How Free Soloists Die According to Alex Honnold

The Valley of Light. (All rights reserved)

I just finished my written review of The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott and published by Dutton in March 2019. The “big” review won’t be published until sometime after May 8th. That’s okay. There is plenty of stuff to share that didn’t fit into the 800-word limit.

One thing I had to share from Synnott’s book was how Honnold views the risk of death from free soloing. (Synnott calls this Honnold’s “homegrown statistic.”) According to Honnold, Synnot writes, “no free soloist has ever fallen while pushing his limits.”

Synnott quotes Honnold: “It doesn’t seem to be the way that people die.”

Synnott considered these free soloists from The Impossible Climb:

However, there are two that died free soloing

While this subject was morbid and covered only about a page, the book is still more about life and facing fear and the choices we make.

Go pick up a copy, I definitely recommend it.

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How Books and Magazines About Climbing Changed My Life

The Portal on Transit Road. (All rights reserved)

The other day I was rearranging my bookshelf to put the guidebooks all in one place, the narratives in another, and box up some that I use less frequently. The shelf is stacked from floor to ceiling inter-mixed with an old piton, an old belay device, broken altimeter, thank-you cards from Banff, and the knife from my Uncle Tom. I came across my oldest set of climbing magazines from the early 2000s and two books from the early 1990s. They affected me how they always affect me; a flood of forgotten feelings, including an impulse drop everything to go to the Adirondack Mountains, came over me like a wave.

Later that week, I realized that I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences those climbing magazines and books gave me. It wouldn’t have happened without the arrival of a new bookstore in town.

Although I have been told I watched a lot of television when I was a kid, what I remember most about growing up in my home was my mother, father, and siblings reading. They read the Bible, The Buffalo Evening News (when it was still delivered daily around five p.m.), magazines, Reader’s Digest, books from the library and the bookstore at the mall. I remember reading The Young Astronauts series and how it ; my imagination was strong and while I muddled through the school day, I could always come home to read and then go out into the six-acre woods behind my home to play out exploring the Martian surface. Outside the enchantment around my house, everything seemed lackluster.Moments of Doubt

Everything except for the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, a six-hour drive away that until college, we only made the trip for a week once a year. The breeze on a bald summit, the edge of a flat-water lake, the silence on a trail surrounded by mossy boulders and evergreens, and the remote rock faces were beyond the scope of my imagination. I was awed by it all. One week in the ‘Dacks filled my cup for a whole year.

Around 1998, the sleazy bookshop at the mall was unseated as the great local bookstore. That’s when a Barnes & Noble opened up in my neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. The one at the mall was the place anyone at the mall seemed to hang out who didn’t have money to spend but needed somewhere to go. The loiterers endlessly perusing magazines and trinkets; they rarely entering the two long narrow aisles of books. I visited the American history section mostly, seeking interesting stories of people rising up to do important things.

Until the arrival of Buffalo’s Barnes & Noble, the only climbing book I owned was John Long’s How to Rock Climb: Face Climbing (1992), which I bought at the Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid. I had stumbled, without knowing it, into bouldering on mossy Adirondack glacial “pebbles” the size of pickups and box trucks strewn through the Adirondack High Peaks. No one was there to teach me so I hoped this book would unlock some secrets. It did, by teaching me different foot positions and even introduced me to the technique and joy of slab climbing, which is abundant in the Adirondacks.

R&I #102 Aug/Sept 2000I suddenly had access to publications, like the American Alpine Journal that demonstrated what a serious and detailed group many climbers were, Climbing Magazine, which taught me skills, and Rock & Ice, which had fascinating features about people that appeared to have surrendered themselves over to climbing. I peruse these issues every few years, often when packing or unpacking for a move, like when we went from Alexandria, VA to Lancaster, PA. I still get this urge and sense of suddenly being unsettled, and feel the need to load my backpack with my helmet, put on my boots and drive to the Adirondacks or White Mountains in the dead of night to be there by morning and hit a trail to a peak or a hidden (always hidden) crag.

