A Life Lived Wild by Rick Ridgeway Reviewed

Life Lived Wild by Rick Ridgeway (2021)

I have seen his name on the spines of a handful of books and his picture in Patagonia catalogues but haven’t really understood why that was. His mountaineering exploits never stood out front and center and he seemed more of a travel writer. I didn’t actually understand why he kept coming up. Now I know.

Ridgeway has written his autobiography, A Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map, published by Patagonia Books in 2021, and it’s beautiful, both for the cover, the photographs, and his life’s story. It could almost be mistaken for a coffee table book, like many of new volumes from Patagonia Books today. It could easily have been a paperback without all of the coffee table elements and have become a dogged-eared copy in a young person’s backpack guiding them on an unconventional path to success.

Despite climbing Everest and being among the first Americans to summit K2 in 1978, Ridgeway was never the most important person in the events he was part of and witnessed. He was a team player. He grew into the role of mentor and coach, doling opportunity freely, including to Jimmy Chin, and he guided characters like Dick Bass and Frank Wells to climb the Seven Summits (the Kosciuszko version) for the first time, regardless of which Pacific-Australia peak they climbed. From there, he filmed for television and documentaries, including Patagonia’s 180° South, and fostered his love for birds into wildlife in general and took to advocacy. But the lasting impact on me, has been his lasting relationships, often expressing gratitude to people, like Chris Chandler, who invited him to climb Everest.

Chandler’s invitation changed Ridgeway’s life course. Ridgeway’s life was off to a difficult start: During his high school years, his father burned down the house his family called home, committing insurance fraud for his mother’s and his sake and vanished into the South Seas. Ridgeway moved into his best friends parent’s Airstream trailer while he finished school. Ridgeway’s mother saw her son’s interest in mountain climbing (through applying his book learning from Freedom of the Hills on Mount Baldy,) and needing somewhere to send him during the summer, enrolled him in Outward Bound.

Everest started a great journey of friendship for Ridgeway, during his expeditions to Everest, K2, and into once-forbidden China to attempt Minya Konka. On Everest expedition, Ridgeway met Jonathan Wright. Wright took Ridgeway on a significant detour prior to the ascent to visit a monastery. Ridgeway learned meditation and found inner peace, or at least the seeds of it, within himself. Wright would also speak up for the less experienced Ridgeway during the climb and gave him advice, as if he were sharing tips for being a good factory worker together: Be patient and don’t slack when it’s your turn. It later got Ridgeway to the summit of K2.

Ridgeway also became a documentary filmmaker on K2 by happenstance. He filled in for an absent teammate on the factory-work-like slope of the seige-style expedition, learned a new skill, and grew a new branch in his career. He would go on to film for CBS, Patagonia, and other nature documentations.

When Ridgeway met his wife Jennifer, she was a jet-setter of the 1970s and early 1980s like he was, both traveled widely to exotic places but for contrasting lifestyles. Jennifer was a purchaser for Calvin Klein. Ridgeway and a friend tried coaxing her to join them on a trek  for a National Geographic assignment. They even offered that they could get her good boots in a nearby neighborhood of Kathmandu; but she declined gracefully, explaining that the farthest she walks is from a New York City taxi to the doors of Bergdorf Goodman. They made it to dinner instead and rendezvoused on other occasions. They both learned that had lost important people in their lives and supported each other in healing. They later married at his beach shack near Montecito, California.

Rodgeway knew Doug Tompkins and Kris McDivitt Tompkins before they were married,  and before establishing Esprit. Kris and Doug would sell Esprit, with its brand The North Face, to save millions of acres in Patagonia for conservation. Doug was a friend and adventure buddy with Yvon Chouinard, and Ridgeway was with them on the fateful kayaking trip in 2016 when Doug’s boat flipped and he died of hypothermia.

