Reviewing Books and Burning Bridges

It’s pronounced Lankisstur (All rights reserved)

The first book I reviewed was an unsolicited book from the author about an Appalachian Trail through hike. I didn’t give a rating here on TSM but I did say whether I would recommend it. I didn’t recommend that book. I also gave it two stars on Amazon (which at the time was a mere bookseller with a growing online department store,) and I got a terse email from the author about that.

He complained that my review seemed like a four-star review or at least three and that I just didn’t love his book. I explained my case and held my ground. Later, I changed the stars to three. I’m not entirely sure why I did that. I haven’t revised a rating, unless there was an error, since.

I have been reviewing climbing and adventure books and even articles since 2010. I served as a pre-reader for the Banff Mountain Literature Competition for many years. But after some evaluation, I think my reviews need some improvements for you, the readers that want to read these books but don’t write reviews. Let me explain…

I believe that every book should do something new. A new topic is valuable. Two writers can write about the same event so long as the perspectives are unique; there is nothing worse than redundancy about reporting and retelling. The exception here are updates and revisions on books. For instance, there are a lot of books on the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine. The coffeetable book rich in photographs and pictures of artifacts added something. A freshly written history for a new, younger audience might add something for that generation, but I doubt that I would think the book is significant or unique. This is what I have always been looking for as a starting point for my quest.

You may not know this: I am on a long-term reading adventure to identify the climbing classics. (Well, the English language ones anyway.) It means I will continue to read a lot of climbing and mountaineering books for many years to come. The genre is bigger and deeper than most non-climbers, and climbers for that matter, might imagine, despite being rather niche. I keep a list of books to read (and acquire) that I call my Short Long List and it has been modified and updated only a little in the last couple of years.

But there is a problem. The Short Long List has books mostly ten years old and older. The short lists of the English language mountain literature competitions, Boardman Tasker, Kendall Mountain Festival, and the Banff Mountain Literature Competition, include about a dozen books annually. I like to read a few of them too, in addition to my search for the classics. This makes my progress slower than it already was.

For example, I am currently reading a new book, Native Air, a novel by Jonathan Howland (2022). After that, I am reading Meghan Ward’s Lights to Guide Me Home (2022). Then I am returning to my Short Long List and finishing Paul Pritchard’s Deep Play (1997). After that, I am picking up Bernadette McDonald’s biography of Elizabeth Hawley, by the original title, Call Me in Kathmandu (2005). I also mix in reading for work and my other hobbies, like baseball, golf, and history, so things naturally move slowly.

To give you my take on why the book is significant, especially these newly published books, doesn’t seem entirely as relevant. I think you should know if it is significant but you probably also want to know if it’s worth buying and reading. So I am starting to change the way I do my book reviews.

As a principle, readers of reviews need to trust the reviewer. This means I must be honest, and that I shouldn’t sidestep criticism or things that I didn’t like (I haven’t meant to, but in the past I usually did.) I would acknowledge those things, but I would usually only focus on the significance of the story or the record of the event. I will still pay attention to the significance but there is more that you need to have disclosed and I will work harder to do that. (In fact, I once lost an opportunity to have one of my book reviews in Alpinist Magazine because of that old approach.)

Early morning blogging session (All rights reserved)

So that brings me to clear and transparent ratings. While I might recommend that you read the book, where does it stand in terms of rating or score? In the past I only posted a score-out-of-five rating on book seller websites or on (or just Goodreads.) But I’ve learned that readers find it helpful about what to expect. Theoretically, I could praise and recommend two books but give one a four and one a five.

I am still in the process of determining my rating system. Stars are popular but not relevant on TSM. I use the tag line: Life undimmed through mountains and books. Arising out of the mundane things of work-commute-repeat is the ultimate goal here. Would matches or match lights or flames make sense?

I will also start posting my reviews on Goodreads as well, going forward. Although you found TSM many others haven’t and some of the reviews on the books I have read don’t comment on the matters I think are important. So it’s time to share in that market.

In my reviews, there is only one I am sad about and think that a rating could have helped. I liked the book and reference it relatively frequently since it covers the main story of one of favorite climbers. I criticized it for being written for too general of an audience and I recommended alternatives. It was fair. But later, that author offered to send me her latest book but I never received it. Did she read the review after offering me a copy? Did I burn that bridge inadvertently? Well, that’s the game. I just went ahead and bought the book.

