Was Reading Your First Climbing Book as Impactful?

Dusk Descent, inspired by cover of Alpinist 69. (All rights reserved)

If you were fortunate to read a mountaineering history or one of David Roberts biographical tales for your first book on climbing, your appetite for more would be difficult to sate.

I got into climbing when I was 12. I was principally interested in peak bagging but walls fascinated me. I bought a copy of Face Climbing by John Long. I manged to learn how to smear and edge, and more fundamentally, to stand on my legs and feet. I climbed in my Timberland boots back then, since I was, still aiming for treeless summits. Saving up for La Sportivas then seemed like too big of a challenge.

I don’t know the date, but I remember the evening vividly. I was in my parents home during my freshman year in college reading in my bed. It was late, and my parents were downstairs watching television. The story was from July 1965, with Harvard Mountaineering Club Members, David Roberts, Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts included one of four article-length versions of the story in an anthology titled Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings of David Roberts (1986). On the descent from the summit, having established a significant new route and the second ascent, the team split up, Jensen and Hale to one camp and Roberts and Bernd to the other. Bernd vanishes in the dark and Roberts spends days alone waiting out a storm running through the vagueness of Bernd’s disappearance. I had never read anything so remarkable, for the story, and the rawness of the story. It seemed fictional, yet I believed that this extraordinary and horrible experience truly happened. I felt as alive as Roberts had in his tent on Mount Huntington.

I returned to the bookstore and found another book with Roberts byline, this time shared by a name I was not yet familiar with, Conrad Anker. Together they wrote alternating chapters of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest (1999). I read it only months later and finished, according to a Post-It-Note inside, on January 8, 2000. I wrote, “This book is an enjoyable read because it mixes the romantic era of climbing in wool and silk with reality and the reality of climbing today and its culture and the history of mountaineering.” I should have edited that better before leaving that note in there.

Although I hadn’t learned the breadth of various climbing styles and disciplines, yet, I now saw the alpine style on Mount Huntington, the siege-style expeditions to Everest, and the modern commercial-style expeditions to the 8,000ers. I think it was that spring that I discovered Ed Viesturs on MountainZone.com, who lead me to read the influential Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. From there I just kept reading climbing books and started subscribing to climbing magazines.

Amrita Dhar, an English professor at the University of Ohio Newark, originally from Calcutta, India, calls mountaineering the most literary of all sports. I think that is true, even compared to the expansive writing about baseball I have read and know there is more to be consumed. Part of this, Dhar explains in the Alpinist Podcast on November 21, 2019, mountaineers often start their journey with literature, climb, and then write about it afterwards. In her vein, I would argue that mountaineering and climbing proper doesn’t include spectator stands, but involves the experience inside the climber as well as the physical route, which is best told as a narrative. Words are powerful, and they blossom in amazing ways from our inner climbing journeys.

Whether I may have fallen just as in love with climbing literature with another author or different books, I can’t say. Even our adventure off the mountain, can have its own unpredictable surprises. But after the last 20 years of reading climbing narratives, I would still be where I am now. Climbing narratives are powerful and best told in words.

Was the first climbing book you read as impactful on you? And what book was it and how did you find it? Send me an email (address found here) or leave me a comment on social media. I would love to know your story.

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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.

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Climbing Publications Merge but Will the Core Hold?

Rock & Ice Issue 102 from August/September 2000.

After a few days camping and being off the grid, I resurfaced to learn Rock & Ice Magazine will be “merged” into Climbing Magazine, while Gym Climber Magazine will remain a distinct product.

If you’re a subscriber less in the know than me, here is the background: On October 9th, Pocket Outdoor Media, which owns Climbing, announced that it acquired Big Stone Publishing, which owned Rock & Ice and Gym Climber. Pocket Outdoor Media’s CEO Robin Thurston said, “By merging Rock & Ice into Climbing, we’ll be better positioned to deliver exceptional content and cover all of the sport’s disciplines—trad, sport, gym, and alpine climbing—in ways not possible before.”

Publishing companies have been simplifying through acquisitions and mergers and paying less for content (meaning paying writers less and less) for years. It’s not a new trend, which is why combining Rock & Ice and Climbing into one publication does not surprise me. After all, several climbing publications have come and gone over the years and Urban Climber is my favorite example for my generation’s lost magazines. The space for the nontraditional climbing magazine has since been filled, in a way, by Gym Climber. I still haven’t read Gym Climber beyond it’s website, but it does effectively speak to the namesake audience without bothering with helmet and ice axe reviews, when the latest comp format and training protocol is spot-on relevant.