The story that touches me the most about Ridgeway was the extended story of Jonathan Wright. Shortly after the Everest expedition, and Ridgeway’s historic K2 summit, Ridgeway and Wright joined Yvon Chouinard and others to climb in China for the first time since the People’s Republic of China closed Its borders from Western travelers. They’re destination was Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for Gongga Shan, which its summit was 7,556 m./24,700 ft. above sea level. It had only been climbed twice before, once by Americans in 1932 and the Chinese in 1957. This time, they were going to put up a new route.

There is some dispute about the avalanche risk assessment or whether there was one, but above Camp II Ridgeway and others glissaded down the slope to show off and return, hallering yahoo as they went. The subtle yet unmistakable and dreadful whump sound from the snow released the snow sheet on the slope and threatened everyone. Jonathan Wright, Ridgeway’s best friend, was killed. They buried him on the mountain.

The team retreated home and Chouinard shouted and cursed the mountains for what happened. He even complained that, “These mountains are too high,” which made me consider whether they were (still am, actually.) A guide from the Tetons blamed Ridgeway for triggering the avalanche because he was too preoccupied making the documentary of the climb to assess the risk.

Jonathan Wright was survived by his wife and infant daughter Asia Wright. Ridgeway wrote about Asia’s request to him that he take her to the slopes of Minya Konka to visit her father’s resting place in his book, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father (1998.) I saw this book in paperback in 2000 when I started reading climbing books but quickly dismissed it; it appeared too sentimental and not adventurous enough. After reading A Life Lived Wild I now think that I was too young to understand. Now that I am 43 and a father, I am planning on reading it.

So Rick Ridgeway is more than I expected. My friends, Alex and Caleb in Alexandria, have been involved with Patagonia stores in Washington, DC and the newer shop across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA for the last 20 years. One of them is an assistant manager. They have met many of the filmmakers, authors, and subjects of the company’s communications when they have come through for employee and public events. They were first introduced to Ridgeway just after 2000 and speak fondly of him and hold him in high regard. He seems to hold a different place compared to the other athletes that tour their shops. As they mention to me that when they first met him that he wasn’t as tall as they expected, they brush past that facet and talk about 180° South or the initiatives at the company he lead since 2005. They talk about his life’s work, the work on his book, that I recommend, A Life Lived Wild.

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Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington Reviewed

2001 edition of Bonington’s Annapurna South Face.

The verdict on what are classic climbing books is still out, for me, which is a reason I keep this blog, but this book is significant for its subject and its approach. Annapurna South Face: The Classic Account of Survival by expedition leader Sir Chris Bonington, published in 1971, broke the mold of what everyone thought an expedition book was supposed to be. And if this isn’t a classic climbing book, it is at least the record of a historic climb.

Although some have found the book tedious with logistical details about climbing expedition management, that is typical of an expedition book. That is, after all, what this book is fundamentally. And Expedition books played an important role; they were the standard way to record explorations into new realms, particularly to guide future explorers and adventurers about what is already known, and, of course, establish a record of one’s accomplishments. Bonington, however, stands out as a writer of an expedition book and a climbing leader, and his book could be a top ten classic climbing book.

First, Bonington is not actually the sole author. As was the case with all expeditions, the leader wrote the chronicle and his (yes, they were all men with few exceptions) team members would attempt the summit. And the underlying idea, from the ethical approach common among big expedition efforts, was that if one person from the team made the summit, the whole expedition was successful. In this case, Bonington included the chapter about the last leg of reaching the summit from the first-person perspective of Dougal Haston who reached the summit with Don Whillians.

These books include a treasure trove of data and stories that is sometimes like going through a box from my grandfather’s business; I found things called paperweights, old photos, hand-written receipts, and correspondence (old fashioned letters hammered out from a typewriter.) For Annapurna South Face, Bonington opened his filing box and spoke about the process of getting official approval from Nepal and traveling, with his team and all of their gear, by boat. Bonington lead a team of team 21 climbers, including Haston, Whillians, Mick Fowler, Tom Frost (the sole American, in case that matters to you,) and several other alpine luminaries. After organizing food and porters to carry their loads, they often slept under the stars.

