This is a short post for you. I just need to get this notion of a summit game out there. It is quintessential and underlying most climbing stories. Dawn Hollis’ book, when it comes out next year, will indirectly uncover our modern perspective better, but for now, let me point it out this way.
Kristen Harila’s announcement that she climbed Cho Oyu and thereby completed reaching the true summits of all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time got me thinking about reaching the true summits. She tagged the 14 tops in 12 months and five days.
But didn’t Nims Purja climb them in six months and six days? Of course he did. Well, actually he climbed them but missed two true summits. He returned to those peaks so the time clock kept ticking. Purja’s total elapsed time was actually two years five months and 15 days, despite a lot of popular media still citing the other figure. I think the nuance over true summits is a little ridiculous, as a recreational climber, except when I start comparing and contrasting his efforts and style to others competing on speed, it was as if he hit a triple but missed stepping on first base by an inch. If you play the summit game, and these days, most climbers that aren’t focused on routes alone do, the precise summit matters.
To the best of my knowledge, Harila reached the true tops. But her climb is unique in style; heavily supported, rather than lead, and was using supplemental oxygen. Good; it’s a lower bar for the next climber to try to beat.
Personally, I think Purja and Harila are both in separate categories within different approaches to the climb. The ultimate model of purity is still Jerzy Kukuzcka. He reached all fourteen with oxygen and by new routes.
Our chosen objective is climbing can be about quality time with friends on a mountain in wilderness, testing our fitness and skills, and seeking euphoria. Most of the stories we tell are spurred by a quest for firsts, new routes, and reaching the tops. The media, most of all, loves a higher grade and a true summit. The game we play and its variations are about the top. I do it. You do too. Less than that is called failure, which is just as made up as the game we play. It’s a beautiful game, but we take for granted that what we talk about and what we are all really are seeking from our climbs is more than the top.
Wine critic Robert Parker had a special sink built in his home. It was two or three times deeper than an ordinary sink so he could uncork a bottle that he personally purchased, slosh a sip to sense the flavors and hints of oak or whatever quality the barrel imparted before spitting it out and taking notes.
Parker is said to have taste buds that were well above their average capabilities. Parker himself said his strong memory of wines allowed him to compare glasses to one another so he could give each one on his scale, which was a score out of 100. Of course, the critique of what he scored as excellent wines was simply what Parker preferred.
For reading and reviewing climbing books, I don’t need any special apparatus. In fact, I read in multiple different settings. Buses, trains, at desks, libraries, living room couches, cafés, and hotel or guest beds. But there was a time when I read but never took notes or considered the book with the scrutiny Parker applied to rank wine. A good seat, and ideally with a cup of coffee (or, even better, an afternoon beer,) was really all that was needed. But reading for pleasure and with a critical point of view is a little different.
There are about 20-30 books that I need to re-read in order to properly consider elevating them to be candidates for climbing classics. So I am going back to reading, swilling, and comparing them more deliberately. I pulled the hard copies of the books on my Short-Long List and put them on my desk so I can start whittling through them.
I am quite excited about re-reading them this year. These are mostly books I enjoyed, but what will we think of them in terms of being a classic of climbing literature?
I will still review a new book or two as they are released, or at least I am open to that depending on the demands on me by work and family. I may post them elsewhere first and here later, so watch my social media.
An author with a new book deal arranged invited me to review their manuscript before submitting the whole first draft to the editor. I am behind my self-made schedule, but I think I can do a chapter a day and get my comments back to the author in a week or so.
The Banff Mountain Literature Competition is allowing me to participate as a pre-reader once again. I took a two year break over 2021 and 2022. It was rough times for “both” of us; the Banff Centre even shut down and laid off the majority of its staff during part of that. The pandemic disruptions with the Habitat for Humanity affiliate I run and the changes to Wunderkind’s and Schnickelfritz’s schooling shut down many things for me too, and pre-reading was one of mine. I was worried that by turning down the invitation that I would have difficulty getting back in, but it seems I did okay by them.
