Edited by David S. Stevenson
Books published in 2010 and reviewed in the 2011 AAJ:
- Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock. By Steve “Crusher” Bartlett
- The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2. By Jennifer Jordan
- One Mountain Thousand Summits, The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2. By Freddie Wilkinson
- Fail Falling. By Royal Robbins
- Climbing—Philosophy for Everyone: Because It’s There. By Stephen E. Schmid
- Ron Fawcett Rock Athlete. By Ron Fawcett, with Ed Douglas
- The Sunny Top of California: Sierra Nevada Poems and a Story. By Norman Schaefer
- Unexpected: Thirty Years Of Patagonia Catalog Photography. By Jane Sievert & Jennifer Ridgeway
- Grasping for Heaven: Interviews with North American Mountaineers. By Frederic Hartemann & Robert Hauptman
- Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk. By Joseph E. Taylor III
Sharp End Publishing, 2010. Color photos. Hardcover. $49.95.
As climbers craving a fix, we accept almost any writing if we cannot get to the rock. A few sexy pictures and a few words about grunting up 5.hard, and we set literary standards aside. We lap up writing we would not accept in another genre. Let there be a story about rock or ice, with a picture or two, and our critical facilities get tossed aside.
But once in a long time something is published that not only gives us our fix when the weather keeps us indoors, but actually has literary or historical or visual merit. Think of the writing of W.H. Murray in Mountaineering in Scotland. The history in books like Chris Jones’ Climbing in North America or Doug Scott’s Big Wall Climbing or Roper’s Camp 4. Or the visual appeal of your favorite coffee table climbing porn. Then think about how wonderful a book would be that combines all three merits—well-written, visually stunning, and bringing to life the climbing history of a uniquely important region. Crusher Bartlett’s Desert Towers comes as close to that ideal as any climbing book I can think of.
Its 350 pages cover the history of desert tower climbing in the Southwest, from John Otto’s ladder of steel pipes leading to the summit of Independence Monument in 1911 to today’s 5.13 free climbs. In addition to Bartlett’s own narrative, Desert Towers is graced with stories by 27 desert rats ranging from Raffi Beydan’s “Shiprock Finale” (originally published in 1940 in Trail and Timberline, the Colorado Mountain Club’s journal) to Jason Haas’s “Free Cottontail” (an account of the 2009 first free ascent of West Side Story, written for Desert Towers). Included are some classic desert stories, including Chuck Pratt’s “The View From Dead Horse Point.” But Bartlett has also unearthed a few new gems—stories as good as or better than the famous tales. Other than his omission of anything by my favorite desert writer, Dave Insley, I have nothing but praise for these selections.
The history doesn’t end there. More than reprinting some existing stories and retelling others in his own words, Bartlett has interviewed desert climbers from all eras. We meet them as real people, hearing their tales as if at a campfire or a pub.
A final word on history: The issue of banned climbing on Navajo lands figures prominently. But in addition to the usual complaints by climbers, Desert Towers devotes five pages to the Navajo perspective. Those five pages alone are worth the price of the book. They should be required reading for every climber who visits the desert.
Desert Towers is full of stunning images. The book is big (9″ x 12″), and many photographs are given a full page or even a two pages. While we have come to expect “historical” photos to include amateurish head and butt shots, in this case the author has dug up photos that are of real historical interest while at the same time being strong images.
Finally, the writing: Given that Desert Towers is fundamentally a history of one specific area, it could easily have been boring. That it is interesting and entertaining from the first word to the last is a tribute both to Bartlett’s own writing ability and to his skill at weaving together the tales of others.
Consider how difficult it must be to write anything fresh about landscape near the end of a 350-page volume in which you and others have described that landscape a hundred times already.
We wandered through an immense, colorful maze. Above was hard blue sky, porcelain brittle. The sun, already fierce, slowly ascended its grand arc over the distant La Sal Mountains. To left and right, cliffs and buttresses were daubed with impasto stripes of chocolate, cinnamon, marzipan, vanilla, and coffee. We wandered under flying saucers, balanced on immense spindly pillars. We were in Van Gogh’s head, looking out at his demons.
No doubt Desert Towers leaves out something important or gets a date or a name wrong. Someone more familiar with the history of climbing on the Colorado Plateau may spot errors that escaped me. But no history is either complete or completely accurate. I suspect this one comes closer to those ideals than any other. It is entertaining, informative, and beautiful. It contributes meaningfully to the historical record. And it even comes close to explaining how seemingly sane men and women could convince themselves that groveling up a filthy, desperately dangerous curtain of mud for five days, at the rate of 60 or 80 feet per day, is worth doing. Not just once, but over and over again. This is a truly magical book.