I don’t know whether to excuse Bonington or call him out for his insensitivity over Nepal’s poverty. During the expedition party’s approach to Annapurna he witnessed the Nepalese children, and observed the fifth and low-quality of living, the poor quality of food, and how their simple, delightful smiles were something noble yet naive to their poverty. The observation was honest, but in fact, he was naive to his party’s own entrance on the scene, which was a juxtaposition of health, fitness and the pursuit of a luxurious challenge.

One of my favorite segments involved Don Whillians during a lonesome wandering on the approach. He returned from reconnoiter as if he had seen a ghost. In fact, he believed he saw an abominable snow monster, the Himalayan Yeti. Whether he had or not, Bonington suspected that Whillians had merely became disoriented, spooked himself, and walked in circles. Whillians long disputed this; it’s worth the your own wandering down a search-engine rabbit hole about this.

Whillians was also handy, and, in order to provide better sleeping accomodations on the wall, Bonington documents the Whillians Box. It was essentially a cube-shaped tent with lumber for support. It could also be described as a port-a-ledge and tent combo. Arguably, it was more protection from falling debris too.

Bonington invited one American on this British expedition. It was good for some added publicity with a news audience across the pond. (Notice I said “news” not media; it was 1970, after all.) But Tom Frost, the American stood out among the team for reasons other than his nationality. The British members drank and smoke regularly. Frost was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke either. It came to blows on the steep flanks, during a multi-day hold up in a tent. The smoke would get to me too; I’ll let you read the book to see how that panned out and affected the rest of the climb with his partners.

Bonington tracked his climbers up their chosen route, starting with a long ice ridge, then an equally long rock face. All combined it took longer than planned: Five weeks followed by three more, respectively. To tell the story of the summit leg, as was the approach in other expedition books like Annapurna, Dougal Haston contributed a chapter with his firsthand account. Haston dropped his personal gear but recovered and persevered. I don’t like to spoil the whole thing, but will say that the story gets better, and there is a tragedy. (Perhaps both are common knowledge among climbers, but reading it first hand yourself is important; it is the primary source, so dive in!)

Bonington was indeed detailed. That is an criticism or a compliment, depending on your opinion. I admit that I appreciated the detail and it wasn’t a dry list, but a rich commentary, with personality, colorful opinions from experience, that was laying evidence for not only what Bonington’s men did but the style, way, and judgments of how they did it. Their gear, the conditions, and the ice ridge and rock face were all subjective to interpretations of strategy. I like to think I was able to see things as the author.

NEXT POST, LIFE’S EVOLVING CHALLENGES

As for life here in Peaklessburg, my Habitat affiliate has embarked on a five-year building plan. Since it’s a nonprofit and requires fundraising, pledges, visits, and such, it could easily be likened to the five-year voyage of the starship Enterprise visiting new worlds. The most complicated part, though not necessarily the hardest, is finding suitable sites for new homes, which takes a lot of due diligence for feasibility and, at times, negotiating.

Suburban life has sucked me in a little more. With two cars compared to our one in DC, I have shuttled our kids around more often than I ever considered I would have. Thank goodness for wireless devices and Bluetooth connections.

In TSM news, I’m stopped and will finish soon Rick Ridgeway’s autobiography, Life Lived Wild (2021) from Patagonia Books. I Ridgeway’s books never seemed that compelling to me, but I now see why he has been so important, at least to the Patagonia company and brand over the years. I’ll explain that later.

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What Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald is Missing

Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald.

Someone was bound to write this book and we are blessed that it was by Bernadette McDonald. Winter 8000 is a near-complete retelling of all first attempts and ascents of the world’s fourteen highest peaks, except K2, which was the only summit where the winter ascentionists had not yet reached.

At publication, the chronicle Bernadette McDonald starts in her latest book published in 2020, Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, was only a little over 90 percent complete. Who could blame her? No One expected the last domino piece, less-than-a-tenth of the saga, to fall so soon.