I also discovered David Roberts’ books in that bookstore. I bought a copy of Moments of Doubt, a collection of his articles. I have two memories strongly associated with finding this book. First, I was laying in bed before going to sleep reading the essay “Five Days on Mount Huntington.” In the introduction to the article, Roberts wrote, “I have never lived through a five-day span or comparable intensity.” I read on, as if I were a silent partner traveling with Roberts and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington, even after Bernd’s mysterious accident that left Roberts alone, high on the mountain, to endure days and nights of storm. My eyes widened, I held the book tightly, and I felt my mostly-dark bedroom was a tent on a snow-blown mountainside that was horrifyingly stormy. Bernd was certainly gone, but Roberts was also certainly aware and the wisdom of his experience was like a candle lit in my dim suburban neighborhood.

Climbing #209, Nov. 2002

The other memory is thinking that I had a treasure. The climbing genre books at 796.522 next to the baseball and hockey books were deep. It wasn’t about breaking sport franchise records, or the final scores, or even changing the world or important things like ending poverty. I have always been into religion and theology and the human experiences of climbers written by climbers were the closest things that I related to and connected with from my experiences in the Adirondacks. They were human, emotional, at times egotistical, often impossible to put into words, and yet more enlightened about life and being alive than I have ever read. I had found literature that wasn’t about insight into the every day, I found people that came from the every day and transcended the every day. They found the mountain high and the peace and clarity that comes from the heights. I felt it before, but I thought it was reserved for church and prayer time and maybe after my mountain vacations, and yet, I found it reading these books by people doing something… seeking something, though they rarely ever said what they were seeking. I connected with them.

And I kept the treasure, the books, and my mountain climbing, a secret for a long, long time. It was too personal, too important, to share. Peakbagging, ice climbing, and bouldering gave me power; today I call it being centered. I didn’t share it, I think, because I  thought that if I shared my love for climbing books and climbing that my secret power would be diminished. I had been bullied and picked in elementary school. In defense, I learned not to bring up things that would make me vulnerable. In Buffalo, I had a fire in me, but I felt like very few people supported keeping it lit and a few wanted me to put it out. I don’t know why, even as I turned 40. When I graduated college, I left for Washington, DC without a job, without a cell phone, a bag with three suits and several neckties, a laptop, my Bible, and a box of climbing books.

R&I November 2000

By 2004, I was established in a job working for my hometown Congressman. One night while watching C-Span from the office, I was emailing the boss with recommendations on how he ought to vote on all of the procedural amendments to an appropriations bill. In between votes, during drawn-out remarks by other members of congress, I was exchanging messages with my former colleague who quit Capitol Hill gig to live and work in Alaska just a few months ago. Because of Moments of Doubt, and egged on by stories in those magazines, I decided I had to go, and now was the time to make a pilgrimage. That summer we saw Denali on the clearest day of the year, took in the Harding Ice Field, and even got thrown out of a bar in Anchorage.

I look at the magazines in the stacks these days and compare it to how I feel looking at a new issue of Climbing or R&I and realize I don’t get that feeling. I don’t feel compelled to participate the same way. I suspect that it’s the level of responsibility I have accepted and embraced since then; I can’t simply pickup and nonchalantly go on some adventure with aplomb like I once did.

Face Climbing by John Long.

While I remember the uncontrollable urge to go climb in the Adirondacks when I look at my old climbing magazines, I also know in the here and now I don’t feel it. I am somewhat content. (I say somewhat, because there are always improvements to be made in life, right?) The weird part is, while I am nostalgic, I don’t even feel like I am disappointed at my contentment. Perhaps because I like where I am. In fact, since Natalie and I had our little Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz I have gone on only short hikes but seen more if not just as much as I did on my 22-mile day treks high above sea level. Sometimes I miss the view and breeze atop the bald summits, yet the interest in the streams, a salamander, or a red fox, and bird watching has been truly magical. While wilderness might be far, nature is all around, and it is more rewarding than I ever realized before.

Now, my hikes with my family and my frequent trips to the climbing at the gym are the things that both center my mind and keep me physically fit. I don’t know where I would be as a partner to Natalie and the kids without either of those activities.

