Stop Shopping Take a Break and Go Outside Already

Creeksgiving (All rights reserved)

From now through the December holidays we we will be inundated with marketing and, perhaps, tempted to give in and shop and buy. Gift giving is part of our cultural game, and some of us must, but you should use this December to rethink how you approach things.

Do you remember REI’s move on Black Friday? Close on Black Friday to allow employees and customers to go outdoors and play rather than shop. REI chose to “Opt Outside,” and it encouraged other consumers and retailers to follow their lead. You were supposed to go outside.

Yet we are still getting emails and mailings promoting new products for gifts and ourselves. Including from REI. They come in the name of gift giving and suggest was to improve our kits. And we always need to refresh our clothes since things wear out, which is true. But the whole point of all of it is to help us have suitable clothing and gear for whatever we want to do outside.

But to get what we really want and what we really need for wellness and health, spending money on the latest gear unnecessarily doesn’t solve our predicament. We spend too much time at work, on our devices, and on activities that we fool ourselves are just as important and more important than breathing and moving, especially out among nature.

We consume a lot. Clothes and accessories, toilet paper, paper towels, garbage bags, kitchen gadgets, food, sporting goods, wrapping paper, gifts with loads of packaging, electronics, homes, cars, exercise equipment, games, books, and everyone must replace their single-wall water bottle with a large insulated one, because someone gave us the idea that it was superior, and power tools; don’t forget the power tools. Somewhere among those things we need to use our walks or hike or bike rides and ski runs to connect to what really makes us feel alive.

Daylight is one of our most precious commodities during the winter, and we need the sunshine and the fresh air that comes with it. The pandemic supply chain challenges illustrated how big box and overstocked grocery stores, and instantaneousness of online ordering spoils us. You should take a walk during your lunch break or, with your work-from-home schedule, squeeze in a short hike or trail run.

When you live somewhere flat there is a temptation, in between pilgrimages to the mountains and wilderness, to gear-up. Shopping without purpose but under the guise of preparation, is foolhardy at best. Browsing and researching gear has a purpose, but if it’s a substitute for actually moving about, then you’re doing it wrong.

Things can facilitate our activities, such as a game to spend time with everyone after a meal, or the compass or paper map to not be reliant on AllTrails app on your phone on your next hike. But the point should be doing. Move. Move together. Just take the time to move.

I have been using the same backpack for 12 years now. The pack has outlasted two patches I put on. Natalie knows that I will make a beeline for the backpacks at every outfitter, but I don’t buy a new one because my pack works and hasn’t let me down yet. One day it will. To do so too soon would be wasteful, plus I would rather just take my stuff and go. Don’t overcomplicate this.

Go outside. Your old footwear is just fine. Your daypack will carry your essentials. Have fun. Be well.

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Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan Ward Reviewed

Lights to Guide Me Home by Meghan Ward (2022)

Years ago, I found Meghan Ward on Twitter. She what Natalie and I called a new mom, which is a mother with young kids undergoing the conditioning to competent parent. At the time, Natalie and I were new parents trying to navigate urban living with one then two children. Ward on the other hand, was facing the same challenges, but wherever her travels would take her, her husband Paul Zizka, the photographer, and their two girls.

Meghan Ward wrote a book that gives me all of the backstory of those Tweets and blog posts that gave me some courage during those years, titled Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure and Parenting (2022.) In a podcast about women adventurers by Rocky Mountain Books, Ward explains that she set out to write a travel book that chronicled their adventure, but as she wrote it became increasingly personal and revealed aspects of a traditional mindset that had to be overcome or surpassed to be herself. In the end is the memoir I wanted to read.

Ward takes the reader to Baffin Island, Malta, Everest Base Camp, Hawaii, New Zealand, the Caribbean, and many more places, often with two little ones strapped to her or close nearby. She traveled mostly on a shoestring budget, so these were not all-expense-paid trips to resorts. The transportation challenges, and her commentary of the stress of moving from one place to another (with or without kids,) could overshadow the freedom of travel. For example, they could fly somewhere else because bad weather or the bugs were dominating the experience, but the gamble of traveling somewhere to make flights earlier, let alone get to the airport, was daunting. Add the combination of being sleepless from an infant needing regular feedings, and the trip takes on a whole new level of complications.

After Maya, Ward’s and Paul’s first, was born, they went hiking from a backcountry lodge. There they met some other parents, albeit with older children. One mother said what Natalie and I had heard for years: You can still travel with kids, but it’s not the same. They realized that staying in one place longer and staying in the same time zone, would be helpful. That, and finding coffee as frequently as possible would combat the new-parent sleeplessness.

