Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei

2018 Banff Mountain Book Competition Nominee, Tabei’s and Rolfe’s Honouring High Places.

When my friend Rick Wood was still working at Rocky Mountain Books, the mountain book publisher in British Columbia, he and I exchanged emails about some of their upcoming projects. The one he was most excited about he couldn’t talk about, at least not yet. He just said: just wait!

Several months later what I was waiting for arrived in my mailbox. It was a significant new book for the publisher and the English language as a whole. Helen Y. Rolfe worked with texts from Junko Tabei, whom Rolfe knew, to bring Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei to life. It was written by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe and translated by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books 2017.) Although we all know that she was the first woman to reach the top of Mount Everest and the first woman to complete the seven summits (the Puncak Jaya or Messner version,) there was less context for the challenges she overcame to accomplish so many great climbs.

What shined through Honouring High Places is Tabei’s spirit, which was extremely aware of herself and everything and everyone around her. And she wanted everyone to share in what she saw in the world, though she seemed to encourage it by urging her readers to go outside and explore new challenges for themselves.

Tabei wrote about how her birth in Fukushima Prefecture, a rural community, first distinguished her among her urban classmates in the city, later in life. She had a country girl accent, which stood out. She was also the dreamer, yet conscious of everyone’s limited imagination: When her women’s mountaineering club was organizing an expedition to Mount Everest, Tabei writes: “A common response was: ‘Wow! Himalayas! I would love to go, even just to see Everest.’ Then, ‘But … I don’t have that much skill, or time, or money….,’ and so on. I found it difficult to hear people crush their dreams with the word ‘but,'” (Tabei 128.) In fact, her attitude of “I will go on” without any excuse or any “but” to offer was her hallmark.

There was a disproportionate amount of chapters on the Everest expedition, for my taste. While it is what she is most known for, the other seven summits were much less encumbered with expedition and media politics; perhaps for that there really was more to tell; there certainly was more drama. Learning about her roots in the country, to trying to come to form in the big city, and navigating the mountaineering clubs hierarchy, was the most unique and enriching part of her story.

Rolfe bound together Tabei’s writings from several sources and leveraged Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved as translators to get to, what Rolfe understood to be, Tabei’s original tone and intent, regardless of the change of language. While previous interviews with Tabei have an affectionate and admiring tone, here Tabei’s energy and everlasting enthusiasm and observations left this reader impressed by the contrast to previous works, as well as feeling ready for my next challenge, regardless what the final outcome might be (Tabei’s enthusiasm is infectious, even in the written word.)

Tabei’s and Rolfe’s work with Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved has since been nominated in two prestigious competitions: Banff Mountain Book Competition (literature-nonfiction category), and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

It’s a significant book that deserves a place on your bookshelf.

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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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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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