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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Edward Whymper and Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Standing alone. (All rights reserved)

While the literature from the 1900s to the present is rich with mountaineering content, I once assumed that everything from the 1800s all read like something long winded by George Eliot with pages turning over without a period or other final punctuation mark. Then someone in a group of climbing book collectors that I used to belong remarked that Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper (1871) was surprisingly very readable. Well, I regret that I didn’t read it sooner.

Scrambles seems to have been the quintessential adventure book for budding mountaineers before Maurice Herzog wrote Annapurna. After reading Scrambles I couldn’t understand why it was out of print; it ought to be like those classics whose copyright long expired and every book publisher knows someone will buy if the edition looks handsome enough.

Of course, there’s a trend, supposedly, where people claim to have read things that they never have read and have no intention of ever reading. This is one book, I suspect, people have lied about reading. With all of the secondary sources and authorities citing it, it’s easy to feel like you read it because you’ve gleaned something from other people’s Cliffs Notes, right? Scrambles contains classic stories that have been retold by Robert MacFarlane and David Roberts, just to name just two other modern storytellers. But if you want to be credible on the subject, this book must be on your reading list.

Scrambles Amongst the Alps. (All rights reserved)

Edward Whymper was an English tradesman making a living as an illustrator and engraver, who managed to have the means to travel to Europe and take-in the wonders of the Alps. He visits obscure towns, seeks out guides, makes first ascents, and is party to and witness to the first attempts on the mighty Matterhorn, including the tragic fall. The ascent of the Matterhorn isn’t quite what Annapurna is in terms of dramatics, however, the travelogue nature of Scrambles puts it in a different category altogether. Whymper is surprisingly conversational and an excitable geek, spending a whole chapter on a train through the Alps and the engineering of tunnels. (His enjoyment of the technical, particularly around the Fell Railway and the great tunnel drilled down to hand drawn illustrations of the train’s brakes and sentences like, “This greatly diminishes the up-and-down motion, and renders oscillation almost impossible.” (I skimmed this chapter, as I read it primarily for the climbing.) He also offers readers recommendations on where to stay the night and places to be avoid, because, as he might say it tersely today, the hosts don’t know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

One sequence I found particularly amusing was when Whymper was climbing Mount Pelvoux. His guide, Old Sémiond, claimed to have been to the top before and knew the way. Instead, they spent an extra night on the wrong part of the mountain and Old Sémiond continued to insist he knew the way, even redirecting the party to avoid the ice, which he had “a strong objection to.” Whymper became his own indefatigable guide, knowing much more by instinct than his hired help.

Whymper’s attitude and language throughout the book is candid and fascinated by the unique (which is still unique today, interestingly, ranging from history of the region to the challenges of climbing,) and at times a little cheeky. While the titles of the chapter, not unlike the title of the book, are matter-of-fact and bland, yet the prose is surprisingly frank, laying judgments about history, terrain, and the company around him.

Crossing a bergschrund. (All rights reserved)

Scrambles tells Edward Whymper’s journey through the Alps and the people and challenges along the way in climbing them, as Whymper goes about peak bagging. The great fall on the East Face of the Matterhorn, after the first ascent, however, does not disappoint. And he does more than an adequate job of showing the reader what it felt like to watch his teammates fall 4,000 feet to the glacier. They paused, unable to move, for fear their steps could repeat the same horrible missteps to the bottom. His final advice to his readers may be applied to life, as well as mountain adventures: “Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper one of the most charming books I’ve read. It is a combination of period-travelogue and a first-hand account of early climbing in the Alps that cannot be supplemented by secondary sources. It is available through Top of the World Books, the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall Mountaineering Library (members of the AAC get books shipped for free,) online, and, if you’re lucky, some old dusty copy might even be at your local library.

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Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

So I hear that you’re moving to Canada. That’s great! (And I understand that you are dismayed at prospects of the impending Trump administration.) So I jotted down some quick recommendations for you on your move.

If you move to PEI, be sure to live near Charlottetown and go have a Gahan beer, but be careful with those sandy cliffs. If your French is up to snuff, you won’t feel like an outsider in Quebec, and there is excellent water ice north of Montreal. If you’re heading to Toronto, there is some modest climbing in Ontario — oh, and you’ll have to get used to buying milk in a bag. British Columbia is diverse and insanely beautiful.