Ward surprised me by her background. No, not that she grew up in suburban Ottawa and had a Narnia-like woods to explore, but that she grew up a P.K., a Preacher’s Kid in an evangelical Christian community. In that community, children are expected to be good kids (in a neat and clean way reminiscent of Leave it to Beaver, oddly,) seek parent’s approval for big decisions, marry other Christians, and attend church, among other things. I grew up in that environment. Meghan tells how the turning point of her life, to move to the Rockies, explore the world, and meet and marry non-Christian Paul, started when she grew skeptical of some of the miracles described in the Bible.

Freelancing makes Ward’s travel happen. She sells articles and later blogs and writes this book. There is plenty of worthwhile anecdotes about getting content and meeting client’s needs. I feel that Ward’s calling was to showcase the humanity in the world, whether another culture or her own as a mother. So far as I know, this book is significant in that it addresses travel from a new parent’s perspective.

My only complaint about the book is something typical of a travel chronicle; I wasn’t always compelled to read the next chapter. I was confident — and somewhat bored by the idea — that I knew Meghan would go somewhere interesting and come back home. But there wasn’t an objective other than visit destinations and observe. She wasn’t delivering life-saving medicine by crossing a glacier; she was observing people and places to understand herself. I do that too! Reading that alone wasn’t enough for me.

Although I will read a book about a particular destination, say Japan, if I am interested in Japan, I usually don’t read a world traveler’s book about their last decade in various countries. The thing that kept me going was my sincere curiosity about Meghan sorting out her independent self and parenthood9. On the other hand, I think that should be sufficient for you too.

By contrast, I read climbing books because I enjoy the quest for the objective the author or subject undertakes and (mostly) skimming until I reach a longueur where the protagonist is usually in camp, or benighted on a ledge, and thinking about everything with added self-doubt and, usually, realizing how the dream of glory is overrated. Then as they struggle and face challenges how they often untie a mental knot through continuing on the process of climbing. Gritty things can be cathartic.

Lights to Guide Me Home was like a climbing book to me. A climbing book is always about an objective or an ideal in style and pushing yourself to whatever the limit to make it possible. Yet, for the climber, they discover their human frailty in either accomplishing the goal or changing the objective. Meghan climbs life and changes objectives, smartly and willingly. The climbing, or in the case of Lights, the travel, isn’t nearly as enlightening as the human challenges she faces in her relationship with Paul, her parents, and her role as a mother, while navigating life.

Rating: 4/5

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Mountaineering Artifacts and the Banff Grand Prize Winner

Escape from Lucania by David Roberts (2002)

I have two special things to share with you today. Both mountaineering and book related that you don’t want to miss:


Mountaineering literature gives the reader a chance to participate with the story or add a new chapter. After reading about a first ascent, someone may be inspired to do the second and do it in a different style. Another reader might inspect maps and photos and be inspired to visit the place. Anything nonfiction can do this, but adventure stories and mountaineering sagas are loaded with potential Part IIs. Places and locations on Everest and the Eiger take on the status of a historic site. And artifacts, like the compressor Ceasar Maestri left hanging on the side of Cerro Torre, are a evidence of true stories.

It feels like how I felt when I saw a nuclear attack submarine for the first time on a visit to Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. I had recently read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. It was like seeing the genuine starship Enterprise was parked in parking lot at Target. The myth becomes reality.

Which brings me to David Roberts’ book Escape from Lucania (2002) and the detective work of Griffin Post and Luke Copland. The book recounts the 1937 adventure of Bradford Washburn, the photographer, mapmaker, Alaska mountaineering pioneer, and head of the Boston Museum of Science, and Bob Bates in an attempt to climb Mount Lucania in the Yukon Territory. They flew and landed on the glacier but it was clear another landing to get them home would not be possible. They would be hiking out. They made the first ascent of Lucania, took one of the most remarkable summit photos (or at least I think so,) and descended into the wilderness following the waterflow, hunting for food, and keeping dry.

Post read Escape from Lucania and became interested in a particular passage about their gear. Washburn had to pack light to leave the mountain range, so he and Bates left a cache packed with equipment, including Washburn’s 1930s high-end technology cameras. He worked with Copland and enlisted a glaciologist, Dora Medrzycka, PhD, to see where the glacier may have relocated the package, and potentially, strewn its contents.

After a discouraging inital visit and a subsequent ski-in to follow a hunch (my oversimplification) this year, they found the entire cache, including the cameras. You cannread more about their investigation and field work on ABC News site here.

It’s my understanding that there were no photos on the cameras, but perhaps that’s coming in another update.


On Thursday (November 3rd,) the 2022 grand prize winner of the Banff Mountain Literature Competition was named. The category winners, made known prior to the festival, are eligible to be the grand prize winner. The grand prize winner is announced at an in-person reception on the final Thursday of the two-week event.

