What I am Reading Now and Exploring Pennsylvania

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Here is what is on my bedstand for March 2018.

I usually complain that there is never enough time to do everything. I said such things when I worked in Washington, DC and I am saying this in Lancaster, PA too. However, it took moving to Pennsylvania to truly realize that with all of my interests and ambitions, time is my most valuable commodity. Which brought me to ask myself, What is worth my time?

Keeping up with work is important (I enjoy it too, which helps immensely,) and spending time with Natalie, Wunderkind and Schnicklefritz is even more valuable to me. Reading and keeping this blog up, both of which bring me great joy. And so is getting outside on trails, or just and taking in nature in some way, even like through a snow day, like yesterday.

In reading, I am doubling down on my interest in reading the climbing classics. There are lists out there, and I am developing my own list too. But I haven’t read everything yet, so I can’t say my list if ready for prime time; this journey is a long way off. And some books I feel the need to re-read. One day I’ll have a solid list of English language climbing classics to share. For March 2018, this is what is in my weathered orange Patagonia half mass bag:

The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman (1956) — I thought starting with a satire for a chuckle now and then was a good idea. Bowman’s classic certainly does the trick. It particularly helps if you have read any official expedition books, like Tillman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi from the first half or so of the twentieth century; Annapurna, while French, might be the most widely read example. From the characters names to absurdity of the nation of porters required to carry equipment of base camp, it’s like one big inside climbing joke. I took this out through the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library.

The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti (originally published in 1998) — As I said before, Walter Bonatti is one of the greatest climbers of all time. This book I have looked at and read snippets of, but never from beginning to end. So the experience will start next week after I finish rereading Rum Doodle. Robert Marshall translates Bonatti’s words for us, but it is Bonatti himself that recounts his tales of adventure in the Alps, K2, and (what I am particularly interested in) Patagonia.

Alpinist issue 61 — This issue celebrates “Indomitable” Fred Beckey, who passed away last October. Brad Rassler points out that everyone has a story about Beckey, seemingly because we all want to be a part of him. It’s true, even I have one. Also, Eileen Guo takes us mountaineering in Afghanistan, including with a manless climbing school.

50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania 4th Ed. by Tom Thwaites (2001) — Natalie gave this to me for Christmas, among some other gifts, to help us navigate the new landscape around us. We discovered that there is much more to offer in Pennsylvania where we now live in Lancaster County than we even thought when we decided to take a new job and move. In fact, within a 30-minute drive we have a great bouldering destination (and I don’t mean Spooky Nook or RecROC gyms) and a world-class destination for bird watching at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. I think balancing work, my reading ambitions, and family fun with some outdoors time, will pay loads of dividends.

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The 5 Most Interesting Climbing Books from 2017

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Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe.

Maybe this is the only Christmas wish/gift list you’ll need. I have only read one of these books so far, and am in the middle of another at the moment, but background knowledge about the authors alone makes these books genuine curiosities at the very least. At most, these stories might change the way you look at things and might even inspire you.

  • Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe, translatedfrom Japanese by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved, Rocky Mountain Books (Canada 2017) — The writing is directly from Tabei herself, and carefully translated into English to tell, first hand, about her adventures among mountains. She tells the story that brought her to the top of Everest, despite avalanches, her slight frame, and gender. And the language is sensitive and smooth, and doesn’t feel forced, as translations often do. I am looking forward to sharing my full review in January.
  • Karakoram: Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict by Steve Swenson, Mountaineers Books (USA, 2017) — Former American Alpine Club president and alpinist tied to a couple of Piolet d’Or-nominated climbs, Steve Swenson reflects on the best climbing in the world in one of the most challenging bureaucratic environments, which permitted access to only a few. Based on his efforts to penetrate the region for a period spanning decades, Swenson shares what he experienced on and around Gasherbrum IV and K6.
  • The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits by Tommy Caldwell, Viking Books (USA, 2017) — This is Tommy Caldwell’s memoir about how he arose to the challenge to free the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan with Kevin Jorgeson in 2015. The Dawn Wall ascent was well documented live, and much light has been shone on Caldwell since, but this is another and possibly more in-depth look into the character-building events and lessons he has taken in through a very challenging life. Most of us like to believe that he meets the challenge. I’m hoping to read it and glean something I can apply to my own struggles.
  • The Magician’s Glass: Character and Fate: Eight Essays on Climbing and the Mountain Life by Ed Douglas, Vertebrate Publishing (UK, 2017) — If you have read Ed’s work in Alpinist as I have, this book has to be on your list. He combines insight about climbing culture, mountaineering current events, and observations of integrity and flaws into an eloquent and enlightening read. With Katie Ives contributing the foreward, I have no doubt that this book is as good if not better than what we’ve read by him to-date.
  • The Art of Freedom: The Life and Times of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald, Rocky Mountain Books (Canada 2017) — This is the only book on this list that I have finished reading, and it was everything I hoped. Bernadette worked her way into Kurtyka’s circle to produce a work that met his approval, as well as the judges at Banff, Kendall, and Boardman Tasker. For details, check out my review here.

