‘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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Unsung Hero: A Review of Everest, The First Ascent

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No one gave Griffith Pugh much thought. That was true among the climbers too, it seemed. And at first glance he was absent minded, eccentric, and stubborn.

Yet, his daughter, Harriet Pugh Tuckey, introduces her late father in a new light and while he might not have been beautiful, he can be appreciated to a greater degree. She has also made me rethink, to some extent, the reasons that the 1953 Everest expedition was successful. She does this through her award winning book, Everest, The First Ascent: How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Tuckey won the grand prize at the Banff Mountain Book Competition and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, both in 2013.

The Boardman tasker committee gave it this description: “Immensely readable biography of the 1953 expedition doctor and physiologist, the author’s ‘difficult, bad-tempered father’ who she lived with in an ‘uncommunicative co-existence’.” Yep. That’s the brunt of the story, however from a pure climbing history lens, it adds something new or at least brings some formerly obscure factors into focus.

The Golden Age of Himalayan climbing began in 1950 when the first of the 14 mountains over eight kilometers above sea level were climbed. After various failed attempts on the Himalayan giants, including eleven on Mount Everest, Annapurna in Nepal was climbed thanks to improvements in equipment and mostly bullheadness. Most climbs to the Himalayas at that time followed the tradition of ascents from the graceful Alps mixed with a military-style seige; grit and determination and advancing camps along the route to the top.

Before the Golden Age, it was a mystery why the oxygen tanks, brought to make climbing in the thin high altitude air easier, only earned complaints from the climbers about how useless they were. It was also a mystery whether man could adapt to the altitude, and if not what that meant.

Still, in the early 1950s, these mysteries were being settled by expedition leaders and their gut feelings on the matter. That approach seemed the only practical way; there was no one else with the skills or know-how to test the theories.

At the same time, sharing new ideas that ran against convention, like those from Pugh, had to go up against a virtual behemoth. The Everest Expedition was not a simple band of friends. It was institutional and political. The role of Everest Committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society was more akin to Washington, DC calling the shots in a ground war in Vietnam; the climbers with a real stake in the strategy rarely got to weigh in under the hierarchical structure. However, the Expedition Doctor (an official position on the Expedition), Michael Ward, understood this and believed that there were things the whole Expedition didn’t know that it didn’t know. He suspected an expert in physiology in cold might help break new ground.

Dr. Griffith Pugh was a lifelong tinkerer and a man of science in the exploratory sense. He knew more about humans operating in cold climates than almost anyone else because of his work for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Lebanon during World War II. He was also once an Olympic skier and did a bit of climbing himself. If someone can solve the mystery of how to put a man atop Everest (which had become as great a challenge as landing a man on the moon), perhaps Pugh could.

Tuckey summarizes one of the crux problems the expedition faced that Pugh solved:

“Pugh suggested that this common complaint [about the oxygen apparatus required so much energy to carry as to negate the supposed benefits] might be well founded. The oxygen sets used on Everest between the wars had been adapted from equipment developed for high-altitude flying. The supplementary oxygen was given to climbers at the same rate as to airmen — 2 to 2.5 liters a minute. However, unlike pilots sitting in their cockpits, climbers had to carry the oxygen sets on their backs while also expending energy climbing. If pilots needed 2 liters a minute, everything suggested that climbers would need much more.”

Overall, Tuckey doesn’t fundamentally change my concept of what Hillary and Norgay accomplished, but she does give detailed insight into the critical strides Pugh advanced among the Expedition. Sometimes his influence was subtle and sometimes not so subtle, like the climbers’ clothing and oxygen apparatus. As you’ll see in the book, he was often misunderstood, only now we know he shouldn’t be unnoticed.

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Fifty Classic Climbs of North America

With my series on The Greatest Climbers of All Time behind us, I thought those of you interested in continuing to learn about some important climbing history that this book might be worth reviewing now. This may resonate more with North Americans, but I think these routes are worth taking a look at regardless. Coincidentally, this book was featured in Climbing magazine in the most recent issue. I hope this isn’t redudant for those of you that read that one. I like to think I have some things Climbing didn’t mention…

Over three decades ago, two climbers — Steve Roper and Allen Steck — took it upon themselves to identify some of the best climbs on the continent. Since their book, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, was first published in 1979, the routes it canonized as the 50 classic, soon became known as the 50 crowded climbs. People clearly agreed with their choices, yet they recognized that much of their decisions could be second guessed: “Our routes are not the fifty classic climbs of the continent, but rather our personal choice of the finest routes in several major areas which differ radically in length, type of climbing, and geographic setting” (Roper, xi).