W. W. Norton, 2010. 302 pages. Black & white photos. Hardcover. $26.95.
Dudley Wolfe, who died high on K2 during the 1939 American expedition, has been neglected and patronized. He has been portrayed as clumsy and overweight, an aristocrat invited to the mountain because of his wealth. While his sturdiness on the peak has evoked admiration, it has often been accompanied by the charge that he was virtually hauled up by the exceptionally strong leader, Fritz Wiessner. But this is only a partial view. Jennifer Jordan has provided the fullest portrait yet of Dudley Wolfe; we are in her debt for this account.
Dudley Wolfe emerges from her book as a gentle and generous man—and unfulfilled. In World War I, “While other men were shooting themselves in the foot or leg to get out of combat, Dudley volunteered for some of the worst duty possible.” After the war he returned to Harvard, became a skilled yachtsman, and started to climb. He married athletic and wealthy Alice Damrosch, who seemed the perfect match. But there was something unsettled in Dudley, and he sought to end the marriage before he accepted Wiessner’s invitation to K2.
On the mountain, his performance belied his weak reputation, and even his detractors liked him. Except for Wiessner, he was the only American to climb high, where he stayed in good health and spirits for many weeks. Finally the altitude caught up with him. He died alone in his tent at nearly 25,000 feet. His remains were eventually swept down to the base of the mountain, where Jennifer Jordan found them in 2002.
The descriptions of Wolfe are the best thing in Jordan’s book. Her account of the climb itself is questionable. The recriminations over this expedition were bitter and reverberate to this day, even after the death of all the participants. Almost everyone has been blamed for the bitter outcome, in which Wolfe and three Sherpas died. But beside the picture of Wolfe, Jordan has not much to add to this sad story. She relates the climb vividly, and the book is extremely readable, but the readability comes at a price. She rarely tells us where her dramatizations come from. Her Preface says that she uses “direct quotes, which I gathered from journals, letters, books, and witnesses,” and italicized conjectured speech and thoughts. One can’t quarrel with the italics, but other quotations are infrequently documented, rarely supported by a footnote. There are unquoted passages such as: “Tony [Cromwell] strutted about, officiously checking his clipboard….” Strutting, officiously—says who?
At times Jordan’s grasp of mountaineering history and practices seems uncertain. Some errors are minor, but it is unsettling to read of climbers rappelling each other down a cliff. And does she think that Bill House led his famous chimney, in 1938, without a rope? (He even placed pitons.) Jordan describes this alleged achievement as a “free ascent,” but one wonders how she defines the term. Earlier she writes of a climb being done “‘free’—without protective gear anchoring them to the rock.”
In view of the continuing rancor over this expedition, it is unfortunate that Jordan’s text nowhere engages its most significant predecessor: K2, The 1939 Tragedy, by Kauffman and Putnam (1992). She lists it in her bibliography and has Putnam on her interview list, but her only references to the authors omit even their names. That book, which is far better documented than Jordan’s, springs from a disillusionment with Wiessner, about whom the authors had planned a biography, and a corresponding resurrection of the reputation of Jack Durrance. Durrance had long been blamed for stripping the mountain of its supplies, with fatal consequences. Relying heavily upon Durrance’s recently revealed diaries, Kauffman and Putnam place the blame elsewhere, partly upon Wiessner himself. But if they are critical of Wiessner, Jordan is much more so. She acknowledges his prodigious climbing skills. Otherwise she sees him as an autocratic womanizer who wants the summit so that he can be famous and marry a wealthy widow. To be sure, there are no American heroes in Jordan’s book, except Wolfe. Durrance comes off badly, too. Apart from his selfless ministrations to an ill teammate, he is depicted as childish and self-absorbed and, like Wiessner, turning scant thought to Wolfe once he had been given up for lost.
Durrance’s role is puzzling. He had the strongest record of anyone but Wiessner yet felt repudiated by him from their first shipboard contact on the way to India. Kauffman and Putnam state that the two men had never met before, but Jordan points to an earlier training weekend in the Shawangunks. She argues that Wiessner was keen to have Durrance on K2, even if disappointed by the withdrawal of the strong Bestor Robinson. In any case, the two men become estranged, though less during the expedition than in its apparently endless aftermath. Durrance was forever scarred; one of the saddest parts of the book is the account of his later years.