WINTER CHALLENGE

There are 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters above sea level and all of them are in the Himalayas and Karakoram across Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet. Climbers made their way to their summits for the first time between 1950 and 1964. After the first ascents, the climbers sought other challenges, such as more difficult routes, or in the case of Andrzrej Zawada, an alpinist from Poland, harsher conditions to make their names. Polish climbers, who were blocked by Soviet travel restrictions and lacked resources, had more access in the late 1970s and wanted to have an impact on climbing history. Zawada lead the way for winter warriors, first from Poland, to climb in the colder and darker months.

From Bernadette McDonald’s other books, particularly Freedom Climbers (2011) and Alpine Warriors (2015), I was familiar with the attraction to winter ascents by the Poles and Slovenian alpinists as well as by other climbers. And even then, Alpinist Magazine filled me in on other stories about climbing the 8,000-meter peaks in winter, including the more recent attempts, mishaps, and successes McDonald’s earlier books didn’t or couldn’t cover.

Winter 8000 is a compendium of the ascents. She pulled the essential facts from that year’s ascents records from the various alpine journals, and then went deeper with interviews with the key actors and even family, like the widow of Tomek Mackiewicz, Anna Mackiewicz. McDonald traveled extensively to bring the stories and a tactile feel to the experience, from the wind on skin from fallen mittens, to the inner turmoil of the little decisions at high-altitude, where the brain and body only growing weaker. The result was a book I eagerly anticipated, but at first was dismayed at it’s format. I was, of course, worried for no reason.

STRAIGHTFORWARD YET DEEP

With the book in hand for the first time, flipping pages to see how it was organized it didn’t look like McDonald’s typical compelling page turner. It looked like a textbook or a guide. There were 14 chapters addressing each of the 8,000-meter peaks, one chapter at a time. And the titles were the subject mountain, without more description or characterization.

However, the writing is true to the style McDonald always employs, presenting mystery and a facet deserving of awestruck. Once you start Winter 8000, McDonald presents a mystery, through the introduction of a noteworthy figure, on the very first page and you are compelled to read on. The prose is asking the obvious, Why climb in winter? In this case, she starts with an exchanged with Zawada when McDonald at a mountain festival in Katowice, Poland. His response was terse, and amusing for an old, veteran alpinist (just read it, and keep reading.)

Despite the simplicity of fourteen chapters for fourteen peaks, the climbers McDonald profiles spill from one peak and chapter to the next, giving her retelling of these ascents the sense of a generational or family saga. At first one Pole set off to be a supporting climber on an attempt, only to grow into a weathered veteran and lead an expedition in winter a few years later. And, in the more recent attempts, the alpinists would cross the stories of ascents, such as when Adam Bielevki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jaroslaw Botor left their attempt on K2 to rescue Tomek Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat that same winter in 2018. The book is a proper history, which could be a student’s textbook, but it is immensely readable.

EVENTS WE CANNOT CONTROL

Winter 8000 was released four years after thirteen of the world’s fourteen highest peaks were topped out. K2 was elusive. It was all that remained and no one knew which winter season would bring success. From a publishers standpoint, this was the moment, when a general audience could focus on the final step in one of humanity’s grand quests of adventure; write the book that explained the significance better and everyone would want to read it. How would anyone know when K2 would fall so soon afterwards?

A mere seven months later, K2 was summited in winter, in January 2021. It was done in historic fashion. On that climb, ten alpinists, native from Nepal, made the summit together. They waited ten meters below the summit until the group could coalesce and reach the pinnacle together. It was a historic moment for the Nepalese, including Sherpa, to not support a climb, bit lead themselves into history.

Winter 8000 could already be considered required reading for anyone seeking to climb one or all of the fourteen peaks in winter. Yet now, after a brief interval, it has a knowledge gap on K2. In a way, the last chapter of the book is dated and anchored to the years between 2016 through 2020. Of course, McDonald must have accepted that this would be the case. Clearly, The Mountaineers Books, the publisher did too. Readers could go Online to access the news. But considering the immediate timing, could the next edition provide this critical update?