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Alaskan Alpinist Steve Hackett, and Other Notes

Spooky Nook Climbing Gym Boulder

The stand-alone boulder at Spooky Nook, Lancaster County, PA (All rights reserved)

I recently read an article about how expectations can kill relationships — any relationship. For instance, for someone that hasn’t gone backpacking before but wants a romantic stroll into the outdoors to see beauty and feel refreshed might be jolted by the hard work and occasional bad weather. The article recommended that we let observation dictate our vision and judgment rather than our expectations. It’s a little different than just “going with the flow,” because its the essence of adventure; mystery. Don’t try to set expectations, rather let the world tell you the story it has and accept and embrace it for what it is, whatever it is.

This makes me think of Steve Hackett’s great adventure. In 1976, he set off alone to the remote Brooks Range in Alaska’s far north. His objective was Mount Igikpak. It wasn’t grand like Mount Huntington or the Matterhorn; in fact most of the images I’ve seen of it make it look worthy of being overlooked. It had been climbed twice before in no distinctive style; first by a team lead by David Roberts in 1968. Hackett had a bold vision.

Hackett traveled solo by inflatable kayak and on foot to the peak. He went alone, without support, and no bush planes and before helicopters were popular. The summit pyramid presented overhangs on every flank. His limited protection gear forced him to rely on old gear from the previous ascents, which could easily have been deemed stupid or reason to turn around to many other climbers. Despite the danger, he was bold, considered the risk, and went for it, and stood on top.

After returning to the base, he waited for friends to travel together. They never came. He got his inflatable kayak back out and paddled 365 miles in under eight days down the Noatik River.

Where would Hackett have been had he not adapted to the challenges and only allowed expectations to get in his way?

TSM Moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania

I worked in Washington, DC for 15 years and owned a condominium across the Potomac River for 10 of them. For a while I thought I lived in suburbia; in terms of my commute it felt like it, except that area of Northern Virginia, like all of Northern Virginia, is urban. I have been a sham of a suburbanite. Natalie and I once considered renaming this blog The Urban Mountaineer. Well, all that started to change in July when I accepted an unexpected job offer with a Habitat for Humanity in Central Pennsylvania

I am now entrenched in a suburban neighborhood. I bought a house, a second car, a lawn mower, changed the home’s flooring, and painted the bedrooms.

I had never considered living in Lancaster County until the job came along. It’s more than an Amish, rural, or a tourist destination. It is a beautiful diverse community with hard-working farms, hills, and wonderful neighbors. But it’s also one of Pennsylvania’s most urban counties outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And Lancaster County currently hosts two climbing gyms — Lititz recROC and the gym at the Spooky Nook Sports complex.

I feel closer to the earth here, the way I do when I visit Vermont. The small farms in Vermont give visitors intimate access to their work, but also reinforced Aldo Leopold’s notion of community where it’s more than just institutions and people, but land and wildlife too.