The two merging magazines could be confused by some readers. They both covered rock climbing, in all of its forms, ice and alpine, bouldering, and even indoor climbing. However, on the newsstand Climbing is mere dollars while Rock & Ice was twice that. Why? Because Climbing publishes 10 issues annually and shares news, profiles, skills, and hacks. They also share an advocacy update from the Access Fund regularly, which as a monthly donor, I enjoy reading. Rock & Ice had more features, investigative stories, and tales for the more seasoned climber. Also, Rock & Ice was printed on heavier grade paper and glossier, if that’s a suitable description; I don’t mean to be negative on that facet if it sounded that way. Climbing is the magazine I read to catch up on the latest, and Rock & Ice was the publication I bought to be immersed. What the new Climbing will look like, as well as its price-point no one I have asked knows.

Climbing, you readers and subscribers know, was changing a bit earlier this year. They moved to a digital subscription model for premium content and training programs. (By the way, the training programs are effective.) This will likely be how Rock & Ice content — features, long form, and photography — will be made available.

Also, you may recall that the publishers and editors of Rock & Ice adopted the annual long-form publication Ascent, which predates the existence of Rock & Ice. I like to think it will endure the consolidations. Is it valuable enough to Pocket Outdoor Media to put limited staff bandwidth and marketing, among so many brands, for climbers’ benefit?

Climbers, however, all like climbing their way. And there are different flavors, greater than just sport, trad, alpine, and so forth. Some of us are more athletically focused, and others emphasize the natural and even the metaphysical benefits. Merging a publication, in theory, is fine. But what gets emphasized comes at a cost. I think there is room for many different climbing magazines because climbers have a variety of things they prefer and seek them out. The best thing is to tell Climbing and Rock & Ice what you like about them; they need your guidance now so the new Climbing can meet our expectations.

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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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On Eve of Awards, A Winner Needs Your Help

It is a sign of the times, and a little ironic, that just as the Banff Mountain Literature Competition finalists were announced, the winner of the article competition these past five years has asked for your help.

I asked for help on their behalf too. On April 10, 2020, not even a month into pandemic misery, I urged you to buy or renew a subscription to Alpinist Magazine right away and buy something from their online shop. I followed my own advice. I ordered a new a subscription (I had intentionally let it lapse in February, intending to buy two issues from the newsstand and pick up in the summer.) I also bought one of those amazing route maps their team creates. I chose the most iconic the Eiger’s North Face.

Magazines, which are steadier contributors to our reading culture than books, can fail under poor economic conditions. Climbing magazines come and go. Remember Urban Climber? Do some of you even remember Mountain? Alpinist Magazine is a unique long-form quarterly featuring retrospectives, art, poetry, which is distinct from the other periodicals that cover skills, current events, and trends. And it nearly failed after a 2008 bankruptcy.

I read every issue of Alpinist cover to cover. It’s best enjoyed in an Adirondack chair on the patio, or in bed after the kids are asleep. The introspection and story telling is deeper than most things I read and often enlightens more than the climbing experience, but what I like about life in general. It’s because the editors work with the writers to pull out the best story-telling and prose of each contributor. They all make me feel like I am there with them, feeling what they feel, and closer to the mountains than I am from my station in this suburban outpost.

Sponsored content has not been their thing, in order to keep their content authentic and genuine. They’re trying to resist freezing budgets, reducing staff, and foregoing freelancers so the content we have enjoyed can remain at a consistently high level. But, in an attempt to keep going strong, Alpinist Magazine made their own plea for your help this month. If you feel that Alpinist enriches your life, or if climbing enriches your life, then there are a couple of things you should do today:

  1. Subscribe to the magazine or extend your current subscription
  2. Give a gift subscription
  3. Make a purchase in our online store
  4. Contribute to the Alpinist Podcast

Other quarterly, quality long-form publications of a similar caliber cost $75 annually. At $14.95 an issue, the newsstand is $59.80 for the whole year. But a year’s subscription with four issues of Alpinist is a bargain at just $49.95.

This is not a sponsored post. I am a humble subscriber, occasional contributor, and a fan of their whole operation. Please join me and give ’em a hand right now for you, me, and other climbers.

Well, I’ll post for you again in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, let’s stay in touch on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for stopping by!