McDonald concludes Chapter 14: K2 by writing the obligatory “as of this writing, K2 in winter is still waiting…” We waited seven months. Perhaps a year since she penned those words. Even if McDonald is satisfied with the outcome and unwilling to do the research and interviews to share the K2 outcome, perhaps another writer, or an alpinist, could contribute an addendum or afterward to the second edition.

Of course, the Winter 8000 is complete. It is accurate as of its printing. An analogy with another book is applicable here: Golfer Bobby Jones, out of popularity and public interest, wrote an autobiography in 1927 after he won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open Championships in the same year, an incredible and unheard of feat at the time. He was just 25 years old. He proved that his book was a set in time when he outdid himself by winning those same tournaments plus the British Amateur and the British Open Championships, the first ever so-called Grand Slam of golf in 1930. He never wrote another autobiography.

I can live with it. But should we be as content?

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Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman Reviewed

Chris Kalman’s second self-published book with cover art by Sarah Nicholson

Cochamó Valley in Chile is as close to Yosemite National Park before it had roads, crowds, and park rangers as it can be to when John Muir explored its wilderness in the 1880s. I first learned about Cochamó from Chris Kalman when he and I crossed paths nearly 10 years ago over writing assignments. Since then, I have, and perhaps you have too, learned how wrapped up he is with the valley, the Cochamó Valley.

When Chris first visited Cochamó he thought he knew how Muir felt first coming to Yosemite. And like Muir, Chris made first ascents, some free soloed, in the untouched valley. Kalman grew into a champion of Cochamó conservation because he admired its beauty, and he knew it could be ruined with a dam, mined for minerals, or trampled by crowds and luxury hotels. Muir knew Yosemite Valley needed to be preserved, and Chris likewise took action for his Valle when he established Friends of Cochamó to help protect this unique place on Earth.

Although you may not be as familiar with his favorite valley in Chile, you may be familiar with him if you consume climbing content these days. Chris has written for Alpinist Magazine and often conducts podcast interviews for the podcast The Cutting Edge, run by the editors of the American Alpine Journal, which Chris is an editor, of course. He’s also authored a guidebook and two fiction works. His first novella was As Above, So Below, which was self-published in 2018, and his second, despite the punny title, has everything to do with loving and protecting places, especially like Cochamó Valley.

Chris’s 2021 work, Dammed If You Don’ta 2021 Banff Literature Competition Finalist — takes us on the lifetime journey of John Mercer. Mercer visits South America and finds grand potential in the fictional Valley of Lahuenco. He awakens the eco-tourists and backpackers of the world through social media and slide shows to it peril. The valley quickly becomes trodden with campsites with an few visitors carelessly scaring grasslands from tent sites and littering. He discovers a new species of salamander, and valley becomes more valuable and even more popular, since it suddenly has a mascot and a new gimmick for visiting, even as it brings the species to the brink of extinction.

The story explored all of the possible permutations for Lahuenco with Mercer as the central agent of change. Chris presented the reader with the unintended consequences of Mercer’s affection for Lahuenco and the commercial or capitalist opportunities, as carried out by the antagonist Señor Ackerman, and asks not only who wins, but who is actually in control? The populace? Those with money? Those with the land?

Although Mercer’s adventure has similarities to Chris’ experiences with Cochamó, Mercer is a modern likeness to John Muir. Fit, constantly in motion, and fire-like (both a bright light and able to ignite combustibles,) Mercer carried his case for protecting Lahuenco to the world through advocacy and fundraising, instead of the President and Congress, as Muir had done with Yosemite. I won’t ruin the end for you, but tempt you to read it for yourself by stating that Mercer’s solution, though a little trite, was worth me pondering for days after I finished the book.

Interior art by Craig Muderlak.