The book is a wonderful history of those routes, as well as the regions they are in to some extent. They tell the stories based on the best of sources, and list the best available agreed-upon rating for those routes. As illustrated in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning of the book (p. viii), their sources were a virtual who’s who list of north american climbers: Monty Alford, Fred Beckey, Glen Boles, Mike Covington, Jim Crooks, Harry Daley, Greg Donaldson, Clark Gerhardt, Mike Graber, Jim Hale, David Isles, Chris Jones, Steve Komito, Alan Long, George Lowe, Leigh Ortenburger, Galen Rowell, Eric Sanford, Paul Starr, the late Willi Unsoeld, and Ed Webster. They also expressed appreciation for black and white photos from Ed Cooper and Bradford Washburn.

I spent the majority of my time reading (and rereading) the sections on Alaska and Western Canada. I was a little disappointed that the walls around the fjords around Baffin Island weren’t included in any way, but then again they were just coming into “popularity,” as much as popularity gets with climbers, in the 1980s. I had long known that the Cassin Ridge on Denali was one of their 50, where Riccardo Cassin,  Gigi Alippi Luigi Airoldi, Giancarlo Canali, Romano Perego and Annibale Zucchi made the first ascent in 1961, a climb I knew well, historically speaking. But I was suprised that Roper and Steck chose to call the mountain McKinley exclusively; I wondered it Bradford Washburn had anything to do with that.

As you might have realized from previous posts, I have a mountain-crush over Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range, yet I didn’t know it was listed. The route named by Roper and Steck was the west face of Mount Huntington (12,240 ft./ 3,731 m.), which was first ascended by David Roberts, Don Jensen, Ed Bernd and Matt Hale in 1965. It was also the ascent that inspired Roberts’ book The Mountain of My Fear. 

In Canada, one that I have admired for years because it’s in the Cirque of the Unclimbables is Lotus Flower Tower (7,500 ft./2,286 m.) The vertical wall was first climbed in 1968 by Jim McCarthy, Sandy Bill and Tom Frost.

Layton Kor recently passed away — fortunately in old age, albeit in poor health. One of his legendary climbs, and a tower I’d like to reach the top of, is the Titan (5,600 ft./ 1,707 m.) in the southwest.He made the first ascent of the 650-foot climbing route with George Hurley and Huntley Inglalls. It’s listed as number 38.

Copies are still for sale but mostly on the collectors block only. Some are going for several hundreds of dollars though worn and beat up copies may be acquired for as little as $40US. The American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall Library has copies for lending to its members and if you’re out west (unlike me) your library might even have its own copy.

Here is the list, which amounts to the table of contents without the page numbers. Enjoy…

ALASKA AND THE YUKON
1. Mount St. Elias, Abruzzi Ridge
2. Mt. Fairweather, Carpe Ridge
3. Mt. Hunter, W. Ridge
4. Mt. McKinley, Cassin Ridge
5. Moose’s Tooth, W. Ridge
6. Mt. Huntington, W. Face
7. Mt. Logan, Hummingbird Ridge
8. Middle Triple Peak, E. Buttress

WESTERN CANADA
9. Mt. Sir Donald, Northwest Arete
10. Bugaboo Spire, E. Ridge
11. S. Howser Tower, W. Buttress
12. Mt. Robson, Wishbone Arete
13. Mt. Edith Cavell, N. Face
14. Mt. Alberta, Japanese Rt.
15. Mt. Temple, E. Ridge
16. Mt. Waddington, S. Face
17. Devil’s Thumb, East Ridge
18. Lotus Flower Tower

THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
19. Mt. Rainier, Liberty Ridge
20. Forbidden Peak, W. Ridge
21. Mt. Shuksan, Price Glacier