The 1939 disaster is less mysterious than controversial. We know a lot more about what happened to Wolfe and the heroic Sherpas who tried to save him than we do about Mallory and Irvine on Everest, or Boardman and Tasker on the same peak years later. What is uncertain about K2 in 1939 is less what was done than why. Why was Wolfe left at Camp VII after so many days at altitude? Why did Cromwell (apparently) order that lower camps be stripped? Why did so many of the party leave base camp before everyone was accounted for? And why did Durrance withhold his diary for so many years?
There is one tantalizing conjecture: What if, on that fateful July 19, Wiessner had turned right onto the ice instead of left onto the rocks? The route he rejected became the regular one. Wiessner and Pasang Lama would almost surely have made the top, which would have been an astonishing achievement at a time when no other 8,000-meter peak had been climbed. Then they would have escorted Wolfe down to base camp, and we would not still be arguing about what happened and why. Wiessner thought the ice route, now known as the Bottleneck, to be dangerous. He was right: A serac collapse there in 2008 led to many more fatalities than were incurred in 1939. But he might well have reached the summit.
We may never have a truly definitive account of this fateful climb. Jordan’s is certainly not it. But the book paints a comprehensive and endearing picture of Dudley Wolfe, a picture long overdue.
New American Library, 2010. 342 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
If you’re a reader of this journal, you know that K2 has some of the most storied literature in the canon of mountaineering. So why would anyone write another book on K2? Is there anything new to be told? We certainly don’t need another pompous rehashing full of self-aggrandizement. Let me say right away, then, that this is a fantastic book. Freddie Wilkinson takes on an audacious objective and creates a truly engaging work. This book is in the top five of books written about K2, and is the best book I’ve seen about the current state of 8,000m climbing. That Wilkinson is a world class climber and conscientious working reporter adds tremendously. When he writes about hypoxia, exposure, knots, and cold fingers, he knows the ropes.
On the surface this book is about one of the deadliest events in Himalayan climbing. On August 1, 2008, more than three dozen climbers from 13 different countries left high camp for the summit. By the end of the next day 11 had perished. The author deciphers the tragic developments with the precision of an investigative detective. I can only imagine the volume of notes Wilkinson had to take, and I envision him trying to fit an oversized white board into his tiny New England cabin.
The tragic events of August 2, 2008, played out in living rooms around the world in almost real time, as satellite calls were made and web pages updated. There was a frenzy of Internet-driven media attention that ended up in major magazines and networks around the globe. Unfortunately, and predictably, no one could see the whole picture or know all the details. It’s like when you’re climbing in the dark and your world is only the jumping shadows in your headlamp’s beam. Piecing together disparate reports from hasty reporting and foggy recollections is the author’s greatest challenge. This quest consumed him for more than a year, as he poured through documentation and visited the survivors in order to ferret out what really happened.
The narrative includes captivating, sweaty-palm-inducing descriptions of serac falls, open bivouacs, black toes, and the angst of personal loss. But this book is much more than that. Wilkinson takes the sharp end and honestly, truthfully, and accurately describes the complex relationships between professional climbers, amateurs, clients, high-altitude porters, and climbing Sherpas. Beside the dynamics of current-era climbing expeditions, we also learn a diverse set of facts from Korean history to the workings of the Nepali school system to cognitive science. These are not distracting but lend credence, context, and depth to the discussion at hand.
But primarily this is a story that delves deeply into the hubris, ethics, and racism that is consuming modern mountaineering. One of the thorniest questions is, what is a hero? Who were the heroes of that tragic event—were there any true heroes at all? As Wilkinson states, history is written by the white guys with the sat phones and the blogs.
Like a good climbing route, this book is honest, fearless, passionate, relentless, direct, and fully captivating.
Pink Mountain Press, 2010. 190 pages. Paperback. $19.95.
Royal Robbins is writing his life story, and what a story it is. The whole project will stretch over eight chronologically ordered volumes. This one goes from 1950 to 1957; in that time Robbins becomes a legit climber. He starts with top-roping and small boulders, but by 1957 he’s putting up the Northwest Face route on Half Dome. Along the way there’s stirring climbing, life as a high school dropout in a fatherless household, car crashes, and Los Angeles in the blazing fifties.