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The Mountains and Plains of Walt Disney World Resort

Space Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

Earth’s natural mountains were formed and shaped around two billion B.C. from powerful geologic forces and erosion. The most visited mountain was constructed in Florida on sandy soil by homo sapiens between 1972 and 1975 A.D. for tourists and vacationers and actually had no resemblance to Earth’s surface or its mountains.

It was called Space Mountain, the first indoor roller coaster, and was the first of several man-made mountains to enhance the plains of Central Florida thanks to Walt Disney establishing his Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando. You may have heard of it. You may be among the more than 250 million people that have rode it since it opened.

I hadn’t planned on bringing Natalie, Wunderkind, or Schnickelfritz there. We had a list of reasons (or objections) rooted in our values. We were capitalists like Walt but we preferred using our travel money and time related to hiking, bicycling, making s’mores, and our own wood-fired pizzas. Then the kids’ grandpa had a burning need to take them on a milestone American trip.

He offered his grandchildren one of two choices: A trip to Mount Rushmore or Disney World. Everyone should see both, in his opinion. To his daughter, Natalie, she, like me, couldn’t figure out why Mount Rushmore was being offered at all. To me, we were being offered either a man-carved mountain or a set of constructed mountains.

Natalie and I had once discussed whether we were going to ever bring the kids to Disney World. Now that this trip was being offered on a silver platter, the choice between this or taking all four of us South Dakota, it was more a worry that grandad would be disappointed and complain to us about the accommodations. A hot dog for lunch wouldn’t be a problem, but at least in Disney World he could find decent oysters on the dinner menu. Disney World had become a foregone conclusion. Once the pandemic restrictions lifted sufficiently to enjoy the destination freely, we’d be there.

I didn’t want to go, for all the reasons Natalie and I discussed before. I floated the idea of staying home and working for half the week, but Natalie said we were all expected to be there, so I was committed for the week. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do there; I didn’t like fast, jerking rides. Not for motion sickness, but I tense up, and then immediately afterward feel ashamed, with a bruised ego, for not shouting “Wee” at the top of my lungs with my arms outstretched. So I knew I would be relagated to Sherpa dad, carrying water bottles, stuffed animals, souvenirs, light sabers, and a tube of sunblock. I would be constantly in search of iced water, shade, food, and the next great ride with the shortest line.

I tried to find something about the trip that would interest me. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios was the obvious one, but that was just one objective for a whole week. The other was the food, especially at the sit-down restaurants, so we made reservations, but it didn’t seem truly enticing. Golf was an option; but I decided the courses didn’t seem to justify the greens fee and it was going to feel like the peak of summer during a heatwave at home when I don’t play, so that was out. I really thought the resort complex would have a neat climbing gym or fitness center with a bouldering wall. Perhaps I would be hanging off a hold in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s iconic head. But it doesn’t. Orlando has gyms, but all were impossible to reach with the Disney bus and monorail system.

We sought advice from friends and family, though only a minority of which had real experience with Disney World. Two made a strong case for us to stay at the Wilderness Lodge hotel. It’s modeled after the grand Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Well, if we weren’t going to Yellowstone, let’s bring Yellowstone to us.

When we arrived, the background theme music began. It was a steady stream in whatever public setting you visited. We checked in the great lobby with balconies and balconies of log cabin railings. There were taxidermy bison heads and beaded Native American art, which seemed true to Yellowstone, and then there were enormous totems, which have no relationship to Yellowstone. And, of course, there was a man-made geyser outside near the pool. The design was a hodge podge of white Western heritage, an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts, and inauthenticity.

Our room was the final straw: It was too small for the four of us and couldn’t fit the rollaway bed we requested. They could have told us that six months ago, but instead we looked for alternatives. In the end we moved to The Contemporary next to Magic Kingdom. It’s so fanciful and tried to be futuristic in the 1970s that it was what it was and in that was more authentic and functional than the Wilderness Lodge. I preferred it.

Forbidden Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

The background theme music resumed, albeit with a new theme, at every park we visited. My mind started to dull. The parks, from Magic Kingdom to Hollywood Studios, were like watching television; I didn’t have to challenge myself. Well, other than the quest for iced water, shade, and the next great ride. I downloaded a Robert MacFarlane audiobook to listen to in snippets while I waited for the family. Except even with the sound turned up, the theme music and chatter from everyone wearing Mickey ears drowned out anything read outloud.