22. Slesse Mountain, Northwest Buttress
23. Mt. Stuart, N. Ridge
24. Liberty Bell Mountain, Liberty Crack

WYOMING
25. Devil’s Tower, Durrance Rt.
26. Grand Teton, N. Ridge
27. Grand Teton, Direct Exum Ridge
28. Grand Teton, N. Face
29. Mt. Moran, Direct S. Buttress
30. Pingora, Northwest Face
31. Wolf’s Head, E. Ridge

COLORADO
32. Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges
33. Hallett Peak, Northcutt-Carter Route
34. Petit Grepon, S. Face
35. Longs Peak, The Diamond

THE SOUTHWEST
36. Shiprock
37. Castleton Tower, Kor-Ingalls Route
38. The Titan

CALIFORNIA
39. The Royal Arches
40. Lost Arrow Spire
41. Sentinal Rock, Steck-Salathe Rt.
42. Middle Cathedral Rock, E. Buttress
43. Half Dome, NW Face
44. El Capitan, Nose Rt.
45. El Capitan, Salathe Wall
46. Mt. Whitney, E. Face
47. Fairview Dome, N. Face
48. Clyde Minaret, SE Face
49. Charlotte Dome, S. Face
50. Lover’s Leap, Traveler Buttress

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Source: Roper, Steve and Allen Steck, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, San Franciso, 1979.

Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald

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Alpine start. (All rights reserved)

My mother was born in America but her first language was Polish. She still speaks with a hint of an accent if you know to listen for it. I took for granted any appreciation for my Polish heritage for most of my life. When I was young, I was teased for being a “Polack,” which, I was crudely informed through jokes, were stupid people. So I conveniently hid that part of me for a while and emphasized my Hungarian, English and German heritage from my father’s side whenever national background mattered.

Now that I am older and thankfully more mature, I’m fond of my collective heritage. I’ve always enjoyed my Polish traditions at Christmas Eve and at Easter — two of the holiest days of the year for Catholic Poles. Still, I never thought that I would have any real reason to have pride in being Polish. Poland, to the best of my knowledge at one time, was merely another country ransacked by the Soviets and the only amazing people from there were Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa. Later I learned of alpinists Wanda Rutkiewicz and Jerzy Kukuczka, though I only thought of them as alpinists, not as Polish alpinists… until recently.

My perception of Poland changed in the context of mountaineering. I read Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald (2011) at long last. Between responsibilities with family, work, and helping my wife launch her start up (which opened on Monday), my reading habits have relied on taking small sips rather than large gulps, as author Stephen King would put it. Albeit for me, very small sips.

McDonald’s book has won several awards, including the 2011 Banff Mountain Book Festival Competition and the 2012 American Alpine Club Literary Award, among others. At the outset of reading it, I didn’t think there was anything that special in the first few chapters. I already knew much about Wanda Rutkiewicz, Jerzy Kukuczka and Artur Hajzer as well as a little about Krzystof Wielicki. They were all great Polish alpinists, and Hajzer is still attempting winter ascents of the 8,000 meter peaks that haven’t been summitted those days. But by the middle, and certainly by the final two chapters, I realized that McDonald didn’t tell me why I needed to learn about them all together as a group, she showed me. I had to go on her journey — chapter by chapter — to get fully get it.

Freedom Climbers is the story of some — but not all — of the significant alpinists that made Poland the Himalayan powerhouse of the 1980s and 90s. She demonstrates through examples, told through short biographies, and explaining the historical context of the economic and social forces shaping their environment, to show why what they accomplished was so important in the climbing realm and even of greater significance in the idea of human freedom.

I’m tempted to repeat McDonald’s punchline and restate some of her conclusions about why they were so prolific in the Himalayas, but they lose their force of truth without the examples and stories that precede them. Instead, here is a sampling of what made them so impressive: They were poorer than any other nationality of climbers, ca$e in greater numbers and yet spent the most time in the Himalayas. Their gear was inferior and often homemade and yet they created new routes in the most awful conditions, including winter. Despite lack of government permissions and other support, they were innovative in gaining mobility and visited the mountains other than their beloved High Tatras.

The book also brought to light a climber that previously escaped my attention, or at least qualities that I didn’t know he had: Voytek Kurtyka. For me the story begins with a mountain seriously ambitious alpinists consider beautiful: Gasherbrum IV. It’s a 7,000-meter peak, but may have qualities that are tougher than any of the 8,000ers, including K2. Kurtyka was part of the two-man team that first ascended the high, vertical Shining Wall.