The title of Volume Two is Fail Falling, which is not just a bold approach to climbing, but Robbins’ credo. It means trusting yourself to succeed. He explains that “attitude makes all the difference between success and failure.” His life story certainly demonstrates the benefit of grit and enthusiasm (along with really good balance). The book’s many photos give you a lot of ropes tied around waists, trailing straight and clean through space, the only protection the gleam in the climber’s eye. And these are first ascents done in sneakers—you’ll see them wearing Chuck Taylor’s, not my first choice for the Steck-Salathé, but that’s how Robbins did it. And with his introductions of fellow climbers from the era, a community comes alive.
Fail Falling is best in its extended descriptions of memorable climbs like the Northwest Face. Robbins can craft a narrative with depth of character and uncertainty of outcome. We can then sit back while his memory returns to the rock he consumed with ferocious skill. Robbins has the spotlight throughout but is generous in praise for the many people who helped him succeed. He makes it clear that his early climbing was enabled by a social structure that’s no longer influential in American climbing: the climbing club. Robbins got his start with the Rock Climbing Section of the Sierra Club, which offered tutelage to beginners, guidance to youths, and organized outings for all. His subsequent prominence as an environmentalist-climber—he advanced the clean-climbing movement in word with Basic Rockcraft and in deed with the Nutcracker—likely owes much to this provenance. Robbins’ evolution embodies John Muir’s dream that the Sierra Club outings would take urban citizens into the wild and inspire them to take the wild under their protection back in the city. In Fail Falling the virtuous cycle from wild experience to environmental ethics spans the era of Yosemite’s Golden Age.
Fail Falling brings to mind the old paradox, “Great men make history. History makes great men.” Should we praise the individual for achieving in the circumstances, or recognize the circumstances that elevated the individual? The fifties and sixties combined the technological revolution of nylon ropes and lighter gear with an unprecedented expansion of disposable income and inexpensive transportation. Fail Falling shows that Robbins’ generation and the Baby Boomers right behind it were in the right place at the right time to scoop what the circumstances gifted them and get credit for doing it. Fail Falling also shows a few heroic men and women grasping their moment and blowing through the limits that restrain the rest of us. Robbins is such a hero.
Fail Falling shares a remarkable story. Robbins’ early days run on the jet fuel of enthusiasm, and these pages reveal a unique spirit to his life that can possess and inspire the willing reader.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 256 pages. Paperback. $19.95
Eric Shipton once said “climbing is a form of philosophy,” or something like that. His philosophy was a wooly mix of Emersonian transcendentalism and nature worship— pretty much what most of us subscribe to. But you’ll not find any of it in this collection of 17 essays by contemporary professional philosophers—nor by the writer-climbers mimicking their style. In his introduction editor Stephen E. Schmid, a devotee of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivism is hardly everyone’s idea of philosophy, declares that his goal is to pose “intriguing questions that make philosophy interesting and exceptionally so when applied to the activity of climbing.” But most of the questions raised cover familiar ground: the justification of risk, the pursuit of virtue or character, and thumb-sucking on ethics. This may have been no bad thing had the philosophical perspective yielded originality. But there is too little of that. I felt as if I’d landed in the same old climbers’ bar, thrashing the same old conversations about reasons why?, the same natter on bolting, trad vs sport, only this time with guys with a compulsion to stick Wittgenstein, Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Locke, Aristotle into their shop talk. I give Schmid high marks for intellectual audacity. His attempt to shoehorn the ideas of great philosophers into a sporting activity that requires no self-knowledge—the lack of which may improve performance (action at its purest)—is riskier than climbing the Eiger wearing flipflops.
The few creditable pieces in this collection make their point without belaboring ties to the philosopher pantheon. “From Route Finding to Redpointing: Climbing Culture as a Gift Economy,” by Debora Halbert, is a fine discussion of the value created by new routes and how they are unique objects—never mind that gift economy is an old idea in anthropology and not philosophy. Another piece I liked looked at the climber’s access to his or her inner mental states and the unreliability of remembered impressions. Stephen M. Downes in “Are You Experienced?” references psychological experiments that illuminate how we are not as we seem to ourselves. “Consider another familiar predicament: you reach the anchors of a route and while clipping in declare ‘That felt easy.’ Everyone watching, including your nervous belayer, witnessed a desperate by-the-skin-of-your-teeth, wobbler of an ascent. Were you experiencing what it feels like for a climb to feel easy?” He warns us to be aware of the unreliability of our impressions and to get feedback from others and, further, that “failure to remember can easily be understood as a failure to access an inner state.” This trait, he surmises, explains the wide prevalence of inaccurate reporting of first ascents and of post-accident narratives.