Natalie recently reread the biography of Maria Von Trapp, as in the Sound of Music, which we both read with joy before we had children. She recently reread it and read outloud some portions to me; it felt like we had overlooked entire sections and themes. I suppose our lenses have tinted since then.

I think most literature, but particularly books, is the same way — dynamic. My climbing books can be elastic and strike me in different ways depending where my experience has taken me to open new doors and windows into what the author put on paper. Maybe it’s time I reread some of Moments of Doubt. 

Still, it’s not that way as much with magazines. In looking through that old stack of climbing magazines, I can still see clearly who I was and how much I have changed because of them.

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A Few Feet Short by Jamey Glasnovic

The Himalaya in Glasnovic’s A Few Feet Short.

Before Jamey Glasnovic headed back to Nepal and the Himalayas, this time alone with his bicycle, he wrote what I had started to think:

What of course could be more important than living an adventurous and fulfilling life?

The answer, of course, is work. A dirty, four-letter word if there ever was one… If you grow up in middle class in the Western world, certain expectations become a part of your every-day life, whether you like it or not.

Jamey Glasnovic wrote bout his second visit to Nepal and the Himalayas in his new book A Few Feet Short: An Uncommon Journey to Everest, published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2018. After visiting Nepal several years earlier, Glasnovic had been facing health and life challenges leaving him lost at home adrift among the Western middle-class. Begrudgingly, at first, he packed a few key things, including his bike, and flew to Kathmandu to wander the towns and the hills leading up to the base of tallest mountain in the world.

Glasnovic decided to take this journey right before he turned 46. I turned 40 earlier this week. Although 40 is a milestone, age 45 is the time when many Western middle class men start to face a mid-life crisis. Glasnovic clearly faced one, and I hope to avoid one; Glasnovic’s advice is to slow down and live deliberately, not necessarily conforming to the prescribed path of culture. That’s why Glasnovic went to Nepal. I’m taking notes.

Glasnovic was a bar tender with rising blood pressure heading him down the path toward a stroke or heart attack. His doctor asked him if he had some non-alcoholic beer at the bar. Glasnovic replied that it wouldn’t be as much fun. It just took time to realize he needed a lifestyle change.

Slowly, Glasnovic changed his attitude and agreed: living and living meaningfully were two different things. While he could go “all-guns-a-blazin'” with his friends at the bar or trying to make every day the best day of his life by more and more thrills, to the detriment of his wallet and his health, he decided he needed to do something different.

Nepal took on a practical and romantic meaning for Glasnovic. He appreciated the landscape, the people, and — now — how different it was from his current lifestyle. But in going, going to visit wasn’t enough. He needed a challenge. He needed something to make this life journey a quest. So he wouldn’t just visit the landmarks via car and bus, or even a pied, no, he’d ride his bicycle. He was also certain it hadn’t been done before.

If I didn’t take Glasnovic so seriously, and didn’t empathize with his life changes so much, I would have laughed more early in the book; he was quite funny about his reluctance to actually ride across Nepal. It was cynical. It was also anything but positive. It was funny, but underlying all that it was also sad.

Of course, part of the plan of his journey riding from Kathmandu to Everest base camp was a change of scenery and take a slower pace than back home. As he struggled with the anxiety of the journey, he did have time and procrastination was convenient. But he still had to shift his approach to tell himself to slow down, relax, the town isn’t going anywhere. His bike trek isn’t going anywhere.

After he wandered Kathmandu for several days, visiting the tourist-congested neighborhoods and the lesser known and places the foreigners rarely see, he started pedaling. He took in funeral tradition at river, the likes we never see in the Western world. The deceased are wrapped in colorful cloth, dressed in flowers, and carried on a stretcher to the Bagmati River. There the deceased are burned to ashes in front of the whole family and gathering. It was hardly a private affair; Glasnovic could just stop and watch, meanwhile the traffic along the path by the river simply routed every else around.

The traffic, when it wasn’t merely manic, it was curiously reckless. Many rode motor bikes, and while the drivers wore helmets, well… why don’t the passengers?