While I could recount his other notable climbing accomplishments, like his ascent of Nameless Tower in the Karakorum, what fascinates me most about him is the combination of his accomplishments and his philosophy toward the mountains and climbing. In many ways, he’s helped me — through the writing of Bernadette McDonald, of course — understand climbing at the level David Roberts has delved into the questions of why do we choose to suffer so to climb, through cold, avalanche risk, damaged or ruined relationships for the experience of a climb.

Kurtyka developed a philosophy that borrowed from and closely resembles the Buddhist Middle Path and the Samarai Path of the Sword. He wrote about it and called it the Path of the Mountain. He drew his energy from nature, but only the mountains would satisfy his desire for connection; only in the mountain environment would he face fear, anxiety, exhaustion, hunger and thirst and peer into another level of his soul and finding a special peaceful place.

This approach brought Kurtyka to face high challenges that were private. Climbing the 8,000ers in a day when his former climbing partner Kukuczka was racing Reinhold Messner to top out on all 14 was the antithesis of Kurtyka’s climbing style and spiritual goals. He climbed for 30 years and constantly pushed the limits, not unlike Steve House today. What may have kept him alive and successful, McDonald argues, was that unlike Kukuczka, he never allowed his ability to detect and weigh risk be pushed aside; she cites numerous “strategic and hasty” retreats that seemed irrational at the time but proved to be “mystical” and insightful.

I’m grateful McDonald told this story. It’s a wonderful narrative, full of mini-biographies and gives a better understanding of the struggles under the Soviets and what greatness actually entails.

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Two Mountaineering Classics by David Roberts

When I visited Alaska, I did two things everyone else does when they go: I hiked up Flattop Mountain outside of Anchorage and took in Denali. I did a lot more than that, but it was taking in the view of a lesser peak southwest of Big Mac that I really wanted to see! Through my binoculars I saw Mount Huntington (12,240 ft / 3,731 m). To me, it’s almost mythical.

Mount Huntington was first climbed in 1964 by French alpinist Lionel Terray of the Annapurna first ascent team. It’s also one of the most beautifully formed peaks in the Alaska Range. But what puts it on the map of mountaineering lore are the events that mountaineer and author David Roberts captures in his first book, The Mountain of My Fear, originally published in 1968.

The story tells of the second ascent of the mountain including the planning and the relationships with his teammates. The story focuses on the eerie event on the descent when the team of four split up. Roberts and partner Ed Bernd rapped down but in a flash, Bernd vanished with only a spark in the night, undoubtedly falling to the Tokositna Glacier. Due to the separation and the incoming storms Roberts endured five days alone in a lower camp. It sounds simple, but Roberts has a way of articulately saying what was in his mind and connecting the hearts of other climbers, which is what makes it such a great read!

Roberts explains in his autobiographical book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined (2005), that Roberts wrote the manuscript for The Mountain of My Fear in one fantastic push. It was mainly an exercise in therapy. The apropos title comes from the poem “The Climbers” by W.H. Auden.

The experience on Mount Huntington was actually the second of two epic adventures in Alaska that Roberts was among the primary architects. The other was when he and Don Jensen planned to make the first ascent of Mount Deborah (12,339 ft/3,761 m). The peak has an enormous prominence among the other features surrounding it and it is remote. Sometime after writing his first book, Roberts wrote Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative (1970). While Roberts thinks it is the literary of the two, most readers feel it is far dryer. I disagree.

Deborah is not as profound and moving as The Mountain of My Fear, it is like many other climbing stories about flying into the mountains, climbing, struggling in alpine style, and trudging out of the backcountry. It’s actually a worthy model for a lot of those of us planning a grand ascent. The drama of the story, and what makes it somewhat a downer, is that even before Roberts departed for Alaska, he knew his heart was not in this expedition and certainly not committed to Jensen as he ought to be.

The Mountaineers Books published both of these works in one volume in 1991. I bought my copy in the Denali National Park gift shop; I hadn’t even seen it on my local bookstore shelves back home. I’ve read both twice and return to them periodically. I recommend reading both in gulps rather than sips. Their worth the purchase and certainly the time.

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