In “Why Climb?” analytic philosopher Joe Fitschen explores evolutionary explanations of the question that never dies. He warns against a teleological approach, i.e., that climbing serves a purpose, fits a grand design, and by his whimsical approach to the material, he cautions us not to take the climbing-philosophy connection too seriously. In “Jokers on the Mountain: In Defense of Gratuitous Risk,” Heidi Howkins Lockwood does a good job making distinctions between ineliminable types of risk and elective risk-taking in climbing. Society puts climbers in the position of justifying risk as if it were their primary pursuit, when in fact risk is not an end in itself.
The essay that is most genuinely philosophical and yet bears down with immense authority on a vital climbing issue is William Ramsey’s “Hold Manufacturing: Why You May Be Wrong About What’s Right.” This is a tour de force of the modern analytic methods applied to a problem in practical ethics: lucid, candid, reasoned with a fine razor. Here is the gist of the matter: “The reason hold manufacturing still occurs in the preparation of many routes despite its widespread condemnation is because the condemnation itself is not properly justified.” He then goes through arguments pro and con with careful and consistent reasoning and, half a dozen pages later, winds up with an analysis that suggests that at least in some circumstances, which he explores in detail, manufacturing can be philosophically defensible.
I was surprised that there is no mention of the one philosopher of note who was also a magnificent climber, Arne Naess, and of the omission of Nietzsche, a big influence (for good and bad) on the climbing zeitgeist of the 20th century (case in point: überman Dougal Haston). Nor of later philosophies that speak to climbing: e.g., the limit or edge philosophy of men like Jaspers and Heidegger, Bataille, and Foucault. Instead, the chief authorities, who get mentioned every sixth page, are not philosophers at all, but Tejada-Flores and his “Games Climbers Play” and Frost and Chouinard, with their famous 1974 testament on clean climbing. So Lito, Tom, Yvon, how do you feel about being caught in this kind of company? Proud? Embarrassed? Indifferent?
Vertebrate Publishing, 2010. 256 pages. Color photographs. Hardcover. £20.00.
Strawberries, Lord of the Flies, The Cad. These routes are synonymous with bold standard-pushing and with Ron Fawcett in the 1970s and early 80s. In this autobiography, Fawcett depicts his beginnings as a cad making the first ascent of England’s Mulatto Wall to his years working in the entertainment industry. Along the way, Fawcett pioneered the life of a professional climber.
“I just wanted to find the edge I’d felt that I’d lost,” Fawcett writes in the opening chapter, “A Century of Extremes.” Fawcett planned to climb 100 extreme routes in a day. After a lifetime on the rock, his lost edge was still sharp somewhere inside him, and his ability remained strong through an epically long day, as he ascended 3,957 feet and traveled 12 miles on foot between crags. “For almost twenty years I’d spent every waking moment either climbing or thinking about it…. I’d given pretty much everything I had to the sport. What did I have left?” He lived and breathed climbing, an obsession that comes with its costs. His lifestyle contributed to breaking his marriage. When his wife moved away from the outdoors, toward dinner parties, theater, “situations that were not my natural habitat,” Fawcett couldn’t move with her. “She was becoming connected to a world that filled me with dread.” These difficulties are what transformed him into the Rock Athlete.
For the filming of Rock Athlete, a movie watched by millions on BBC, Fawcett walked away with a new pair of EB’s and the paltry sum of 80 pounds. His life as the star of the landmark documentary was not an easy one. He put himself in dangerous positions not just for himself but for his livelihood. He felt at odds with his role. More than that was the shy man’s ego in the public view. While climbing Lord of the Flies for the film, Fawcett uttered, “C’mon arms, do your stuff.” The phrase was heard at pubs across the world, and climbers emulated Fawcett with their talk of “crozzly pockets” and other Fawcett-speak. “I felt deeply self-conscious at the best of times, and found generating media interest embarrassing,” he writes about his film life. Fawcett’s life in the public eye seemed more out of necessity than desire. “I felt confident in my own ability, but putting myself on a pedestal made me uncomfortable. I had too thin a skin for the flak it drew.” Fawcett loved the climbing, though, and the experiences. It wasn’t about the job or the fame but about the experiences and the friends.