Animal Kingdom was the one park that engaged the mind not just the senses. The safari was the fastest-paced by-vehicle zoo tour I ever experienced, it was the most interesting activity. I wasn’t merely in awe of nature, I learned about baobab trees and how important hippopotamuses are to Africa’s ecosystem.

Animal Kingdom also hosts an area called the Annapurna Sanctuary, and includes a river rapids ride and a roller coaster with a theme of a Himalayan myth. Expedition Everest is a coaster ride answering the question of whether the Yeti is real. (Of course, you can just ask Don Whillians.) I have never been to the Himalaya or the Karakoram so I don’t have a real world experience to judge it by, but I felt like I stepped into the scenes of a Patagonia catalog.

Disney World’s Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom’s Annapurna Sancuary (All rights reserved)

Expedition Everest is a roller coaster that is both indoors and out and it rolls around Forbidden Mountain (the larger peak in the photo,) and a man-made Everest is visible in the distance. I enjoyed sitting and wondering here and admiring the detail as much as taking in the geeky nuances of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios. That said, the background theme music was incessant at the Annapurna Sanctuary. But at Galaxy’s Edge, it was all sound effects of space vehicles landing and taking off, as if you’re at a spaceport.

When I returned to work, my colleagues asked me how my vacation was. It wasn’t a vacation, it was a trip, I replied. On a vacation, I pursue something I enjoy and ususally return to work feeling renewed. I was tired and I looked forward to coming back to the office. Disney was a novelty. My wife and kids definitely enjoyed it a great deal. The grandparents made a lot of memories with the grandkids.

Well, there was one moment that surprised me and touched me and reminded me of my childhood. Again, we were in Animal Kingdom, and the pontoon with the live drummers making the theme music sailed past. Earlier in the day we saw Mickey and Minnie wearing khaki explorers clothes. Mickey, notably, was not wearing a pith hat, as old drawings of him did. He wore a bucket-style cap instead; which distanced himself from colonial symbolism. At this special moment, there was a broad shouldered duck in a leather jacket and leather hat and goggles. It was Launchpad McQuack from Duck Tales. Launchpad was the pilot that only landed by crashing but took his boss, Scrooge McDuck, on some amazing adventures. No one seems to remember him. My kids didn’t know who he was and were completely unfamiliar with the television series. But I made eye contact with Launchpad and he waved more vigorously. Perhaps he was grateful to connect with a knowing fan too. I felt like Disney reached out to me that once.

At the end of the day, the destination was good. I was glad my kids experienced things their grandparents cared about. It prompted some good conversations about some American pop culture. But the place didn’t replace my desire, or my wife’s and kids’ desire, for the outdoors, whether it’s our trip to New England’s mountains or even Assateague National Seahore. Disney was an authentic amusement park, but it didn’t replace our interest in authentic nature and adventure.

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Is this what the End of Climbing Looks Like?

Summit hole. (All rights reserved)

What would stop you from climbing? As in, what would make you retire? And would you be okay with stopping?

Stopping climbing is not like trading softball for golf in your 40s. People stop playing baseball, softball, and football at a point everyone commonly accepts, when the new “kids” joining are faster and can drink you under the table. Climbing doesn’t have the same convention because climbing is also entwined with a lifestyle who’s ethics are about being scrappy and overcoming hurdles.

Except everything comes to an end and hopefully it’s by a conclusion of our choosing. However, even for the dedicated climber, the end of climbing can be quite subtle. Now I am worried that I may have inadvertently crossed some sort of invisible threshold.


Of course, there are lots of people that climbed into old age. Fred Becky is everyone’s favorite example. Don Mellor said he never thought of himself as old, which is why he told him he even thought of becoming a schoolteacher when he was in his 70s. Gary Bloch, a man who climbed throughout his lifetime, went up El Capitan at age 81. Not too far off in age, Tom Choate summited Denali at age 78.

They are inspiring examples, but they are also outliers. Most climbers are active in their 20s and into their 30s. Then again, perhaps today more climbers are active in their teens and 20s, due to the growth of modern climbing gyms and organized climbing, which wasn’t as prevalent a 20 years ago.