My boxes of climbing books, magazines, and maps are all back together. The contents are all on a shelf, though a little disorganized at the moment. I’ve realized that I need those books, not just the Internet, to write this blog. As much as I want to believe reading is reading wherever you find it, my attention to a nuanced story about a climb or a personal struggle can’t be interrupted by text messages or news alerts. My new piece of advice for any reader, if you’re going to read, set aside some time devoted to reading and reading alone. Personally, I like to read after the kids go to sleep and reading in the same room as Natalie in our new home.

I think with things settling down and coming together, the monthly newsletter will finally get off the ground and into your inboxes. Thanks to everyone who have subscribed — and wow, there are a lot of you — you won’t be disappointed.

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Goodbye, Hayden Kennedy

Mountain singe (All rights reserved)

On October 10th, while getting up to speed on a brand-new job, in a new area, and remodeling an old house after 15 years of living and working in Washington, DC, I got a text message from my friend Jason in Alberta who needed to reach out to someone. He wrote “…such devastating news.” After a hasty Internet search, I was nauseous over the news of separate deaths of Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy.

I had just read his essay The Day We Sent Progression on Andrew Bisharat’s Evening Sends. I set aside time to read it, when the kids weren’t running around, I wasn’t lost in work or chores getting our lives in our new home in order. It involved Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin. Two more climbers that died too young. Hayden even acknowledged such in the essay, and now Chris Kalous is all that is left of that group.

Hayden’s father, Micheal, is one of America’s greatest climbers and he’s a talented writer. He also lead Alpinist Magazine for a period while it got itself back on good financial standing. In 2012, after Hayden and his climbing partner Jason Kruk knocked the ladder off of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route, Michael wrote a public letter to Hayden. There, in the pages of Alpinist, an old man admired his son and shared his angst over being the father of a climber like Hayden. While Hayden wrote many great essays and articles, I think that letter from Michael is what is required reading in reflecting on Hayden’s wonderful, yet all-too-short life.

Hayden left his mark on the climbing world. I’m sorry he had to go and I send warm thoughts and prayers to Michael and his mother and the Perkins family.

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Award-Winning Author Bernadette McDonald Writes Her Most Significant Book Yet with Art of Freedom

The cover of Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald with Voytek Kurtyka on Lhotse 1974.

The newest great climbing book to be released is Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voyek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald and published by Rock Mountain Books (CA and USA) and Vertebrate Publishing (UK). I read it and I think it’s going to have more longevity in readership than even her previous award winning books.

By now, I hope that you are somewhat familiar with Voytek Kurtyka. It’s okay if you’re not. I didn’t know who he was though I associated his name with Robert Schauer’s whenever anyone mentioned the legendary first and only ascent of the West Face, or Shining Wall, of Gasherbrum IV, but I knew so little about him he didn’t yet stand out. McDonald’s award winning book Freedom Climbers (2011) told us more about Kurtyka than any other English language source to-date, to the best of my knowledge. While Freedom Climbers was about many, but certainly not all, of the great Polish climbers of the 1970s and 1980s, including Wanda Rutkiewicz, Krzysztof Weilicki, and Jurek Kukuczka, was clearly evident that Kurtyka was a gifted star of his generation, and possibly of all time.

However, Kurtyka diligently sought to keep his ego at bay. He was repulsed by his own fame, which made him quite mysterious, and not just to an American like me but even young Polish climbers in the 1990s weren’t aware of his remarkable alpine climbs in the Himalayas; they thought Kurtyka, who was then in his 40s, was merely a talented rock climber (Art of Freedom 257). What was to glean about Kurtyka, if one knew to inquire, came from stories from older climbers, which I’m sure sounded partly like tall tales of mountain adventure. Documenting his exploits were easy; they were in alpine journals, and Kurtyka even wrote short pieces periodically. Piecing together his approach, accomplishments, the source of his vision and joy, however was left like a loose mosaic that had fallen to the floor. Kurtyka didn’t mind, because he knew who he was. McDonald, over years pieced the mosaic back together, and it’s the Art of Freedom.