The absurdity of his climbing life, of traveling across the globe to meet fellow climbers, comes out in his dry wit. At Camp VI on the Nose, John Long and Fawcett dangled their feet off the ledge. The pair climbed the route in a speedy day and a half, stopping to rest for the night on the ledge, where they stuffed themselves with hard-boiled eggs. In a wild attempt to stave off dehydration, Long added salt to their water. “A lot of salt,” Fawcett emphasizes. Early in his climbing life, young friends of Fawcett’s rappelled off the ends of their ropes. The first broke his legs. The second broke his wrists. The pair struggled to a nearby farm, where the fellow with the broken wrists knocked on the door with his head. With subtle humor Fawcett describes the climbing life and takes a bit of the edge off the danger and stress of his lifestyle.
Fawcett’s life on the rocks was a remarkable one. Later he shifted toward running. “When you’ve been very good at something, when it’s been the purpose of your whole existence, it feels odd carrying it on at a lower standard.” Fawcett’s move toward running was a way to fight off depression, to numb his mind. After his daughter’s mother left him, running became the only time when he could forget his pain. Ultimately, both climbing and running provided a deeper fulfillment in his life. “But through it all I needed that sense of space and freedom to be myself, and that’s as true now as it was then,” he reflects. Fawcett’s autobiography depicts a man in constant search of space and freedom. As much as he finds them, he continues to search for more. His constant search made him a great climber and, more than that, a great man.
La Alameda Press, 2010. 120 pages. Paperback. $14.00.
A poem is like a Chinese fortune cookie: surprise and insight, wrapped inside a small mystery.
The joyous hardship of climbing a peak
For a clear far view
Climbing poems are so rare—odd, even—that it helps, it’s reassuring, when a poet like Norman Schaefer has chalk under his fingernails and real gobies from firing V4s. You gain some trust when his shoulders are sore from dropping his pack at timberline: this guy speaks our language. The edge of each line may be ragged, but its knot is tight:
Blue lakes with golden trout,
Meadows and all their flowers,
Granite that won’t break
When you pull down hard.
A century and a half is all that white guys have been tromping the Sierra. Mountaineers who write down words about it are just a blink to the melting glaciers. The Paiutes before us spoke only in footpath and sweat lodge, and before them there’s nothing but mute, powerful scratchings, storied into soft volcanic rock near the Happy Boulders. Puzzled, we retreat to our own time of words, brief as Schaefer’s “paper-thin silver crescent” rising barely before dawn.
Within our span here, already Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder climbing Matterhorn Peak together in the fifties—that’s a third of the way back to our white kin’s 49er dawn in the Sierra. Yet I can’t shake their influence (happy not to, really), and I notice that Schaefer can’t either. Thanks to the Beats we sound more like T’ang Dynasty Zen Lunatics dancing over ragged cliffs than we do like Paiutes or even the crag rats in our own lineage like John Muir:
I lift a cup of tea to the alpenglow
and clear autumn morning,
thirty miles from a road.
That’s “shack simple” in the words of the Beat poet Lew Welch. To catch its mood, where the simplest things become poignant, it helps to be emptied of action-figure busyness and filled instead with a receptive stillness, as you are after climbing, after exhausting yourself on terrain. Poems are quick hits, a distilled essence. You’d think they would get more popular in a distractible, sound-bite age. But no, nowadays poets mostly talk to other poets:
Awareness blossoms everywhere
This lake knows I’m here.
I thought I heard a voice on Diamond Mesa:
“Forget yourself and you’re free.”
Tune in, I urge you. It will be illuminating. A slim volume in the pack, poetry is Light & Fast. Best of all, take these poems back to from where they came. Read them up high, in the alpine zone. Sure to produce shouts of joy.
Patagonia Books, 2010. 213 pages. Hardcover. $49.00.
The photographs collected here are beautiful and inspiring.
We all know in our cynical little hearts that these photographs have some dark connection to advertising, branding, marketing, and all that stuff about which I know nothing and will not address further, except to say that the Patagonia catalogs have long been portraying a lifestyle, and the stuff they sell by association would be, in their view, good stuff to acquire in pursuit of that lifestyle. Everyone gets it.
What the book makes clear, in its essays and in the photos themselves, is that the best criterion for getting into the catalog is that the editors will know it when they see it. Founding photo editor Jennifer Ridgeway’s essay, “Capture a Patagoniac,” ends with the famous dictum, “What we really want (well, what Yvon really wants) is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson dressed in a Pataloha Fish and Tits shirt, cigarette holder in mouth, and a visor down over his eyes, shooting pool with Ted Kennedy.” (This essay is described as “classic” in the book itself; I concur.) The statement, of course, is just a stance; none of the photos really aspire to this. They do aspire to Yvon’s other dictum, “real people doing real things.” The only false step here for me is when that “law” appears to be broken, which isn’t often: for instance, the photo of a glamorous blonde woman leaning against a 1957 Beaver, applying lipstick. Please.