But Alberta… ah… Alberta. That’s where you should go. Settle into Calgary or even Edmonton for a “real job” with lots of benefits and paid vacation time, embrace a hockey team, and drive to the Rockies (the real ones) in a couple of hours. There is ice climbing and several amazingly well developed sport and trad climbing areas throughout the Bow Valley.

Never heard of the Bow Valley you say? Well, have you heard of Lake Louise, Canmore, or Banff? That’s the neighborhood.

So once you have your visa or immigration papers, you’ll need just two books: 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies by Bill Corbett, which I recently reviewed, and Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies by John Martin and Jon Jones. Both have been updated with new editions in full color this year.

When the Weather is Warm

Now, let me tell you about Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies...

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There are other guidebooks for the area, but this one has been updated most frequently and most recently. In October 2016 the 7th Edition was published. It also covers the biggest territory; not only Banff National Park of Bow Valley, but that and more in the neighboring and contiguous valleys. In total, it covers over 2,300 routes including climbs in Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise, Kananaskis Country, and the Ghost River region.

It’s a genuine techincal guide to the region and the routes. Most of the content are illustrated through topos, rather than photos. There is a reason for this and some practical benefits: First, the valleys are narrow and portions are blocked by other nearby features. Properly descriptive photos are broadly impossible, however, there are photos wherever they were practical.

Secondly, with the majority of the images in topos, the guide lets you see in clear terms what might not appear in a photo, such as belay stations, or a chimney that might only be viewed as a shadow. The minimal descriptions in prose make these maps something to get lost in just in planning.

Martin and Jones have updated the guidebook with this 7th Edition to account for the radical changes brought on by the 2013 rain-on-snow floods. Some routes start lower, due to excessive erosion, while others are starting much higher because of deposited rock and soil. This has complicated some approaches and the start of some climbs. The authors recommend a long stick clipper in these areas, which the guidebook points out.

It’s a beautiful guidebook whether you’re moving to Canada permanently  just visiting, or live in the area. Regardless who you wanted to win America’s 2016 presidential election, you can forget all about it here in the corners of the Bow Valley.

Appreciative Note

I also want to thank my good friends in Alberta, Joanna and Jason, who separately extended an invitation to Natalie, the kids and I if we had to flee the states after the election. (And they offered way back in the summer before election day; that makes some good friends!) We appreciated the offer, but Natalie and I decided to stay; the American crags, parkland, and climate needs more voices to weigh in loudly here.

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The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition

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Bill Corbett’s latest book. (Szalay, All rights reserved)

Until now, Jonathan Waterman’s High Alaska was only practical climbing guidebook that I would consider suitable for a long flight or for pleasureful beach reading. It told the first ascent stories, as well as the technical aspects of the routes, of the Alaska Ranges’ three most significant peaks, Denali, Beguya, and Sultana. But Bill Corbett updated his earlier guidebook of the Rockies with a new edition. It’s exquisite and practical.

Corbett’s The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition is rich with the history and stories of the climbers that made the first ascents. With Rocky Mountain Books, Corbett produced a beautifully illustrated book with the maps required of a top-notch guide, with well-chosen color photographs of the mountains, and insightful commentaries that goes well beyond the route.

Steep

Mark Twight, with his terse ways, said that if you have to train in North America for high altitude climbing and the hardest climbs elsewhere in the world, you must train in the Canadian Rockies.In fact, when I was a boy, it was Twight’s elitist assessment of North American climbing, in general, that made the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies stand out in high relief. The Canadian Rockies are not the tallest, but they were cold and were begrudgingly steep.

Corbett’s book doesn’t attempt to make a claim of the Canadian Rockies like Twight’s, but he illustrates over and over again how unique these mountains are, and perhaps more technically challenging than many other mountains throughout the continent. It certainly lends fodder to Twight’s point.