Kalman makes wonderful observations about how the world works. It’s heavy at times. I don’t agree with the dark shading of values he used to illustrate Señor Ackerman’s reasoning and strategy for exploiting the Lahuenco Valley, but his points were valid, and did — despite his direct statement to the contrary — did make him appear to be a real-world Bond Movie villain. (Tangentially, it mildly inspired me to write a parody where Ackerman hangs Mercer from an overhanging cliff above a pile of sharp scree and forced his girlfriend on a tourist-attraction zip line that when passing would cut the rope. Exit Ackerman cackling before the she reaches the dangling rope.)

Dammed If You Don’t is fundamentally a discussion piece. Chris packed in a very long winding tale into a small package, and hits on the theme of preservation in several ways, with land, and Mercer himself to name two. Chris used a third-person narrator with limited perspective that limits the story from having even more impact; I wish I had gotten to know Mercer better. Though his values and how he dealt and overcame his challenges became apparent, I would prefer if I could have read it through stories and dialogue rather than being told first and shown later. For this reason, John Mercer doesn’t become a character I was emotionally attached. When his climactic moment arrived, I saw it unfold, but without a sense for how he would turn out after the book. But again, it’s definitely worth having a discussion over (shoot me an email if you read it, because I would enjoy debriefing about the book with you.)

Go buy and read Chris’ book and shoot me a message. And I will look forward to visiting the Cochamó Valley with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz one day. I think Chris’s book will help it stay beautiful until I get there.

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New Books from Katie Ives, Chris Kalman, Leo Houlding: I’m Back!

Lazy view from my sabbatical wanderings; Downeast Maine (All rights reserved)

No, I am not dead and neither is T.S.M. Of course, I thought the world would come to an end a couple of times: Climbing is officially in the Olympics and I found climbing ropes and harnesses for sale at a big national sporting goods store chain. Climbing has more mainstream than I ever thought it would be years ago.

I did cheat on my blogging sabbatical and gave you a new book review and an update, just to prove to myself things were okay. Deep down, I prefer climbing as a niche activity. And books about climbing are here for more than just climbers. Well written narratives can let us feel the climb the way videos and Olympic climbing cannot. Here are three new books that were just released or about to be released:

  1. Damned If You Don’t by Chris Kalman (out now.) This is Kalman’s second self-published novel. His first book left his readers talking about the risks climbers take and their consequences. Kalman has taken his story-telling to a place near and dear to him in that some call the Yosemite Valley of South America. I will be reading it over the next few weeks and expect that he’ll strike me how he affected his readers with his first book.
  2. Imaginary Mountains: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams by Katie Ives (releasing October 1, 2021.) Mountaineers Books will be releasing Katie Ives’, the Editor-in-Chief at Alpinist Magazine, new book on October 1, 2021. I read nearly everything Katie writes and this is one I am pre-ordering. She’s previewed snippets in Alpinist Magazine and on Facebook and I am looking forward to taking in for the mystery and the storytelling.
  3. Closer to the Edge: Climbing to the Ends of the Earth by Leo Houlding (releasing in the UK in September 2022.) Houlding is a populist adventurer to some, and I don’t care for his television show, but if you ever listen to his interviews on podcasts, including the American Alpine Journal’s The Cutting Edge, he’s an insightful climber both about climbing and the times in which he climbs. I am going to be reading this one in curiosity.

I know that I said I would be back in July after a six-month break, but it was so good, I decided to go seven and wait until after my family vacation to New England. And then I was captivated by the climbing competition in the “2020” Olympics. Plus returning to work after two weeks off is difficult, so I’m back from my blogging sabbatical today.

Ending this blog crossed my mind. Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz are getting older, and surprisingly, need me more now than when they were smaller. Of course, they need me in different ways, like showing them how to run the bases or chip out of rough. The Habitat affiliate I run is growing and there are endless exciting challenges with that to ponder at all hours of the day, including how to building more homes with less and gain new donors. These were reasons enough to have dropped T.S.M. altogether, but the thought saddened me. Not because of the work I have done, but because I genuinely enjoy it. Even during my break I still read climbing books; I posted one book review despite the break, and I accepted two more climbing books explicitly for writing a review.