McDonald may have been among the actors gently nudging, without coordination, Kurtyka to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Piolet d’Or. Kurtyka respectfully, but emphatically, declined at each attempt not only because of his avoidance of the spotlight, but his values. McDonald, starting with Freedom Climbers, and then with the interview in Alpinist, earned Kurtyka’s trust. She interviewed Kurtyka in Alpinist 43, which provided readers with a more personally revealing look at how Kurtyka approached his climbs and life. It didn’t completely answer my questions about him though; rather, it gave me insight I didn’t have and yet more questions. Art of Freedom answers my inquiries, and yet I am still mesmerized by Voytek Kurtyka.

Tribute to Voytek Kurtyka. (All rights reserved)

Art of Freedom Answers Four Key Questions

As McDonald makes clearly evident, Voytek Kurtyka was extremely self-disciplined and still wildly passionate. He was also intensely self-aware of both traits, and he understood that if his ego was fanned, whether it was his climbing accomplishments or his knowledge of plants, he could harm his psyche and his beautiful qualities. So in opening up to McDonald was perhaps her greatest accomplishment. The next was how she took his stories, and the historical input from documents and first-hand stories of friends and colleagues to show, not just tell, who Kurtyka was.

Before the I started the reviewing the book, I had four personal questions that I wanted answered:

  1. How did he become such a remarkable and humble alpinist?
  2. How did he develop his spiritual sense?
  3. What did he do to make a living?
  4. Was he truly as beautiful as a person on the inside as I imagined and wanted him to be?

Let me share a little of what I learned without spoiling the reading experience:

How Did He Become Such a Remarkable and Humble Alpinist?

Kurtyka came to climbing relatively late, in his early 20s and found a satisfaction in connecting with nature, which he was deprived of in his urban home. He was unconventional and rebellious, perhaps by nature. He rarely did things the way everyone else suggested; in climbing he was an original. In Poland, climbing was something that was heavily regulated through the climbing clubs. It had in place a strict regime of course work and advancement toward harder and longer climbs, as well as places authorized and unauthorized to climb. Kurtyka skirted all of them. He learned to climb from friends, climbed wherever he wanted (including being stopped by the police), and climbed solo often.

This approach to climbing in Poland’s Tatras carried with him and was refined when he was invited to climbs in Afghanistan and the Himalaya. He learned that climbing siege style, even with Reinhold Messner himself, was in conflict with who he was as a person and a climber. After some trial and error (i.e. life experience,) Kurtyka found that what mattered wasn’t even the summit to him, but the shape of the line he was attempting.

As for humility, he forced that upon himself. McDonald presents enough information and stories that we could perhaps argue another perspective. Shoot me an email after you read it if you have one; I’d like to hear your take.

How Did He Develop His Spiritual Sense?

This answer starts with his father. Kurtyka’s father was writer Henryk Worcell. Moving to Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city was stimulating for Worcell to be around other artists, but stifling for Kurtyka who longed for nature. This was all the more true as Worcell was both a religious man and a drinker; the drinking often disrupted the whole house, including his two brothers and mother Antonina Moszkowska. Bernadette explains that during those early years, Voytek rejected “the basic tenants” of Christianity, that his father subscribed to, yet he still experienced spiritual moments when he did visit churches, in nature, and when he climbed in the mountains. Bernadette said that Kurtyka made connections with places that “reached far beyond his intellect” (21)

While not everyone he climbed with experienced the same feelings Kurtyka did on his climbs, but everyone he climbed with would probably agree that he was in tune with something intangible and part of it might have been that he was simply open to it? Take for example what McDonald describes the “most ethereal experiences of his entire career as an alpinist” during his traverse of Broad Peak. Kurtyka felt “confidence, trust and a sense of unity with space and light.” Kurtyka likened it to a delirium. But Kurtyka didn’t want to let go of it, so he relished in it and paced on a col, not wanting to go into the tent (158).

While Kurtyka may have been open to such experiences, he also found them routinely in climbing. His climbing clearly fueled his sense of peace. I’m not sure, but I got the feeling that he believed his ego could squash these memories of these feelings; perhaps as long as he respected that the feelings of confidence and such were not his, that he did not deserve them, he could hold on to them.

What Did He Do to Make a Living?

I understood from Freedom Climbers that many of the Polish climbers smuggled in foreign goods from their travels during their expeditions, but I wasn’t sure what that meant in practical terms. Kurtyka was living under communist rule; so what did he allege he did to authorities? What was involved in the smuggling? What did he trade? How well, financially, did this put Kurtyka?