By comparison, Corbett compares the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies to the 14,o00ers of the Colorado Rockies. Here’s my paraphrase: While Colorado’s are sloped, requiring some advanced upward relentless hiking, the northern high peaks of the Rocky Mountains were cut by receding glaciers leaving great walls and exposed alpine ridges, demanding technical skills, equipment, and more courage. Corbett also observed that the guy that “ran up” all of the Colorado Rockies in 2015 was a mere 10 days. Meanwhile, the speed record for climbing all of the 11,000ers “is more than seven years,” and only 11 climbers have completed the circuit.

A Quest for a Lifetime

The new edition lays out a plan for adventure, similar to the heralded Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Steve Roper and Allen Steck (1979), but seemingly more stirring to the imagination.

Corbett updated the book, in part, because the list of 11,000ers have changed, at least at the bottom of the list. I learned a great deal, without getting stumped with mysterious technical terms, about why this is and why the highest mountains are undisputed. In fact, the story of the initial and successive measurements were part of a good introduction (and perhaps the beginning of the allure of these mountains, if you’re familiar with the legends of Mounts Hooker and Brown.) In the end, the “original” list of 50 peaks at or over 11,000 ft. (3,353 m.), has expanded to 54. In fact, there are 13 on the fringe based on modern measurements, with Mounts Murchison (10,997 ft.) and Cromwell (10,994 ft.) in the zone for error.

The book lays out the challenge of each peak first with a color photo of the objective and Corbett’s own commentary of climbing the mountain, which is particularly useful, as he might share that waiting for the route, like those on Mount Alberta 11,873 ft. (3,619 m.), to come into shape requires patience. Next Corbett shares the unique history of the mountain’s earliest and most important ascents. He closes each passage on these mountains, which can go on for several enjoyable pages, to the route, including the approach, and some details about how much time one might expect to take in decent conditions.

Like High Alaska, you do not have to be planning an expedition to the Canadian Rockies to enjoy this book if you love mountains, adventure, and have some interest in climbing them. In fact, I imagine one day when my children are bit older, I would come home from work and things would be quiet. I would find one of them having discovered this book, drawn in first by the photos, and now reading about Conrad Kain, Don Forest, and Nancy Hensen. If nothing else, they might get a sense of adventure and the sense of being committed to a long, big, rewarding endeavor.

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‘Alpine Warriors’ by Bernadette McDonald

 

Alpine_WarriorsBy 1979, the summit of Mount Everest had been reached by every major ridge, yet a large expedition from Yugoslavia arrived to top their last achievement of making the first ascent of Makalu South Face. The West Ridge of Everest was a long unconventional line to the top. It was first climbed by the Americans in 1963, and is still well celebrated in the United States today. Except the Americans climbed only the upper half. The Yugoslavians came to traverse it all starting at the base, low in the Lho La pass.

Like many national expeditions in those days, it was huge. It included 25 Yugoslavian mountaineers, 19 Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen boys, two mail runners, 700 porters and 18 tons of gear. The ascent had to overcome a steep and severe gap, which required a winch to overcome so it was possible to haul the gear over the broken portion of the ridge. All efforts and ingenuity combined, the Yugoslavians positioned three Slovenian climbers at Camp V who were close to each other, Nejc Zaplotnik, Andrej Stremfelj, and Andrej’s brother, Marko Stremfelj.

Shortly after starting out from Camp V, however, Marko’s oxygen apparatus malfunctioned. After some jostling with the regulator, Marko was forced to turn around. Andrej was conflicted  and frustrated about ascending without his brother; it was so unjust. Andrej went on with Nejc, but they weren’t free of issues, however; both their equipment failed and only Nejc had enough tanked air to get him to the top. Andrej said he’d go on and as high as long as he could.

The summit was far, and the day was getting late. Nejc was determined to reach to top on this push, so he steeled himself mentally for a cold, dark high-altitude bivouac, which likely meant losing toes, fingers or limbs to frostbite and possibly death. Except when they radioed base camp, they realized that it wasn’t as late as they had thought; they still had plenty of daylight ahead. Buoyed, they plodded upward. But upon reaching the Chinese tripod on the summit, elated, the question was daunting: We can’t go down the way we came, so what the heck do we do now?