Your Town Needs a Boulder Park

Next to the baseball diamond in Davis, WV is the accessible and playful Tucker Boulder Park. (All rights reserved)

The family and I were escaping the heat, the crowds, and (we hoped) our pandemic-reality by taking a break from our jobs in the Monongahela National Forest. I loaded our luggage, outdoors gear, and clipped my rock climbing shoes onto my daypack, just in case.

I dropped my climbing gym membership when they reopened, not wanting to risk breathing in coronavirus-infected indoor air. So I haven’t climbed anything since March 11th. For the Mon I recall a lot of cliffs that were short and chossy, and giant boulders covered in roots or moss. Seneca rocks, the Mon’s prime rock climbing destination wasn’t far, but wouldn’t be a family outing for us.

So I looked up bouldering in the Monongahela and the first thing that came up was the Tucker Boulder Park. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a facility with memberships and a daily fee, or something else. After reading a little more, it was clear that it was an outdoor playground. But it wasn’t just an ordinary playground with slides and a swing, this playground had two top-out boulders.

When we drove through town, I couldn’t find the park. I assumed that it would be front-and-center. Davis, WV is the highest town in West Virginia and it’s also within the confines of the National Radio Quiet Zone, meaning, because of an observatory and a Navy communications facility, radio, including cellular service, is limited. My GPS didn’t work and the best cell signal I could find was 1X and it faded as you went south of town and disappeared altogether. In town, I saw Stumptown Ales just fine (and their Bewildered Hippie was delicious!) We did not return to Davis for days. Out of town, the trails were peaceful and I found lots of large moss-covered boulders in Otter Creek Wilderness, though never anything suitable for a crag. Maybe there was, but with our kids’ little legs, we couldn’t hike as deep into the backcountry as might have been necessary.

Stumptown Ales in Davis, West Virginia.

One afternoon, before we drove back to Davis for dinner out, I checked my map for the Tucker Boulder Park when I was at our cabin’s wifi. It seemed pretty obvious where it was, so we went there first. But when I drove to the edge of town, the intersection where you are supposed to turn seemed to lead to a long row of houses, not a park. So we turned around and went straight to Milo’s Cafe and we filled up on burrito’s and pork nachos. Afterward we drove to the edge of town one more time.

I kept driving past the intersection I thought the map referred to and saw a fence that held in a baseball field. At its far end were two top-out boulders and no one on it. The road I was looking for, if you could call it that, was actually a narrow gravel path. I shouted and pointed and the kids saw it too and shouted for joy; they knew their father’s curiosity was turning into a lark.

We sanitized our hands and picked some holds to rainbow. Nothing was labeled with tape. I followed the kids around a little as they need some guidance. After a few burns they needed longer breaks from pulling plastic and I got to jump on a backward leaning problem. I’ve neglecting my fingerboard since May, which didn’t seem to matter now. My legs pushed me and core held. Schnickelfritz asked me to help him on a problem he set his eyes on, where the holds were bigger and a ledge, he thought would get him to the top of the little boulder. “Help” meant holding his waist as he worked on the footholds; an ab workout for me too, since he’s getting bigger! It was as if we had been looking for a prime skiing resort but discovered a little slope with only a two-seat lift, only the locals knew about and had much more fun.

Bouldering has become a go-to option for more climbers, seemingly than ever before. Actually, I’ve been bouldering long before it was more popular, but trad and sport climbers disparaged bouldering as a lesser activity. Though I agree that dedicated boulderers, me among them, were weird. I should have had more self-confidence. I’ve been vindicated by how bouldering is part of a diverse form of training for trad and sport, as well as a specialized discipline that has a new trendy following. I thought bouldering-only gyms in Chicago and New York City were wonderful, but this Tucker Boulder Park has something more going for it.

Climb safe and have fun, thanks to Davis, WV.

Because the Tucker Boulder Park is a public apparatus, there are no waivers to sign. Rules and guidelines are posted. The rules sign is inviting, rather than discouraging, and the best line is this: “Climb at your own risk.” The town has accepted the risk within these guidelines. In a way, it reminds me of a public swimming pool when there is no life guard on duty. It’s not like a private gym, which is concerned about staff oversight and liability. It was the closest pulling plastic got to the real rock experience with rules I have ever experienced.

Your town needs a boulder park. My town needs a boulder park. Put on your rock climbing shoes or your sneakers. Bring your own crash pad. Volunteer to set routes for your neighbors with the parks department. No ropes, except for adaptive climbing, of course. And the rules are reasonable. No paperwork. No fees. Just a fun time in your community.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll post here on T.S.M. again for you in a couple of weeks. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter and/or Facebook.