McDonald gives a much more detailed understanding of Kurtyka’s business operations and all of their tedium, adventure, and misadventure. First, Kurtyka would smuggle alcohol into Pakistan where it was only sold on a black market. He’d meticulously pack barrels of expedition gear and strategically place his commodity. He’d pray that even if they were opened the alcohol would go unnoticed. He also played with the guards in unexpected ways but boldly opening the containers and showing the inspectors the contents and swapping a barrel with the alcohol with one that did not. Once in, he would sell or trade his goods for items that were demand in Poland. Later, he expanded to selling goods, such as fashionable sheepskin coats, in France, and chewing gum in Russia. On at least one occasion, he floated barrels down a river back into Poland to enter undetected, holding on to them for the entire journey.

The business was good and he only had to do business twice a year to support himself and his climbing. Kurtyka’s friends vouched for him as an employee at a job he never did. Today, he is still an importer and exporter, though probably under more legal conditions.

Was He Truly as Beautiful as a Person on the Inside as I Imagined and Wanted Him to be?

For me, Kurtyka has been almost a mythical figure, both for his climbing accomplishments and his connection to nature and spirit. He may not be as mysterious after reading the book, but I think he is no less intriguing, which is why I plan to read Art of Freedom again shortly when I vacation in Vermont. There is a lot to take in, from his ascent up the Cyclotron, re-reading about Shining Wall, and his rock climbing soloing in the 1990s.

I highly recommend this book. Buy it now and read it. Put it on your Christmas list for your friends. Perhaps give it to your budding climber or your student graduating high school or college next spring. McDonald crafted a significant biography of Voytek Kurtyka that has enough lessons of success, failure, and maintaining joy through it all that goes beyond climbing and can apply to how we can all live our lives. Kurtyka would likely discourage any of us from emulating him, but I think he would encourage us to be confident in our self identities and to seek beauty in others and around our world and guard it.

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What I am Reading Now and the Art of Freedom

My current reading list (All rights reserved)

I haven’t updated you about what I have been reading in a while, so this post is long overdue. I have a Goodreads account you can follow, but I usually keep this blog more up to date better than that website. Besides, between what’s happening in housing policy in Washington, DC and around the country (my day job), what’s going on with Bears Ears and the other National Monuments (my volunteer hours), and keeping up with Natalie and the kids (my favorite “job”), it’s a wonder that I have been reading anything. Well, I guess I cut out drawing to read, didn’t I?

This is what I have picking up from my narrow white bed stand and packing in my briefcase for my commutes during these last two or so months:

  • Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Land by Lauret Savoy — Katie Ives recommended this book to several of her friends, and somehow I was fortunate enough to be included in that note. Trace is artfully written and complex, and has made me more sensitive to historical perspective. Savoy reviews how our human existence has been shaped by place and race as much as history and experience, perhaps more. As a person who grew up with some privilege, it’s been another treatment of self awareness and even a little therapeutic.
  • Alpinist 58 — This issue celebrates the late Royal Robbins, but also includes a tale of a mysterious cairn and personal stories. I particularly enjoyed “Paradigm Shift” about women that climb and how they are at the upper reaches of trad climbing’s known limits.
  • A Peakbagger’s Guide to the Canadian Rockies: North by Ben Nearingburg and Eric Coulthard — I like guidebooks. I just do. And this one covers ground that’s just stunning and accessible to the committed. Nearingburg and Coulthard combine easy descriptions and beautiful colored photographs to direct you where to go around the Columbia Icefield and skywards.

I am also reading Bernadette McDonald’s forthcoming book, The Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka. Rocky Mountain Books release it for purchase at the beginning of August. I’ll have my review for you to read at the end of July.

By the way, the next issue of Alpinist (59) will include a Local Hero piece, a tribute to a dear friend, by me; the subject is a secret. It will be on newsstands in September. I also hear that my friend and Alaskan pioneer, Clint Helander, will have an article about his recent first ascent of Mount Huntington’s South Ridge. Look it up!

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