This was a mere moment of one of the dozen-and-a-half stories Bernadette McDonald retells with prose sometimes bordering on poetry and with the courage to cuss when the tension required it in her latest award winning book, Alpine Warriors (2015).

Writing from the Top

Bernadette McDonald has been in a unique position to uncover some of the hidden stories among European climbing communities. She oversaw mountain culture programs, including the Mountain Film and Book Festival, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and she has published (or edited) over eight books. Perhaps most notably Tomaz Humar (2008) and Freedom Climbers (2011), both of which won the grand prize in the Banff Mountain Book Competition when they were written.

The best climbing and mountaineering literature doesn’t just list the characters, the route, and the accomplishments, but tells a non-climbing story through the challenge of the climb. McDonald has done this with biographies, and in Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors she talks about a national story of a people (the Poles and the Slovenes, respectively.)

Surge of Himalayan Ascents

I spoke briefly with McDonald after she won at Banff in November, but before I started to read it. So I knew premise of the book and that it was similar to Freedom Climbers, in that it was a national history of climbing. But she emphasized that it was about the Slovenian accomplishments in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t understand why that was so significant until halfway through the book. She sums it best at the start of Chapter 12:

Although Yugoslavian climbers entered the Himalayan arena late, the international climbing community was stunned by their accomplishments on Makalu and Everest and awed by their near successes on the South Faces of Dhuahlagiri and Lhotse. There were many more: Kangbachen, Trisol, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gaurishankar South Summit, Annapurna, Gangapurna, Yalung Kang, Ama Dablam, Lhotse Shar — the list of ascents went on and on. As their triumphs accumulated, confidence grew. So did national pride.

Alpine Warriors tells a story about Yugoslavia after World War II and the dozen-and-a-half alpinists from Slovenia that changed Himalayan climbing. These climbers were from a war torn country, with religious, political, and ethnic fragmentation reduced to poverty. These conditions, arguably, and combined with the location near the Tatras, produced a hardened group and several leaders that brought these hardened men to the Himalayas, not in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when the 8,000-meter peaks were being climbed by their major ridges, but later, when the new challenges had to be spotted and seized before anybody else.

To name a few of the great alpinists McDonald writes about, Ales Kunaver was the leading visionary and teacher, Nejc Zaplotnik was their spokesperson and spiritual leader, and Francek Knez is the quiet outsider that climbed big walls with a grace and ferociousness the likeness no one has ever seen. These three alone are worth an English-language biography.

Lots of Competition in 2015

It was a difficult field for any mountaineering book competition, in 2015, whether it was Banff, the Boardman Tasker, or the American Alpine ClubBernadette_McDonald Award in Literature. Alpine Warriors was up against Kelly Cordes’ The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, and John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger, just to name a few. Of course, it helps when you have a good story to tell, which all of them do, but these folks can all write.

I’m not privy to what the judges at Banff discussed (I wasn’t even one of the book category pre-readers), but I know from reading Cordes’ and Blanchard’s books, McDonald might have had her closest competition yet. They all had the ability to make their prose dance like poetry, but McDonald had the touch and a perspective. She didn’t just tell a story about a life. She didn’t just tell about the lives that came to a temple. She told the story of a people through the lens of climbing.

Reading Alpine Warriors I learned more about Yugoslovians and Slovenians than I was taught in 20th Century European Politics and Soviet History in college. I read about 20 or so mini-biographies about Slovenian alpinists in Alpine Warriors. I learned about Nejc Zaplotnik’s Slovenian classic book, Pot, which means “the path” or “the way”, and I read the first passages translated and widely distributed in English, thanks to McDonalds’ painstaking work over the phone with an interpreter. It opened my world to a people and an experience that is unique and was previously hidden from me.

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‘The Ghosts of K2’ Adds Twists to the Early K2 Saga

While the early attempts on K2 up until the first ascent has been told in whole and in part many times, I thought that there was enough heroism and controversy to keep people speculating. I also thought nothing could justify a new book. After all, climbers and armchair mountaineers could argue the merits of whether Fritz Wiessner’s leadership on the 1939 attempt and whether it was he or his team alone that lead to stranding Dudley Wolfe high on the mountain for dead.