Well, thanks for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining my email list, which is the best way to get updates. (I am on Facebook and Twitter too, but make sure your preferences will allow you to see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!
Stick season in Vermont is a period after the colorful leaves fall and before the snows take the leaves place in the branches. This winter in Pennsylvania has been one long stick season with only a brief snowfall near the Susquehanna River that landed on the pine branches and lawn during coffee but disappeared after breakfast. We returned to sticks.
Snow is important to Natalie, Wunderkind, Schnickelfritz, and me. I used to have this notion that snow reminded me of the Adirondacks or Green Mountains in winter that I romanticized a great deal while working long hours in Washington. Since the kids started playing in our new(ish) snow-filled yard when the conditions allowed, I saw that it’s about play and living in the moment. Snow is ephemeral, beautiful, and precious. So Natalie and I make sure the kids have good snow pants, coats, and boots for sledding and play before every Thanksgiving.
Ski lessons for Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz were overdue, but now that the conditions and restrictions of the pandemic have loosened, we were off to one of those little Ski-the-East hills. These little ones try tonpass themselves off as “resorts,” and boast a few rooms to remt plus a restaurant and bar. Interestingly, I never lived closer to any slope and ski lift than I do now in Lancaster, PA. I had a longer drive when I grew up in snowy Buffalo!
The kids took lessons and I stuck nearby. Natalie skied. We went to a bigger resort not far from DC before we had kids, but due to expecting our first, I skied, she didn’t. We’re square now.
VINTAGE CLIMBING INSTRUCTIONALS
Grit has always been a key element in climbing, and an old instructional book substituted for lessons and mentorship. Take this one, for instance, by George Alan Smith, titled Introduction to Mountaineering,published by A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. as a new and revised edition in 1967. The first edition was out in 1957. It taught climbing as it was done in the Himalayas and David Roberts’ books of the day: With ropes, sans harness, and your boots, pre-EBs.
My friend received it as a birthday present and was kind enough to loan it to me. There are other instructionals from this era, too, and I’m curious about why so many? I’ll keep digging. In the meantime, I am grateful for my Black Diamond harness and my Evolvs.
Well, that’s it for now. Next winter, if I get skis and a seasons pass, I might be able to forget about the gym and wait patiently for the golf course to come into form.
There are a lot of lists of climbing books on the Internet, and most of them are bad. They’re a hodgepodge of old, new, narratives, and guidebooks and instructional books all amassed into one most often. And when the list is shorter and more focused, it tends to be ambitious for whoever is posting it.
I’m guilty of writing a bad list. Several years ago, a blogging friend invited me to write a guest post. He wanted the top 10 climbing books ever written. He thought I could write it. I knew it was more than my reading experience, but I felt I had enough knowledge to fake it. I disclosed that to him and he actually agreed and said that’s why he asked me. Well, the post still comes up either number one or in the top 10, depending on our search query and I cringe at it.
Now allow me tell you what’s wrong with that list and just about every other one on the Internet, including that one I wrote years ago.
The list’s have titles like the “top 25 best rock climbing books,” “best mountaineering adventure books ever written,” or “climbing books serious climbers should read.” There are even titles aiming for more credibility, by adding “definitive ranking,” and sometimes they attribute the list to an expert or celebrity. Mine was foolishly titled, “10 Best Mountaineering Books of All-Time.”
(By the way, I don’t link to them because I don’t think it wise. The more connections of attention, the more credibility the search engine gives them. Besides, they’re easy to find; all 87,000 search results.)
WHAT MAKES A GOOD LIST?
These Internet lists, however, all contain some flaws, except one from Climbing Magazine (now Climbing.com only) by Dougald McDonald: 33 Must Read Climbing Books. Dougald wisely wrote that this isn’t an end-all be-all “best ever” ranking, and only promised you’ll enjoy those stories. What I appreciated was that it was vetted by people that read them, I was told. And not all of the books were even in print at the time of being published, so I know they weren’t peddling affiliate sales or anything.
A good list doesn’t contain lots of caveats, it simply states what it is attempting to do and does it with knowledge and without including the book that was just released, even if it was included on the best seller list of New York Times, or (gulp,) Amazon.com.