I sometimes meet people that say they used to climb. Sara, a close colleague in Washington about ten years older than me, blurted out one day when they learned I liked climbing, “I used to climb at Cochise Stronghold.” We talked about how she had climber friends in college and she just tagged along. She didn’t climb back East, so it was a college thing. “But I’d love to go back,” she added.

Injury is such a fickle excuse. Sometimes it’s final and sometimes we treat it like it’s final when it’s temporal. It depends on the injury, but even losing a finger to a circular saw making homemade shims (read up on Tommy Caldwell for more on this) doesn’t stop people, they adapt. Injuries that result in a handicap seem to just present a new hurdle to overcome.

Another friend, we’ll call Kerry, had her first serious climbing injury at Earth Treks in Crystal City (that’s National Landing to those new to DC.) She tore a shoulder tendon and between surgery and recovery, she wasn’t climbing for 18 months. (Or should I say a mere 18 months?)

Health might be the real show stopper. Anything effecting energy levels and strength can sideline someone significantly. I suffer from eczema, and there was a time when the holds in the summer and the chalk was making my arms turn red and itchy. But that was brief. Cancer and other serious diseases, and their treatments, can really keep us from climbing.

The late great David Roberts stopped going to Alaska around the 1980s. He said he was often asked if he still climbed and his answer is no, or not like he used to. Roberts explained that it was too hard to stay in climber shape and too scary to climb the routes like the ones he established. He replaced the time he devoted to Alaskan pioneering to exploring the American desert southwest, and even wrote books about it.

For me, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 was the last day I visited my gym to climb because the next day, my organization felt the coronavirus was emerging as major threat and I was writing up contingency plans to on how to shutdown our nonprofit’s operations. After that I didn’t go anywhere except the office to hang a sign on the door, “We’re closed; please call or email us.” I took on an understanding attitude about everything, but privately I mourned the disruption to our community and not going to the gym to climb. I wondered: How would I fill my cup now?


Without work, my commute, and climbing as part of my weekly routine, how I spent my time for work, family, and to maintain health and wellness had to change. For a while I just rode my bike and took more walks, but that wasn’t anything like the physical and mental puzzle climbing offered. Eventually, I took a golf club outside and dropped a Wiffle ball on our lawn and practiced my swing. Then I made a game of going around the house in as few shots as possible.

Schnickelfritz got his two-and-a-half foot club and joined me. We had such a good time together, we did the next natural thing and visited the golf course just a couple of block away from our home. Though it was closed by law, we would play a hole or just hit a sleeve of balls as far and straight as we could down a fairway. When golf courses re-opened, they became a safe outdoor meeting place. Before I was conscious about it, golf was taking up some significant space in my life.

Golf emoji, golf happy. (All rights reserved)

It is ironic to me that golf has re-emerged in my life now. This blog was the result of some practicality. In 2010, at the cafe in Middlebury, VT I was trying to find a way to use my free time back home in DC to bring me more joy. My first idea was to play better golf. I would take lessons and play every Saturday. Except, Natalie and I shared one car, getting to the affordable courses were not convenient, we had an expensive mortgage and were planning a family. Oh, and I traveled frequently for work, so taking another five to six hours (with commute) to get a weekly round in was exorbitant. I would be sticking with the status quo of playing in golf once or twice a year when invited to fill a foursome. But writing this thing called a blog about the books and interests I had in mountaineering seemed like a smart path. This brings me joy. 

Will I climb again? I don’t see why I wouldn’t. I might become the regular golfer and the occasional climber. I will always hike and peak bag via less vertical routes, Lord willing, since they require less fitness maintenance. All I know for sure is that the space for reading and writing about climbing hasn’t been overtaken (and it has been nearly impossible to replace!)


You’ve probably heard those analogies involving a cup and how it pertains to you as a person. I don’t know how the one I am using here, in the header, and this blog post, originated. There are two I am intimately familiar with. First, Jesus prayed to His Holy Father that this cup pass from him if possible, meaning the job of being crucified, be given to someone else (then he also prayed, Your will be done, and it was.) Second, Buddhism has a story that explains how a student should come to a teacher, and if the student’s cup arrives full, everything the teacher shares will just end up on the table and floor in a wet mess.

For some reason, life coaches everywhere on the Internet use this one: You, like every person, has an inner cup that can hold all kinds of things, and they teach that you should fill it only with good things that give you joy and make you well.