Then there is the oxygen tank-controversy of the 1954 first ascent. The tanks allegedly ran out well before the summit, but was it from a fluke in the primitive apparatus or part of a conspiracy and a deadly effort to compete against their fellow climbers, which also lead Walter Bonatti to spend an extremely cold night exposed without shelter on the steep flank of K2?

Mick Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of Everest (1999) and the documentary filmmaker, was in a unique position to share two fascinating and new pieces of information that only recently became available that makes us reconsider the controversies and the characters involved, through his new book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent (2015).

Ghosts of K2 Cover

The Climbers’ Perspective

In addition to the new twists The Ghosts of K2 offers, Conefrey gives readers the nearest thing that I have read to an objective re-telling to the expeditions. Conefrey covers seven expeditions, from 1890 through 1954, by telling the story about what happened from the perspective of the expedition climbers that puts the reader in the moment. (Albeit, the 1890 attempt of Roberto Lerco was only a paragraph long, which is all the information available on that mysterious adventure.)

To some degree the book is a rehash of existing literature, so it could feel like a redundant read if you have covered any number of other books, including ones by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, or Jennifer Jordan, except Conefrey applies hindsight and the insight of “revisionist history” judiciously and tactfully, which allows for two things:

  1. Gives the reader the feel for the expedition’s challenges as they were during the attempt; and
  2. Allows the facts as they were reported by individual climbers to mount so the controversies and biases can mount before he demonstrates how differently we can look at things.

The Ghosts of K2 tells the tales that make up the saga of K2’s firsts attempts through the lens of a documentary film director; we witness Oscar Eckenstein, Aleister Crowley, and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902, the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909, Charlie Houston and his star studded crew in 1938, Fritz Wiessner and his rag tag bunch in 1939, Charlie Houston and his “brothers” again in 1953, and, finally, Ardito Desio’s successful all-Italian expedition in 1954. Conefrey made an award winning documentary, by the same title as the book, in 2001 that appears to have laid the track for this cog railway; the documentary was historical and matter-of-fact with a wonderful narrator that gives a suspenseful tone to the old black-and-white photos and film. But the new input Conefrey in offers in his new book is difficult to ignore for any armchair mountaineer, let alone anyone objectively looking at the events on and after the K2 attempts.

Tidbits and Twists

The Ghosts of K2 wasn’t written to be the academic history book I presumed it would be when I started reading it; rather, with the passage of time, and the deaths of some parties, diaries and other documents have surfaced by some of the climbers and their family members of those in the 1939 and 1954 expeditions. This is information that wasn’t available in 2001.

Mick ConefreyThe question of who actually stripped the camps stocked with sleeping bags and food late in the expedition in 1939 is addressed anew with evidence. Likewise, the most controversial expedition to the Karakorum, the 1954 Italian assault on K2 is revisited — with evidence. Conefrey reevaluates whether Walter Bonatti was a blameless victim and if those that made the first ascent, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, did or did not actually run out of oxygen as they claimed, or if they did, what does that mean for Bonatti and his allegations of Lacedelli and Compagnoni? In both instances, the evidence could be interpreted a little differently, and perhaps discounted altogether, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the reevaluation of events. And if anything, may make the history come alive again for a younger generation.

Along the journey, the Conefrey includes insightful trivia pieces and observations on the shifts mountaineering has taken over its history, the stuff that climbers and armchair mountaineers devour. My favorite of which was when Conefrey explains the revolutionary thinking involved in climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum and likened it to the move to climb the great north faces of the Alps, but only after all of the major ridges have been climbed. The notion had been considered reckless by some, and a natural advancement to others. For example, the attempts on the north face of the Eiger was a significant milestone in mountaineering history, but it might as well have been going over Niagara Falls in a barrel to many witnesses at the time.

Overall, The Ghosts of K2 makes the reader feel more intimately involved with the attempts on the mountain, and they are rewarded with some tantalizing new twists about what may have really happened when some great climbers tried to reach the top. After reading it, you might find yourself speculating on the controversies anew at the crag or at the bar.

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