The Climbing Legends of Lancaster County

Access Fund logo redo.

Yesterday I had an appointment with a photographer named Vinny from our local newspaper. We met at one of our Habitat houses. Halfway through walking through the house and taking photos, he says to me, “So are you a climber?” He heard I was a from hearsay.

Turns out Vinny climbed at Safe Harbor in the 90s. Safe Harbor is along the Susquehanna River and in the southwest corner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I had heard of Safe Harbor but hadn’t realized that it was part of the county. It’s a mere thirty minutes from my house.

Vinny said he climbed what he thought was a 5.9 there once. Halfway up it puzzled him. It was hard! He makes the moves, reaches the top and comes down and cleans the route. Another climber complimented him on the 5.11. Vinny said it’s just 5.9. They opened guidebooks; Vinny’s guidebook had a few fewer routes than this guy, and Vinny indeed did climb his first 5.11.

Then he tells me that he saw Eric and Hugh climb there once in a while and that he met them both.

I asked who Eric and Hugh were and explained I am still new to the area and I how I grew up in Buffalo and lived in DC for 15 years. He meant Eric Hörst and Hugh Herr.

I loved Eric Hörst’s books, Training for Climbing and his guidebook to Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. I followed him on Twitter and Facebook for years now. When I moved to Lancaster, it turns out he is the area’s authority on local weather forecasts, based here at Millersville University.

Hugh Herr I just learned about through Chris Kalous and his Enormocast podcast. Shortly after I moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania I unpacked my new lawn mower just delivered, started pushing my lawn mower, and turned up the volume on the Enormocast to listen to episode 148. I actually listed to that episode with Herr twice. But I didn’t know that he was originally from Manheim Township here in Lancaster County.

It just proves the point that the degrees of separation in the climbing community are fewer than most other things in life. Anyway, I am looking forward to hearing some more stories from Vinny next time. We have another impending snow storm coming today so the kids will be home and I still have a bunch of work to hack out. Any concerns; that’s life! Well, and worries are overridden by knowing that there will be snow.

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How to Find the Climbing Books at Your Used Book Sale

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Lionel Terray in the 1952-USA edition of Annapurna.

I get the books my home climbing library needs from online shops like Chessler Books, proper bookstores like Top of the World Books, and used book sales. The used book sales might be a crap shoot, but the victories are consistently the most satisfying.

This month I found my favorite discovery yet: A first-USA edition, of the book-of-the-month club (BOMC) variety, of Annapurna by Maruice Herzog and published by E.P. Dutton in 1952. I love it because it was worthy of a BOMC version and it’s stunning compared to the current paperback edition I bought around 2000, not because it is worth a lot of money, which it’s not. I’m also proud of it because my persistence found it!

The used book sales are my favorite because, well, they’re special events and you have no idea what to expect. You’ll likely walk away empty handed most of the time, but once in a while you will find something worth, well, emailing me about!

By used book sales, I don’t mean used book stores. The used book sales I am talking about are usually once-annual events fundraising for a cause, like the public library. My favorite was the used book sale at Stone Ridge in Bethesda, Maryland, which ended after a 46-year run. It was a huge event and my hunt for climbing books included a search across 40 tables in three gymnasiums. I always came away with something worthwhile, even if it was a duplicate I would give away.

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Hardbound 1952 BOMC edition of Annapurna.

There are four rules I follow for my hunts. These rules are not comprehensive or limiting. They’re just what I do.

  1. Find Charitable Book Sales — I prefer these, not because they support causes, but because they’re annual affairs that collect a lot of books over a year to be sold during just a few blowout days.
  2. Shop on the First Day — The prices are usually the at their peak on the first day but selection will be as good as it gets.
  3. Search in Various Sections — I have not yet been to a used book sale where all the climbing or mountain-related books are in one section. So look everywhere. I start in Sports, and then Travel, followed by Nature, Science, History, and Coffee Table Books.
  4. Have a List — Make a list of books you’ll buy automatically, because you never know. But also keep a list of books you have, especially if you find an old American Alpine Journal. Do you know what issues you already own?