I had not read all the others so had no real sense of what titles would be in contention. There can easily be several five-out-of-five candidates. I gave Native Air, a novel, by Jonathan Howland that rating and thought it was surprisingly good enough to win-over the judges, even over all the amazing nonfiction that usually wins.

Well, Howland won and deservedly so according to the judges. I reviewed Native Air after it was named a finalist, or a category winner for the grand prize, and recommend you check it out and that you go read the book for yourself. You’ll be better for it!

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Native Air by Jonathan Howland Reviewed

Native Air, a novel, by Jonathan Howland (2022)

The Banff Mountain Literature Competition named Jonathan Howland’s novel Native Air its winner in the poetry and fiction category. Ordinarily I would be celebrating too, but for today, I just don’t care as much. Allow me to explain.

The chatter about Jonathan Howland’s Native Air picked up when it was nominated by the Boardman Tasker Award and made the short list for the Banff Mountain Literature Competition (in Banff’s Fiction and Poetry category) in September. I first heard about his novel when Chris Kalous interviewed Howland on the Enormocast podcast in May. Kalous, a climber, praised the book. Howland said he wasn’t aiming to earn accolades from climbers, adding, “That would be too easy.”

Would it be too easy?

Writing a climbing work of fiction doesn’t mean it will stand up among climbers or that it was significant. By significant I mean cover new ground or a new topic. Among climbing fiction, Rum Doodle was original and a spoof of classic expedition accounts and it was brilliant. I can even chuckle during a re-reading. Peak by Roland Smith is a young adult book that was a great introduction to Everest and professional climbing, and though heartwarming, wasn’t adding anything new. Peak by Eric Sparling was about a demon on K2 and a guided climb, which had a new twist on some climbing lore that makes it worth the read (if you can stomach the gore.) Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman dealt with a theme and is a wonderful conversation starter about loving a place to death.

But what made Smith’s book good and Howland’s novel great was that they both used climbing activities to tell a very human and compelling non-climbing related story. (And arguably Kalman’s was too, but it focused more on the theme of conservation and the story about the protagonist was a means to speak about that topic.) Howland says he aimed for a general audience, or perhaps a literary audience. He didn’t try to appeal to climbers. His theme was grief and his chariot for taking the reading on his tour was rock climbing.

The novel is told from the perspective of character and narrator Joe Holland about his friendship and deep partnership with Pete Hunter, and his relationship with his life partner and wife Nor Rhodes and Pete’s and Nor’s children, particularly Will. When I try to write the summary without spoilers like this it really makes the saga appear to be a dull read. It’s not. Joe and Pete are badasses on the rock from the Adirondacks to South America, but mostly in the Valley and Sierras.

I really enjoyed the contrasting perspectives of climbing in the 1980s outdoors to the early 2000s and climbing gyms. There is a brief but important moment when Joe returns to climbing about ten years after parting ways with Pete for seminary and enters an indoor climbing gym. Howland includes all the things I have thought about transitioning from my own grungy gym in Niagara Falls, NY in the 1990s to transformation of my gym in Alexandria, VA after 2010; I went from insider to stylish and at risk of being a poser looking for the post-send lattes.

I have only two issues with the book. Pete and Nor met during the college years and Nor went on to being an emergency room physician. Nor had been living and being educated in conservative Northeastern schools and yet she kept returning to visit Pete in his dirtbag lifestyle. Perhaps that was actually part of the appeal to her. I was also surprised by how every character, except Astrid, climbs and even Nor replaces Joe on some difficult routes with Pete. It made perfect sense for the story, but that element may have been contrived.

As a more minor criticism, Pete’s speech about the forefathers of climbing around the campfire was wonderfully laced with names climbers and mountain literature book nerds (like me!) recognize. It established Pete’s awareness of his part of climbing’s legacy, but Howland could have skipped it and it would have still been understood. I thought it was a bit awkward.

But by and large, climbers don’t read. They should, but they don’t. But they should read Howland’s Native Air. You should read this novel. Most of all, I read it because I was curious about this decades-long climbing saga Kalous presented on his podcast. Now that I have read Native Air for myself I am going to remember it for the emotional response of overwhelming love and relief that it drew out me. I was overcome by the conclusion and I practically cried. It made me want to hug my wife and kids and celebrate us being together.

Most of all, I loved that it was unashamedly, without interruption to give a technical explanation about how climbing was done (but once on my count) a story around climbing activities and obsession, but a human story that could have been about an obsession over ocean diving. It was brilliantly constructed.