Years ago, I asked Banff winning author Chris Kalman what makes a full climbing life? He saw the fallacy of my question, and politely tried to explain: “To me, there is no full climbing life, there is only a full life. And a full life is not a destination, or an end-goal, but a process and a pursuit.” Kalman knew that there were not multiple cups that made up the cup of life. It’s what you fill that one cup with and how you fill it.

Evolv Defy’s at Spooky Nook Climbing Gym. (All rights reserved)

Both Sara and Kerry had transitions placed upon them. One moved. One had an injury. Both could have been overcome, yet they embraced a different set of circumstances. Sara had a family and developed a career. She was healthy and happy. Kerry still climbed but the first thing I thought of her now when catching up through her social media pages, and seeing her at conferences just recently was the standup comic performer. Kerry will tell you that she wouldn’t have gone to the comedy clubs to make people laugh, rather than to laugh, without the change after her injury.

Sara, Kerry, and Chris all gave themselves some liberty in how they define themselves: Although they all climbed, and they called themselves climbers, they didn’t define or identify themselves solely by their climbing. I don’t think they would define themselves solely as professionals or comedians either.

Perhaps the end of climbing is all about how you are presented with the occasion and what you do next. The end would be worth mourning if it meant your death, if that was how you identified yourself. But if you have something to replace it, and it is a thing of quality, then perhaps there won’t be a hole in you, or empty space in your cup. I pray that if the end of climbing comes for you, that you have or find what you need to continue with a full cup, a full life. But please don’t stop reading about it, because that wouldn’t be life to its fullest.

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The War Between Climbing and Golf

Baffin Island Sledge. (All rights reserved)

During my 15 years in Washington, DC I would measure my recreation by being a climbing year or a golf year. If I climbed more days than I golfed, it was a climbing year. I haven’t been back to my climbing gym since March 11th, due to the pandemic, and since working lunches have been replaced by nine holes of golf with some colleagues and partners, I am already calling this a golf year.

In DC, I only had two solid climbing years, actually, and that was all thanks to Sportrock Alexandria near my home. Of course, if I count all summits on a family hike, then every year might be a climbing year. But I am mainly referring to roping up on technical terrain and bouldering.

Why did I measure my years as climbing or golf years anyway? Because you, or most of you, have a distaste for golf. Golf’s stuffiness and elitist ways are everything golf is not, and climbing is humbler, more in tune with nature, a greater physical challenge that leads to great enlightenment, right? This has been a silent war, especially for climbers that actually enjoy golf. And, as a golfer, they enjoy it for things you enjoy too.

Golf has a bad reputation among most climbers. To climbers, golf is for rich people without enough responsibility, traveling around the world with expensive hardware and fancy clothes, chasing a white ball along manicured landscapes. And they think golfers are snobs.

Of course, the two generally don’t get along. To golfers, climbing is for grungy people without enough responsibility, traveling around the world with expensive hardware, and fancy clothes, going up mountains the hard way unnecessarily in dangerous landscapes. And they think climbers are crude.

Although, culturally, golfing and climbing are distinct, there are some uncanny similarities when you look at what a climber and a golfer wants that is serious about pursuing it. Both require an investment in expensive, technical gear. Improving at both often becomes an obsession. Both are intrinsically connected to the natural environment, and is a common attraction for climbers and golfers.

Wait, is golf natural? Hitting a ball with a stick is ages old and seems like intrinsic child’s play. But what about the course, doesn’t it use valuable resources excessively? It depends on the value you give it. Golf alone, maybe not. There is new research demonstrating the value of public and private land used for golf for the surrounding community, being lead by the Brian Horgon, PhD of the University of Minnesota. The national golf association is working with him and course owners and public mangers to expand the perspective of the current land use and enhance its value. These plots of of land are green spaces (best when tree lined,) rain gardens and recharge ground water, support darker night skies from light pollution, and, if arranged properly, can support foraging for pollinators. Like a nonprofit, there is a double bottom line here.

For that matter, is climbing natural? I don’t mean the act of climbing, as it is also very much intrinsic child’s play at least in some format, such as climbing a tree. But what about our impact on the crag, base, and route? Some of us are better than others at leaving no trace. But the impact of pitons, cams, and bolts are a little subjective. In fact, there is a new study on climber’s negative impact on some ferns and mosses. Elevated build-up of climbing chalk can be significant even if it’s not visible to our eye. I think we will all be better, as a starting point, if we all sign and follow the Climber’s Pact; I have.