So that first-edition of Annapurna turned up for me because I had already searched through the histories, sports — where I found a paperback by Dee Molenaar, which I also bought — nature, travel, and coffee tables and stopped. My wife called her mother about a book she found and I noticed a science section in the corner I hadn’t noticed earlier. There, standing upright between a book about flowers and a conditioned paperback of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, was Annapurna, blue, hardbound, and elegant.

May you reap what you sow.

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Not All Climbing Books Are About Disasters

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Broken snow. (All rights reserved)

I am grateful for Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider for one big reason. Of course, I think his film Meru was better and more representative of great climbing (and I am biased toward alpine climbing anyway.) Free Solo has given the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience a new reference point for climbing. They understand the risk differently than even before the 60 Minutes piece about Alex Honnold.

But on the flip side of this coin, I can’t tell if this novice climbing audience understands that Alex Honnold’s exploits in Free Solo were still outliers among climbers of the future. Well, they probably do and recognize that Honnold is unique. Well, I guess it won’t help people to continue to mistake El Cap for the biggest big wall in North America (it’s not, in case you were wondering.)

What I appreciate more, for being widely well-known, is Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. It’s also more representative of climbing in general. It was a multi-year project. It required years of honed skills. It was not merely about being an extreme outlier. And thanks to a very slow news cycle after Christmas in 2015, the whole country knew of their climb and heard something about the now infamous boulder problem.

But that’s all mountain films and climbing news. Mountaineering and climbing literature has some challenges, and yet really shouldn’t. The mountaineering and climbing genre has some of the most amazing literature in the world and yet, the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience still hasn’t gotten past the tragedies:  The first book about climbing and mountaineering they often think about is Jon Kraukauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. It is “tell-all” book exploiting the tragedy of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight climbers, mostly guided clients, died.

In fact, when new acquaintances learn about my blog they often tell me about how they read Into Thin Air and how it moved them. I think that’s great. No, I am not being sarcastic; I genuinely do. Good climbing books are powerful and insightful about humanity, what we are capable of doing, and finding dignity despite our weaknesses. However, in all seriousness, if they don’t cite Into Thin Air, it’s one of these titles…

  • The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (1997)
  • The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner (2002)
  • Forever on the Mountain by James Tabor (2007)
  • One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkison (2010)
  • No Way Down by Graham Bowley (2010)
  • The Last Man on the Mountain by Jennifer Jordan (2010)
  • Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall (2014)
  • Surviving Logan by Erik Bjarnason and Cathi Shaw (2016)

And there are still miscategorizations of the climbing disaster genre. Just look at this list from Good Reads.

They know these stories because they heard about the event in the news, or even (gulp) Outside Magazine, and decide to pick it up. Unfortunately, they have only scratched the surface of climbing books.

The majority of climbing books are not about disasters. In fact, I’d argue that a disaster is not the prerequisite for a good or even a great climbing book. I have read what critics have called the best or greatest climbing books and articles and I think the best are biographical or auto-biographical and introspective stories of a climb or a life climbing. A good character, a wild landscape, and a transformational journey — that’s worth reading.

I think you might argue that Into Thin Air did those things, and in some ways it did. But there were better ones. Here are five just off the top of my head (sorry if I repeat these too often):

  • The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (1968)
  • Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald (2017)
  • The Tower by Kelly Cordes (2014)
  • Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe (2018)
  • Beyond the Mountain by Steve House (2009)

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What is International Mountain Day?

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Yosemite panorama. (All rights reserved)

For the longest time, even as a blogger, writing here on TSM and elsewhere about mountains, I didn’t really understand International Mountain Day. My outdoors blogging peers and climbers and hikers never seemed to celebrate it the way dads celebrate Father’s Day or Veterans celebrate and are celebrated on Veterans Day.

In fact, I was a little disappointed after learning what it was, that it was a poor excuse to tell the boss that I was taking the day off to go skiing.

So here are the facts:

Still, I wish International Mountain Day was more of a celebration to encourage people to go outside and appreciate these places. Japan does this on their own national Mountain Day — a bona fide public holiday — on August 11th. What do you think…? Do you think the UN’s goals might actually be better reached that way?

