top of the World Books in Vermont and Beth Heller who was then the librarian at the American Alpine Club. But she also pointed me to the owner of the image, the mysterious Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn and A.C. Clottu. Bob and I started a friendship where we bonded over mountaineering, parenthood, beer, and dealing with assholes on the Internet. Later, I wrote a “Local Hero” piece for Alpinist Magazine about Bob. A.C. Clottu, however, never replied.

Des Arts did not recall how the email came to his inbox. However, he read my blog posts and gave me a very informed response. In fact, he commented how he was, “[A]lways somewhat irritated that Crowley’s name is mentioned together with Eckenstein who, to my knowledge, was the leader of the expedition and a thorough organiser.” He was correct; I had mentioned them both together. Des Arts went on to say, “On that expedition, by the accounts of both the British members and [Jules Jacot-Guillarmods], Crowley’s role was a minor one, not the least because he was ill for most of the time. I think one is vastly overstating Crowley’s capacity as a leader and organiser, probably because he was a pretty big mouth and well known for his character and later for his ancillary activities… The main reason for the expedition’s failure was the bad weather, not the conflicts of personality.”

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND PHOTOS

How, after all, did that early image of K2 get lost only to resurface decades later? According to Des Art’s reply, the family seemed to understand this very clearly: “[Jacot-Guillarmods] was an ardent photographer and besides exchanging photographs with other photographers, he sometimes both gave them away and even sold them to cover his costs (more important at the time than today.) So, there may be copies or plates in circulation.”

Sometime between when Jacot-Guillarmods passed on the plate, and when Bob acquired at auction about a decade ago, the plate was mislabeled, miss-associated, and became a time capsule-treasure that Bob excavated and Alpinist Magazine celebrated.

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Is Mt. Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Mt. Kennedy of the Yukon. (All rights reserved.)

I started to feel like I was missing something significant. Alpinist Magazine had a feature on Mt. Kennedy. Then my Google alerts showed a lot of “chatter” about Mt. Kennedy and suddenly Gripped Magazine had an article. Was Mount Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Well, not exactly, but there are two stories, and both are worth talking about.

In 1965 Jim Whittaker led Senator Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of an alpine objective in Yukon Territory formerly named East Hubbard, renamed by the Canadian government that same year after the late president, John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’ve often dismissed the ascent as notable but not significant. David Stevenson made it more interesting for me than just notable.

David Stevenson was a member of Mt. Kennedy’s second ascent in 1977. He also wrote the long-form feature — a mountain profile — in Alpinist 67. The mountain was remote, and it has all the elements of classic David Roberts and Bradford Washburn far north American alpine adventures, including long slogs, shuttling, and no contact with the greater world for months at a time and being at complete peace about it. I read that stuff with nostalgia. (Does that make me weak, or subconsciously critical of my modern hurried life?) Regardless, the feature was excellent and worth the purchase or the subscription.

The second story was a new feature-length documentary will be released this fall (fall 2019) about the sons of the original climbers, including a candidate for governor, a band manager, and young mountaineer, repeat of the climb 50 years later, Return to Mount Kennedy. Like most other climbing films (or any film or movie for that matter), I won’t rush to watch it, but I am curious about how the film delivers on its promise to tie in a theme of conservation.

Mt. Kennedy isn’t the mountain of the year. Who am I to declare that? But that does give me an idea for this blog; perhaps I have mountains or climbers of the month that I can focus on here on the blog and social media? Well, it’s just a thought.

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Who is Nirmal Purja?

North Doodle. (All rights reserved)

In March 2019, we saw the results of a press push. Some guy no one knew was going to try to make history.

Nirmal Purja claimed he was going to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time. Not in years, but months. The record had been over seven years. Purja wanted to do it over a single season. I shared the news on social media and the reactions were in alignment with mine, but more succinct:

  • Bullshit on so many levels. Don’t give him the publicity he craves.
  • “Impossible… I think it’s cheap publicity nothing more.”
  • “This shouldn’t even be ‘news worthy’ until he actually does the deed. Anyone can say they’re going to summit all 8000ers in a single year, but I’d bet money he can’t do it.”

Yet as of the end of July 2019, he has already made history by completing 11 of his objectives with only Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, and Manaslu remaining.

So who is this guy?

First of all, the thing he is actually most famous for is the May 23rd photo of the conga line of climbers heading to the top of Everest. Yes, it was from Purja’s Instagram account. He had already embarked on his journey, which he calls “Project Possible 14/7.”

Purja is Nepalise and served from 2002 through 2018 in the British military through the Brigade of Gurkhas and later in Royal Navy’s Special Boat Teams. During that time he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire, as the MBE after his social media handles indicate. (MBE is not knighthood; there are higher orders which are knights.)

Based on Purja’s Project Possible, he is an excellent logistical planner, and has a strong will. It appears to have drawn some significant resources including his lead sponsor, Bremont, a luxury watch maker. He is also supported by four experienced Sherpas. Jeff Moag talks about his team on their K2 push — and it really was sheer will and muscle — that got them to the top this season, possibly making rather than breaking Purja’s Project Possible 14/7.

What Purja has done to date has already been historic. The previous speed record was by Kim Chang-ho of South Korea at seven years 10 months and 6 days. He finished in 2013. The previous record to that was by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987 after seven years 11 months and 14 days. His approach is innovative in concept, though not fitness or technology. Climbers have reached base camps by helicopter before. Mountaineers have climbed multiple 8,000ers in a single trip, though usually within the same expeditionary trip. Doing them all has surprised many, including me.

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