There is, of course, no need for a peace accord or even a detente. There haven’t been any attacks either way, so far as I am aware. But golf, below the tour professionals, and the exclusive American country clubs, golf is a game played among friends and strangers made into playing partners with a common bond and purpose, trying to do the silliest thing with a bunch of sticks and a little plastic ball.

My gear is humble, old, and often acquired on a discount. My golf balls were purchased on a Black Friday special 10 years ago, so when I lose one in the pond, it doesn’t hurt so bad. I play inexpensive courses, or on someone else’s charity. I play as often as possible and enjoy it whenever I do. Yeah, golf has it’s humbler qualities too.

I met a couple of avid climbers that take golf seriously, or at least as seriously as I do. As seriously as I do means they care about how they play and practice, though they don’t play as often as folks with a golf club membership. Interestingly, they all look at climbing as a thread of a saga in their lives. They work to improve, progress, or just see what new challenge or destination their journey might take them to. I’ve got a tee time for work tomorrow, but I am looking forward to visiting Mount Gretna again too.

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Our Chance at Courage from Home

Mountains of mystery. (All rights reserved)

I like to work from home; jeans, no shoes, and a baseball cap all the time. I like to to see my wife and kids often; I don’t get tired of them. And if the reason I was at home were more like a snow or ice storm, while self-isolating at home, would have been a pretty nice week.

On the other hand, I’ve been home working longer days to run our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, We reluctantly made the very painful decision to furlough most of the staff because all non-essential businesses closed in Pennsylvania and even all residential construction (Habitat’s specialty) was ordered to stop. I’ve been busy handling financial options, considering the future’s permutations, and setting communications strategies that adapt.

Related, I also made a discovery about my eczema flair ups, thanks to my more efficient nutrition plan: One beer over several days won’t spur a flair up, but one beer every day for three days will! The stress of cost cutting probably egged it along. I won’t be having a beer a day any longer; it was probably a frivolous craving in this time regardless.

As comes with self-isolating, the kids are home with us all the time too, sometimes plodding through work from their teachers. I wonder if this is what homeschooling is like. Natalie and I are still figuring out how to juggle work and parenting. Both of our gyms closed, which affected Natalie more than me because she likes the sophisticated gym equipment and the amenities; I can’t blame her. I workout in the basement with just a yoga mat, a couple of free weights, and a hangboard; I put all my gym allowance to belong to a gym with ever changing puzzles arranged from plastic holds. And despite my general dislike for running, I am jogging more often, especially after weighty conference calls.

I paused from reading Found by Bree Loewen for a moment to get through a library book. I am reading a book on baseball, which I borrowed on my birthday, the day Major League Baseball announced that the season would be delayed. So it’s filling a void and a different escape. I’ll be back to Found later this week. Since I last posted I added two books to my list: 1) Troll Wall by Tony Howard (2011,) and 2) My Life in Climbing by Ueli Steck (2018.) Troll Wall was recommended to me by David Price and I am glad that he mentioned it. Steck’s autobiography is actually for a question that I have been pondering for over a year and instead of just diving in and writing about it, I am doing more research (and really looking forward to read it after I finish Loewen’s book.)

Soon I’ll get restless, I suppose. Normally, when we deal with crises or natural disasters, I am donating money or directing some of our gifts at Habitat to tsunami relief or a post-earthquake home build project in Nepal, and my kids make care packages. But this crisis asks us to be inactive, stay at home, and stay away. I never imagined or could have imagined this happening throughout America two weeks ago, even as I read the stories from Wuhan or Italy.

It’s also odd in that we are not looking to rebuild homes or defeat a moral enemy, like the Nazis. We’re dealing with existential challenges to our freedom and our ability to roam freely. I can wait a little longer to go to the gym and visit Mt. Gretna again. I can dash into a grocery story just to get what will feed my family of four. Heck, I don’t need beer or coffee like I used to. Maybe God was preparing Natalie and I for this? This takes a fortitude of a different kind, and it hasn’t gone long enough for me to know what it is supposed to look like.

Although I put on a strong face for my staff, board, family, and parents, I am pretty scared deep down about the short term. I don’t want to get sick and don’t want anyone to get sick. I don’t want to die and I don’t want anyone to die from this virus either. I pray daily (I always have) and have faith, but, like so many things, there is a lot out of our direct control. I am self-isolating with compliance but I miss the climbing gym, and getting in the car for fun destinations on the weekend, dropping into my favorite burrito shop, and hugging colleagues in greeting and slapping high fives when we solve a problem or help improve someone’s life.