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Who Are You Without Mountains?

If you stop climbing, are you still a climber? Or did you used to climb?

If you start climbing again, you just proved that you’ve always been a climber. Right?

But what happens if you get into climbing, like really into climbing, and life offers to move you to a place without the mountains you love? Will you able be adequately continue to climb? That’s the question Travis is asking. Travis recently read my post When Climbing Does Not Matter and he wrote me in an email. He gave me permission to share this here:

I read your blog post entitled, “when climbing does not matter.” When I read that several years ago you lived in DC, I immediately thought of my own life situation.  I completely agree with you about the situations when, in fact, climbing does not matter. However, I am confronting some life choices at the moment that I feel are going to impede my ability to climb in the foreseeable future…
As of this moment I live near the Cascades, and have been fortunate enough to spend my weekends hiking and my work nights in the climbing gym. Over the last two years that I’ve lived here I’ve been slowly making inroads into the world of serious mountaineering, and am just now at a point where I feel comfortable tackling larger mountains.
I grew up in DC and the thought of ever moving back there is, to be frank, quite depressing. However, due to my career in intellectual property, the regression seems inevitable.
I have a final round interview for a position at a firm in Northern Virginia next week, and thus I am forced to grapple with the idea of not being able to climb anymore (should I actually get the job).
Since I would be remiss to not take this career opportunity, I wanted to ask you: how does one continue to be a serious climber when living on the east coast? And how do you find time with all of your responsibilities (career, family, etc.) to train? Finally, I am worried about de-acclimating to the altitude and failing climbs due to AMS if I’m living at sea level.
–Travis

 

I wished I could just tell Travis that he should stay in among the mountains. It’s an obvious choice to me. But life isn’t that simple.

When I was in Washington, DC for those 15 years, I know I was supposed to be there. I wanted to be involved in government and politics. I wanted to understand partisan differences. I wanted to know facts to leverage to bring clarity. So I worked for a Member of Congress for two of his terms, worked for a national financial trade association during the foreclosure crisis that became the Great Recession, before taking a cut in pay to join an advocacy team at a national nonprofit. And one day, just when Natalie’s and the kids’ needs weren’t being served there any longer, an opportunity came that we could move.

But the whole time I was in Washington, DC I wished I was other places. I called it Peaklessburg when I was upset about it. I dreamed about a policy job in Montpelier, Vermont. I even worked with a national insurance company about becoming an agent in Maine. DC was too sprawling, too crowded, and although nature was around me it was difficult to see between the stacks of concrete, steel, and glass. Mountains, particularly in the northeast that I craved, were too far and too costly to reach on a regular basis.

I have come to terms with the truth that I need several things to be happy, though two of them are somewhat conflicting and finding balance difficult: I need nature and wilderness in large doses, but I also need a job that I am called to do (meaning a job I find a lot of purpose.) Hopefully this isn’t your problem!

On the other hand, the Washington, DC can be manageable. There are frequently enjoyable climbing-related events with like-minded adventurers at both Earth Treks locations and both Sportrock Climbing Centers, the new flagship REI in the city, the Patagonia store in Georgetown, and National Geographic. I often took advantage of those.

Most importantly, if you haven’t seen it, I posted this back in 2016, when I was still in DC and expecting to stay there a long, long time: 10 Ways I Cope With the Big City. While I have some tangible advice, the key question was: What are you without climbing? For that matter, what are we if we take away our favorite activity or hobby? If we can answer that, I think we can make better decisions, even as climbers, hikers, adventurers, athletes, artists, and human beings.

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When Climbing Does Not Matter

Escape route. (All rights reserved)

“Climbing matters” has been part of the tag line for TSM since I started writing it while working in bleak, peakless, Washington, DC eight years ago. By “matters” I have always meant important or significant, as in climbing matters a lot, not a set of topics, or climbing matters to discuss. To me, the tag line has always been a solid values statement. It matters to me, and I hope to share how and why it should matter to you too. But I recently have been asking myself, does it always matter or am I just fooling myself?