There are occasions when, if you think about it too much, the photograph feels posed (posing, as we all know, is evil). But usually the photograph is so good you either aren’t conscious of the probability of its having been posed, or you just don’t care. Take the famous cover shot of Lynn Hill hanging off the jug on Insomnia. Okay, it’s a fine photograph … but wait a minute, Ridgeway happened to be right there to take it, and how many times had Hill done the route? That’s one in which my cynical brain interferes with my aesthetic appreciation. I would much rather see Steve House’s summit photo of Vince Anderson after doing the Rupal Face—you know that sucker wasn’t rehearsed. And that was a Patagonia catalog photo that’s not in the book. Perhaps my appreciation of it depends too much on its outside-the-frame context—something I just happen to know.
To repeat: The photographs are beautiful and inspiring. Many have acquired iconic stature and exist in my memory apart from the occasion of my first seeing them in a catalog. With the book not in front of me, I wondered how many of the hundred I could describe. I named five off the top of my head that I love:
• The opening overleaf of the dusty car in the pampas on the way to the Fitz Roy massif (although I was wrong in remembering it as a Funhog photo; it’s a Barbara Rowell shot).
• Roman Dial’s shot of a smiling Carl Tobin, nose bloodied, ferrying his bike across some raging current.
• John Sherman’s beer-swilling free-solo in flip-flops, which I’ve always been a fool for, though everyone knows he was clipped in. That’s not, and never was, the point.
• Meredith Wiltsie, head in hands, car broke down, child playing with a hammer. Been there, done that.
• Chouinard himself on ice in full Sco’ish conditions. (My memory was wrong again: it’s a Chouinard photo of Doug Tompkins.)
See what I mean? You probably don’t have the book in front of you now, either, but you know you’ve seen several of those shots before.
In addition to Jennifer Ridgeway’s classic essay, all the writing is up to speed. I liked the interview with John Russell, whose images had registered with me in the past but not his name (probably because he’s not a climber). And it’s always good to hear from John Sherman, though one doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad that he seems to still be living in his van. Cory Richards’ short essay, “Perspective,” is an absolutely first-rate rendering of the artist’s long road.
Looking at the photos, I discovered surprising aspects of my own tastes: liked a lot of the kid photos, didn’t care too much for animal shots, liked the ocean and surfing shots, (though I almost never go there and don’t surf). Despite a longstanding admiration for the work of Greg Epperson and Cory Richards, the climbing shots didn’t do as much for me as I thought they might.
Everyone with a pulse will have their favorites; if at least two big handfuls of these photos don’t work for you, there’s probably not much hope: try a blood transfusion or at least get up off that couch.
McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. 224 pages. Paperback. $35.00.
This book transcribes conversations with 16 climbers and three historians, almost all North American and Himalayan mountaineers. The conversations are interesting because the persons being interviewed are accomplished and articulate and because Hauptman, who conducts the interviews, is generally very well informed, that is, well read in mountaineering history, and this keeps the discussions at a reasonably sophisticated level.
I like the book best when we hear from folks who have until now more or less slipped under my radar: Charlotte Fox—I love her takes on Jon Krakauer and on Sandy Pitman—the late Christine Boskoff, and Carlos Buehler, for example.
Likewise, I very much enjoyed the inclusion of Elizabeth Hawley, Maurice Isserman, and Audrey Salkeld (who together raise questions about the mountaineer and North American in the subtitle). Although Hawley is the subject of a recent book by Bernadette McDonald (who is flatteringly mentioned enough times to deserve her own interview), she is not someone whose own voice has been widely heard until recently.
Isserman comes across as particularly wise, reminding me to return to his excellent Himalayan history, Fallen Giants, co-authored with Stewart Weaver. Discussing why so many Himalayan peaks were first climbed in the 1950s instead of the 1930s he observes that “mountaineers were willing to assume greater levels of risk than were previously thought appropriate…. What’s a poor decision for one generation of climbers has proven to be within the spectrum of acceptable risk for later generations.”