I am also glad that I waited the extra month for another reason. I got sucked into the plastic pulling in the “2020” Olympics. It has reminded me about why I started this blog in 2010. Although I don’t climb outdoors much any more, I still love to boulder at my gym and most of my fellow-gym climbers don’t read climbing books and they don’t know anything about the history of climbing, particularly climbing mountains. I am I right? I need to keep this blog up just so I can direct people to something that edifies them, and I hope my posts do that. As my old blog tag line circa 2010 said: Climbing matters… even though we work nine to five. I still believe that and hope everyone that needs to know that does too.

Since you’re here reading on T.S.M, you know that climbing is a special activity and that the ordinary day-to-day routine is dim without it. I’m with you. So whether you’re new to the sport thanks to climbing in the Olympics of you’ve been reading climbing books and wants to know what else is out there, you’re in the right place.

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Down the Everest Rabbit Hole: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott Reviewed

The Third Pole by Mark Synnott (2021)

I was thrilled that Emily Canders at Penguin Books’ Dutton asked me to review another book by Mark Synnott. I enjoyed reading The Impossible Climb (2018.) But when I saw that Synnott wrote about an expedition to Mount Everest, I worried that he sold out; Everest is for wanna-be mountaineers, not genuine off-grid climbers like Mark, right?

Synnott’s new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest (2021) was released by Dutton on April 14, 2021. It’s title has the feeling of having been used before and bordering on cliche, the subject of Everest is overdone, and yet, having read it, does add something valuable to the conversation about climbing today.

Until The Third Pole, Synnott had embraced mountain adventures that are not in the mainstream and tourist destinations. They were off the beaten path and sometimes truly exploratory in nature. Synnott explored the remote wilds of Baffin Island and wrote a beautiful guidebook about it in 2008. He lead expeditions for The North Face Global Team and National Geographic to remote island peaks and big walls climbers never considered before because they were barricaded by thick jungle. If it had been done, and there wasn’t a compelling new challenge, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. I would not expect Synnott to go to well-trafficked Denali, Mont Blanc, or Everest.

Yet, Everest has a magnetic draw. When Jon Krakauer went to Everest in 1996, that was not his first choice either. Krakauer had climbed off-grid climbs in Alaska. He did big routes and went alone. Everest was on-grid and crowded. Yet, he had an assignment from Outside Magazine and got caught up in the modern endeavor and fervor of climbing Everest and got swept up in history. That year, a major storm struck when many commercial expedition climbers were on the mountain, and many were left unable to return safely if at all. Eight climbers died on May 10, 1996 while trying to summit. Krakauer, as a good journalist, investigated what happened and told the story in his 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air. Synnott went looking for something historic, and he got it, similarly to Krakauer.

I am restraining my criticism about the topic of Synnott’s book, however. This is because what piqued Synnott’s interest in committing to an Everest expedition would have tempted me too: The mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, long before the commercial “expeditions” that have dominated since the 1990s, going back to 100 years ago when Mount Everest was off the grid. For most informed about this episode in Everest history, it’s not much of a mystery in a way; I don’t believe that Mallory or Irvine made it to the top in 1924 as some still like to speculate. Mallory’s body was found on May 1, 1999 on the north face of Mount Everest, but on that visit were actually looking for Irvine. Why were they looking for Irvine? Because Irvine was most likely carrying the Kodak camera and it may hold clues as to what happened to the duo on the first real attempt at the top. It even has the potential of holding a summit photo.

Solving a 100-year old mystery in 2019 involves historical investigation because there is no one to interview, gear to acquire for detective work, comfort, and survival, and physical training and preparations for the hard climbing at altitude just shy of how high jetliners fly. Synnott goes to England to conduct his investigation and gives us a charming lens on Irvine’s 1920s and the 1924 expedition, as well as a contrast to his own in 2019. Many of Irvine’s records are at Merton, where he attended school. Among other things, the Merton Library holds Irvine’s receipts from his preparations, which includes gear and clothing of natural fibers, mostly mailed away, or which he traveled to procure. Synnott comments on the receipts, explaining how they alone are works of art with their hand writing and letterhead. Irvine’s receipts were personal and intimate compared to Synnott’s e-receipts for his equipment mostly ordered impersonally via the Internet.