The world is mostly made up of nonclimbers. While people say that climbing has reached the mainstream, the feats of great climbers has always been promoted to the nonclimbing world, and climbing is indeed more accessible, but there is still an opt-in clause to climbing. And even then, is Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo going to inspire my nonclimbing film-going friends take up even gym climbing? Maybe it will for some kids.

Life is more than climbing. For me climbing is a lens to see not just mountains but my life. Brandon Leonard in Sixty Meters to Anywhere that climbing centers him. Nick Bullock and Kevin Jorgeson, through separate experiences, both claim climbing changed their lives. And still, there is more to life than climbing. We still go to a job to make money, support a lifestyle, be responsible (at least to some degree, right?), celebrate birthdays, and spend time doing nonclimbing things with people we like to be with.

I recently stumbled back to this brief passage in Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower, by chance. Here, Cordes arrives in Patagonia a year after Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk debolted the Compressor Route:

When I arrived in El Chaltén in January 2013, I had a hard time seeing the outrage over the debolting I had heard and read about. Climbers and trekkers were everywhere, locals were busy dealing with the tourists, and unprecedented spells of good weather had settled over the massif.

Nearly everyone I met was kind and welcoming, despite many being stressed and overworked. One day, I spoke with a year-round resident named Poli. Her observations matched those of most non-climbing locals. She said she doesn’t know anything about climbing — these “nails” [Maestri’s old bolts] everyone was talking about last year were things she couldn’t even identify. Of course she knew about the controversy, everyone did, but to her it didn’t matter. She would never go to Cerro Torre, she said.

If you know about “these nails,” folks knowledgeable about Cerro Torre’s history or that read Cordes’ book, it’s hard not to have an opinion of Cesare Maestri, Hayden Kennedy, and Jason Kruk. They’re either heroes, liars, cheats, or assholes. Maybe a little of each. I think a case could be made that they’re all audacious for different reasons. I personally don’t care if you know about the the Compressor Route and it’s history, though I think it is very interesting and that there is a lot for everybody to glean from it. Overall, I think the drive and cleverness of the men and women of action that made them go to the mountains in the first place is critically important to us being human. Still, I could see why people don’t bother to look into climbing’s stories.

And if you really don’t know about “these nails,” life is busy enough with out them, right? We are all working to support our lifestyle or reaching for the next higher lifestyle. Whether we are poor and trying to earn food, rent, and keep the heat on, or trying to be middle-class buying better food, paying off the mortgage, and saving for a nicer car, everyone is busily keeping up with their life. And it’s hard. We make it hard, especially in Western society, keeping up with a standard of living we have or are pretending to have. Nick Bullock, a mountaineer and author of Echoes: One Climber’s Hard Road to Freedom (2012) and Tides: A Climber’s Voyage (2018), was told the formula for a successful life by his father: You should get a good job that you’ll keep forever for financial security, one day marry, and one day die. I was taught that too, in fact. But it lacks any beauty, inspiration, or soul, doesn’t it?

Even if we take Bullock’s father’s formula as doctrine, we still pause to think about things being easier or better with ease, don’t we? Unless we’ve shut that part of our imagination off. To help us break free of the formula, Bullock found climbing and so did I.

But for a lot of people, that’s not true. To those for whom climbing doesn’t matter, climbing is inconsequential, mere recreation, and, at worst, pure and dangerous frivolity:

  • Climbing does not matter when you’re content.
  • Climbing does matter when you need the world to slow down.
  • Climbing doesn’t matter when your cup runs over with responsibility.
  • Climbing does not matter when change in and around our community seems unrelenting and we cannot keep up.
  • Climbing does not matter when we need food, shelter, and clothing.

The nonclimber’s opinion of it as mere recreation and frivolous doesn’t worry me as much as dismissing climbing as inconsequential. Fortunately, it’s not a climbers-versus-nonclimbers struggle. There are lots of degrees of appreciation. Even Poli doesn’t have to climb to appreciate it; at least she recognizes it as part of her community.

The threshold of appreciating climbing, where it starts to matter, it seems, is acknowledging a restlessness inside us, or that we seek something more than the world where some things do not matter. Maybe what we need to recognize is that we want to matter. Do we matter? Do you?

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