I’ll keep doing what I always do, but from home instead, with a little more courage than usual. Stay safe and healthy, my friends.

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Two Unexpected Turns in 2019

Road trip. (All rights reserved)

It’s a foggy morning here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Christmas was snowless and warm and now the moist air is merging into the drier air. With everyone still asleep, instead of working on fundraising or project planning, like I have been lately, I wanted to share with you two changes before 2019 came to a close.

It’s been more than a year as the executive director at a large nonprofit in south central Pennsylvania with a team of about 20 and hundreds of volunteers. As always, my work has been split between work, family, and balancing those things through diet, fitness, reading, and maybe some writing. The time has been more crunched than ever as my vision for the organizations is taking shape. By contrast to previous Christmases, this was the first Natalie decided to skip involving me in the Christmas card process; she said I was noticeably busy and it was just easier. It’s saddened me to think it was easier to avoid my involvement as we always had, but she was right; I couldn’t take much more.

Over a year ago I started working out almost daily to make sure I was staying in shape and help relieve some stress from juggling whether I was taking time between staff, board members, donors, volunteers, public officials, or my wife or children. Having three events at the same time to commit to attending is a terrible thing, and playing king of the hill with one of them is always about picking winners and losers. Still, I like to consider the options, make my decision and let everyone know as quickly as possible, which could take a day or so.

I started dropping into the climbing gym by my home every couple of weeks. I tended to work out harder at home if I had a boulder problem I was focusing my energy toward training. And when I was bouldering, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than what was under my toes and fingertips, so it has always been a huge physical and mental break from the ordinary.

In November, Natalie and I decided to take a step further and for me to join the gym and go at least weekly if not more often. I’d never joined any gym before, even a nonclimbing one. I’ve set myself a reasonable goal, though not yet with a timetable, to boulder V6. This has definitely cut into some of my mornings and evenings, but I think I have been more enthusiastic about, well, everything.

The biggest change I had been attempting to make all year, but a prolonged illness, did what my willpower couldn’t do. Over the years, as a policy analyst and advocate in Washington, DC I had worked my way up to being a caffeine abuser. I’d tease about decaf by a sly “what’s the point?” quip. But I would read and summarize policy papers and make PowerPoint Presentations with gusto. As I started working out more, and eating more fruits and vegetables over the last year, I knew I was drinking too much. Six cups a day, often more, was too much. And yet, at the time, I thought, “Oh, coffee doesn’t affect me much.”

Before Thanksgiving I came down with a cough, which developed into a cold, and became a sinus infection that lasted over three weeks and took two antibiotics and Prednisone to shake. I drank a cup of coffee in the morning and that was it for the day; my throat just wasn’t having it.

By the end of the whole experience, I decided to use this as an opportunity and stop drinking coffee at one-and-a-half cups or two cups in the morning before I left the house. The results have surprised me: I was more alert throughout the day, and I wasn’t dry and anxious by the end of it. I used to attribute the anxious feeling to the stress of my jobs. On some days the feeling was so intense I would crave a beer or a glass of wine to relax. Since I cut back on the caffeine, I didn’t have the same interest in beer or wine; I think I just wanted a depressant to bring me down from the caffeinated high. Until then, I had no idea what a grip caffeine held on me. Everything has been brighter, easier, and more enjoyable ever since. Perhaps you don’t need your cup of coffee as much as you think you do?

I did read 17 books this year, which I think was the most I have read in 12 months in the recent couple of years. Most of them were not about climbing. I read all of Alpinist Magazine’s long-form essays and stories, which should be considered a collective book in and of itself.

For Christmas, our friends in London sent me The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

“>The AlpsThe Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

“> by Stephen O’Shea (2017). The back cover reads, “For centuries the Alps have been witness to the march of armies, the flow of pilgrims and Crusaders, the feats of mountaineers, and the dreams of engineers… Journeying through their 500-mile arc across France, Italy, and Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia, [O’Shea] explores the reality behind historic events and reveals how the Alps have profoundly influenced culture and society.” It sounds like my kind of nonfiction. They told me that they’ll give me a pop quiz when they see me next. I’m okay with that and accept their challenge!

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