The average age of the interviewees is 63; thus the lens is mostly retrospective. Furthermore, quite of few of these subjects have written books of their own or had books written about them or both. Perhaps the mountaineer in the subtitle is a tip-off to some kind of generational divide: who thinks of themselves as mountaineers today? I doubt that Steve House does, but then he’s not included here. In fact, I was surprised (maybe a little alarmed) when Hauptman admitted that he hadn’t heard of House and Vince Anderson’s Rupal Face climb. I suppose this speaks to the book’s generally historical, rather than contemporary, perspective.
Question: What do these have in common: Mount Si, James Tabor, Nanga Parbat, Willi Unsoeld, Grand Jorasses, Les Droites?
Answer: They’re all misspelled in the book. It seems doubtful to me that Hauptman himself does not know the correct spelling of these, so, can we no longer get an editor or proofreader who knows or will learn these things? I fear this situation will only worsen in the future.
Many of the subjects are, well, the usual subjects, climbers who have been in the spotlight (our somewhat dim spotlight, anyway) for a long time: Roskelley, Ridgeway, Houston, Wickwire. These are, of course, some of the most interesting and storied fellows in our pantheon, but we know their stories, don’t we? There is perhaps a hint of diplomacy or perspective from them here that may have been absent when we last heard from them. Like any good book, one of the effects of this one is to remind the reader to return to some of these subjects’ earlier works, and, my quibbles aside, I expect to return to this book in the future as well.
Harvard University Press, 2010. 384 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.
Taylor’s unique book stems from an earlier article that has evolved to 276 pages, with another 72 of notes. Pilgrims is intended as both a detailed climbing history and an environmental essay. We traverse a myriad of anecdotes and details as climbing mutates from Victorian beginnings through bucolic Sierra Club stewardship to the extreme sacred practices of our current vanguard. Few have worked this hard to write the American Climbing Story. The text is strongest and most interesting as a standard history, specifically up to about 1960. Bringing us to the current day, the second half is more ambitious and apparently difficult for Taylor to resolve. He is a bit of a climber but more an environmental historian. Accordingly, Taylor is trying for much more than climbing history.
He sketches how climbing has mirrored the general social forces of each era. In recent decades top participants—think Robbins or Harding—have helped foster a seldom-questioned image of climbing as rebellious but also elitist. The story behind this essentially Romantic image presents many serious issues. Taylor holds all accountable in a sympathetic and humorous near-polemic, while warning of climbing’s heavy use of the natural world—the pinning out of cracks, climbers’ trails, uncontrolled camps, chalk on everything, crowds abounding.
Taylor loves to point out how in the Sierra Club days climbing was vigorously heterosocial, but when the new assumption of risk reached serious extreme, women were whisked out of “harm’s way” in a Byronic runaway toward chimerical icons on high. Taylor then shifts gears from his rigorous, friendly perspective on our early years to a more skeptical gaze at modern climbers, which may be more emotional on his part. His sympathy ends; he smells a rat.
According to Taylor, climbers began to feel that authentic experience is based on the proposition that only risk and suffering bring genuine “passage,” and that passage is the point. Risk and suffering become an ideal, rather than a ubiquitous but temporary part of growing up and of the cycle the individual takes in his society everywhere. He admits having bought into such rites of passage as a youth, and even today they retain “latently powerful” influences on him. He assures us, however, that these fallacious ideals are easily “unmasked” once one understands what props them up: “false promises, elitist privilege, and a sense of entitlement.” And here is where the real fight begins, with Taylor’s deconstruction and dismissal of the Romantic heritage of risk—a heritage that is especially integral to the conventional narrative of climbing today. Perception of risk, often curiously flawed when one examines actuarial tables, is a subject dear to the hearts of many climbers. Taylor makes some excellent criticisms, but in the end his analysis is unconvincing.
His claims regarding the environmental costs of climbing are not established or convincing, either. They read more as stipulated bulwarks dramatized for his arguments. For the reader the damage and depletion remains apocryphal. All the bolt holes and pin scars in Yosemite occupy less volume than a dozen copies of his hardback. Trails worn down by climbers’ access, lichen scraped off walls, and dirt dug from cracks are all renewable and represent less biomass than a hundred yards of landscaped highway median.
In the final sentences all Taylor can offer is that sustainability and balance in future climbing might be reached by “restrained” use, which would be “respectable,” and we would thereby “grow up.” Concluding, he affirms that risk culture is an illusion, and that our idealization of the Wild, with the elite individual center-pieced within it, is a deeply flawed vision. It’s an end-of-days outlook. As a history, however, Pilgrims of the Vertical is one of our best. [Editor’s note: an AAJ editor who has read this book found it to be riddled with historical errors.]