Sometimes you and I learn that a book that just won a best-of award, the conversation abruptly shifts in the excitement of the news. What the author did to write it, and what the author is doing next, rather than what the book did that earned such merit falls far below the fold. For now, and for this review, I don’t care that Howland won, because I want simply encourage you to go read it. It will make you want to go climbing and it will make you a more loving person.

Rating: 5/5

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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.

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 see my posts.) Thanks again and be well!

Moonstone Hero by David Sklar Reviewed

Moonstone Hero by David Sklar (2022)

This book is going to be hard to forget. A publicist reached out over email asking if I would review a novel based on a doctor’s lived experiences on Kilimanjaro and having to make decisions about how far his character would go to save another life. I insightful books and thought this could take me some interesting places as a reader and a climber. It left me a little uncomfortable.

The book is Moonstone Hero, a novel written by David Sklar, and is being released on or around October 25, 2022. The back of the paperback, focuses on the first half of the book, where the lead character Andrew must choose between going with the rest of his party to the mountain’s summit or descending in the dark to save a stranger, when no one else will. However, this is only a snippet of what I read in the novel’s 243 pages. The climb (or descent, really,) is just the start of what turned into a romantic story; Andrew pursues Eve, the girlfriend of Barry, who Andrew attempts to rescue. The back of the book did not give this theme the proper weight.

The story starts in Tanzania in 1974 and follows Andrew’s life starting on the verge of summiting Kilimanjaro, when Barry comes down with a serious case of pulmonary edema. It is dark when Barry’s condition worsens; Barry needs to get down just when the group of climbers and their guide were leaving the camp to make the final push. (Apparently it was unsafe to descend in the dark by not to ascend to the summit.) Andrew, is a medical student, and puts Barry’s condition first. The lead guide, Salaam, insists Andrew and Barry wait until morning when its light and they return from the top, but finally relents to Andrew and his opinion, as a medical student, and allows Andrew to descend with Barry immediately. Andrew is joined by the leader’s younger cousin, Koba. The others press toward the top.

I enjoyed Sklar’s character Koba, but I worry that I may be appreciating some Western stereotypes of African males unnecessarily without knowing the perspectives. Sklar shared his fears, their origin from his mother and songs they sang in school, his work ethic and how that approach to his job was, in part, to keep him save from the white man. He had a back story that seemed, as a reader, to be authentically African. Koba pretended not to understand Andrew or Barry on the descent, because he knew that if he spoke it would encourage more questions, and he was being cautious with these white men, and didn’t want to be hypnotized by them. It’s likely that Andrew wouldn’t have completed this leg of the journey without him, and Koba learned to admire Andrew. Koba’s honorable character helped set Andrew as the stories honorable hero.

From this point, the climbing portion of the story is a descent, and the rest of the story all goes down hill. Andrew saves Barry’s life and while Barry recovers in the hospital, he takes Eve on an out of place beach vacation. I was sincerely curious about where Sklar would go once Barry reached the hospital, but by this conversation I lost interest, but I plodded on to the end to see what surprises the book had.

I think the story has greater potential with some rewriting. The third person omniscient perspective left too few, if any, conceal-and-reveal moments. It limited Andrew and Eve to being one-dimensional. In good stories, you feel like the character or understand their worries, fears, and what excites them, and these things you can see the mistakes they make and how they overcome their flaws to become heroes. For Andrew, he just seemed like a nice guy doing the right thing but not getting what he wanted out of life. There were mentions about how he was longing for or obsessed with Eve, but I never felt or understood why, only that the perspective indicated that it was destiny, without saying explicitly so.

I was also perplexed by various little things that could have been omitted and that didn’t move the story along. Why did I need to know Eve was wearing eyeliner on the day of the ascent to the summit? (For that matter, why was she wearing eyeliner on the day of the ascent to the summit?) There was a lot of detailed discussion about travel details that were too instructional, such as how one would visit someone by flying in and whether they took a bus or train. And when things did move the story along, details were too often revealed in long answers of dialogue, which is how we learned that Eve, even on the mountain, was ready for the beach, because she said, in thinking aloud about whether to go, that she did in fact pack a bathing suit in her bag.

Moonstone Hero is about Andrew finally getting together with Eve. It only marginally covers climbing Kilimanjaro. And the conflict, drama, and ethical issues that were promised about choosing to do the right thing over going to the summit and peer pressure, never gets much deeper than what was said on the back of the book.

The story needed some more challenges and the book description needs to be honest. I also think that the fate of Barry was an opportunity to inject more conflict that might have challenged Andrew more and maybe even the circumstances around he and Eve. Andrew could still be a hero, deal with some greater adversity, and he and Eve could still go off into the sunset.

(Don’t buy this one for the AAC Library, Ms. Sauter, it isn’t relevant.)

Rating: 2/5

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