As Glasnovic pedeled for days uphill toward Everest, he began to finally appreciate the journey, despite the pain and aches as his body found a new groove. Nepal was poor. Nepalese didn’t have much. Nepalese worked hard. And they were joyful. Perhaps he didn’t want to get too intimate to find out the outlook for the Nepalese, but he’s convinced they had a lesson for someone like him.

Glasnovic argues that Nepal has it hard, but maybe they have a lesson for we Western adventurers and Western middle-class workers, both in our rush to the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, or even to our jobs. Maybe the problem is how we measure everything:

We measure distance in time, not miles or kilometres. Speeding up the experience of travel has changed how we view each trip. Movement becomes about the intervening period to the destination, and the ground covered loses significance. The focus is on being here and getting there, and te details simply pass us in a blur.

I recommend A Few Feet Short. I don’t recommend it because of Glasnovic’s journey, but because he helps open eyes. We ought to be aware of what norms are cultural and pushed on us, not to rebel, but to know what inside and outside us hold us back from being at peace.

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How Do You Follow and Support a SAR Thousands of Miles Away?

Rope team. (All rights reserved)

Since Thursday, February 28th, there has been a search for Danielle Nardi and Tom Ballard on Nanga Parbat. They went missing while attempting a new route up the Mummery Ridge. To date, only a snow-filled tent in an avalanche path around Camp 3, where they were last reported, was found.

It’s hard to know what to do in these situations 7,000 miles away. So I do a lot of things…

I try to follow with interest, hoping their found, perhaps descending a whole other section of the mountain with an incredible story to tell.

I’m also the praying type, so I pray.

Actually, I have more things I try not to do:

I try not to make judgments. (“Oh, they’re gone.”) As long as there is a SAR underway, I try to stay positive. Because, what do I know. I’m not there. It’s on the other side of the earth.

They have friends and family. As Tommy Caldwell says in his book The Push, or Tim Emmet said on the Enormocast recently, only thoughts of how their demise while climbing (or wing-suiting, for Tim) would affect their family gave them serious pause and inched toward heartache. Family lives on and we live with them.

I try not to ignore it. Especially until it is resolved. These things are not trivial current events about a Chinese man-made archipelago or story of a concert on some island. It’s more akin to miner’s stuck in their mine. Except these guys were going for fun, and as professionals, let some of us 7,000-miles away live vicariously.

How do you follow these scenarios? Do they affect you?

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Winter Enchantment and What I Am Reading Now

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What’s on my bed stand March 3, 2019.

Hi, everyone, from a snow covered Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Natalie and I took the kids snowshoeing yesterday. We all looked at these scattered dimples on the snow that looked like little oval shadows scattered across the snow. Droplets of water from melting snow up in the tree branches crashed into those craters. The changing nature of snow from hour to hour is worth pausing for a moment.

Well, I’ve got three things on my bed stand these days:

The Push by Tommy Caldwell (2017) — I am nearing finishing Tommy’s autobiography. (He’s so young, I am sure that there will be a second one day.) The first half answered many questions about Tommy’s life that I followed through bits and pieces in print publications, mostly Climbing magazine, in the early 2000s. He talked about being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan (including the titled push), his marriage with Beth Rodden, and losing his finger. I didn’t realize how early he had been contemplating the route on the Dawn Wall. I’ll do a full review in a few weeks.

Alpinist 65 — Issue 65 just arrived in my mailbox this week. It has an essay by the great David Roberts, art by Sujoy Das, and a feature profile and history of climbing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I only started, but Katie Ives leads off with a fascinating essay that includes a reflection on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. (It reminded me of my early take on the Lion the Witch and Wardrobe; I was drawn to the wintry wonderland of Narnia for the enchanted conditions more than the dramatic saga.) It is on news stands now.

Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul  by Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordan (2011) — I am reading this for myself for my work at Habitat. I don’t go to Starbucks much, especially when there are many great coffee shops in our community, but this book deals with an organization’s core values, and what it means to hold on to them, especially in a crisis. We’ve been revisiting our core values and it has even made me consider what the core values of this blog ought to be.

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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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