In actuality, making a list of the “best climbing and mountaineering books” is a gargantuan task. anyone with real knowledge knows is nearly impossible to accomplish. I know this. But I am plodding forward to do the things I accuse these Internet lists of not doing well, and because I know that it’s not really about the final product but the process or the journey. If this were a climb, think of it as a purists approach to the last great problem.
HOW TO RUIN A LIST
Lots of climbing books are worth reading but not all are good for recommending on a short list. I give Dougald and his advisors kudos for making a respectable list of 33 on the surface of things. But several inclusions, or categories of inclusions, can be a dead giveaway of a list that was cobbled together just to make content. Although I respect lists of suggested books to read, mixing new print with books printed in previous years that really are not quality works are reason for distrust.
Including several popular titles can ruin a list. Take Jon Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air for instance. It captivated non-climbers and entry-level climbers, but established and well-read climbers generally don’t hold it in high regard. Including Ed Viestur’s book No Shortcuts to the Top has the same problem. I genuinely liked both books, but I have found more advanced and significant books.
Including Mark Synnott’s The Third Poleseems odd. Having reviewed it and seeing it on several lists, I can’t tell if the list writer was suggesting it because it was new, had affiliate marketing behind it, or they genuinely thought it was significant. It had some notable new theories about George Mallory and Sandy Irvine but nothing concrete to warrant it on a short list.
Including a book by Mick Conefrey sends up red flags. Although he is a credible documentarian, his works re-introduce past works for readers new to the subject. And the works are bland compared to many of the current books being written by climbers first-hand published alongside his. His work feeds a need, but don’t list it among “best” or “must-reads.”
I was charmed that several prominent lists included Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The half the story is about how Mortenson arrived in Afghanistan, through mountaineering, before he found a calling. Regardless of the credibility of the account, I never considered it a climbing book. It included climbing but it wasn’t about conquest or a gentler aesthetic desire for self-discovery through a mountain experience. It’s a good story but I wouldn’t include it on one of these lists.
Short lists or 10 or 15 titles that include a mix that include established and well-known works like Annapurna by Herzog and Everest: The West Ridge by Hornbein, which are think are credible recommendations, and then includes a new book by Ashima Shireshi, How to Solve a Problem, confuses me. Shireshi’s book is very different and might below. It’s illustrated, sometimes thought of as a children’s book, which is terribly limiting to readers. I’m curious about it, but it doesn’t seem to be in the same category of books and type of climbing.
The shorter the list the more likely it won’t be cohesive. The longer the list, well, you’re more likely to cover more of your bases. But in both cases, I don’t think the authors of the lists read the books their recommending. I think many are also pulling from other’s recommendations. Making a list based on sales or Internet searches are misleading about what style of books to include. One list using such methodology grouped several guidebooks with narratives. Either way, and too often, the headline is click-bait.
READING — REALLY READING — IS KEY
I wish more of the lists proliferating the Internet would just list author’s personal favorites, and say that that is what they are, and I also wish that best seller lists are say that’s what they are but the author of the list takes the time to separate the narratives from the instructional books. Of course, as a general rule, best sellers lists do not make a good recommendation list for this genre.
The key to this knowing good books in this genre is reading them and getting reviews from people that read them. I am trying to help you in that regard. At least a little. I’d read all the time if responsibilities and my need to hike, climb, ski, and golf didn’t get in the way. Sometimes we read in sips, sometimes in gulps.
I sincerely want to tell you what the best mountaineering books of all-time are, but I haven’t read enough of them yet. That’s a big part about what my quest is about. And reading them all, or enough of them, and reading them with a critical point of view, is not what produced these lists. Of course, I am trying to identify classics, the way an English literature professor would recommend several classics to appreciate for various qualities, including their long-lasting appeal, even if they are not timeless. Naming climbing and mountaineering books that are worth reading and owning on a small shelf — essential reading — is the key.
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.)
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 Goodreads.com (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.
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.
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.
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.