Synnott traveled to Everest with Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists for his multi-media art on canvas and giant rolls of paper done in the mountains,) who was also the team’s photographer and drone specialist. Drones were one of the modern and special gear used for the detective work. Everest’s North Face, where Irvine’s body was believed to rest, was fairly steep. At high altitude, and without arousing suspicion by other climbing parties or the Chinese officials, conducting a thorough search by a small group of mountaineers was impossible; a drone was partly what made this 2019 search for Irvine possible. Synnott shares an amusing, and hold-your-breath encounter with the Chinese authorities with the team while the drone was illegally flying, and it suddenly ran out of power and started to return to them. 

The support of Sherpas on the mountain, which are so often misunderstood, was discussed at length. They are increasingly less overlooked in climbing stories and are competent and skilled mountaineers in their own right. Many of them came to the work at Everest and other mountains in the Himalaya and Karakorum because the work is lucrative. And the pay is better for more experienced Sherpa, including how many summits they’ve achieved. This presented a challenge for an expedition focused on finding Irvine’s remains below the summit. The Sherpa wanted to reach the top, and climbing without intending to reach the summit was out of the question. Synnott’s telling of his conflict explains how Everest isn’t just the destination of passion for climbers like Mallory and Irvine, but the source of mountaineering Sherpas’ livelihoods and the conditions their family lives.

The book shifts its attention significantly as a major storm strikes. Like Krakauer, Synnott was at Everest during a major catastrophe on the mountain. You may recall the infamous Instagram photograph by Nims Purja showing the long, line of climbers heading up Everest’s south route, which was taken before the weather went foul. Later that day, the jetstream shifted and a blizzard stranded climbers stranded high on the mountain. Eleven people died. Synnott was still in basecamp, watching the other line on the northern route, similar to the one Purja photographed. Synnott followed the event’s aftermath and covered the human stories, including the story of Kamaldeep Kaur, or Kam, whom everyone assumed was lost and dead.

Synnott takes a rumor and makes it a full-blown conspiracy theory about why Irvine’s body wasn’t discovered by his teammates and himself. The story is worth an acknowledgement but I think it may be given too much credence. If some evidence arises that proves it to be true, then that’s what this book will be most remembered for and should be. In the meantime, it should not.

The Third Pole feels like two stories in one. It’s not Synnott’s fault; he went to participate and retell the story of Sandy Irvine and witnessed another Everest tragedy firsthand. In this way, it is a valuable report on the state of the mountain, including the work underway to preserve its history and the commercialization of the challenge to climb a great peak.

I am torn on how I feel about this book; I am as conflicted as the intent of the book as with it’s outcome. It is as if I turned on ESPN for baseball highlights and only got legal analysis about the star football player charged with battery in a domestic dispute. I wanted Sandy Irvine climbing Everest’s Second Step and what I got was a conga line. And yet, everything Synnott said was true. And I have to remind myself that even Everest is what it is. And it is today what it is and has always been: The highest mountain in the world and a great challenge. Although I am deeply interested in human adventure in the mountains, I generally steer clear of Everest to avoid its pettiness and sensational news, but Synnott got me caught up without feeling like I needed a shower.

I was also tempted to recommend that you skip this book and to read it’s precursor by Conrad Anker and David Roberts, The Lost Explorer (1999,) where they actually find the body. But that wouldn’t be fair to you and would leave you lacking some relevant insight on the nuances of a topic most readers don’t get below the surface. Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole is the book for anyone interested in Everest today, even if you don’t want to be interested in Everest like me. I would also say — and this is not on a limb by any extent — that this book is for every climber that despises the on-grid climbing of Everest. Read it and be better for it. 

Thanks again for stopping, especially during my blog sabbatical. I should be back in July with more regular content. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on WordPress or Twitter.