In Praise of Climbing Writers
If you’re an aspiring writer, you can’t just email Gary Snyder or Cormac McCarthy on a whim and expect to get a response. The same likely goes for professional climbers. I don’t imagine you can just send Chris Sharma or Alex Honnold an email asking for advice and expect them to personally respond.
But if you are a climbing writer, you may have better luck reaching out to those who seem more fortunate, skilled, and accomplished than you are. Over and over again, I have found myself floored by the positive response the top climbing writers in the country have given to my queries and inquiries. One climbing writer has no reason to help another, I am convinced, other than a charitable good-will towards one’s fellow human.
The other day I was reflecting on this, and trying to remember all the people who have helped me along the way. What follows is a list of awesome people (in no particular order), and how each has kept me on the often disheartening track of writing about climbing.
Matt Samet: Matt Samet was editor (in chief, I think) at Climbing Magazine back when I published the first article I ever got paid for, The Tao of Climbing. In addition to just believing in myself, and the article itself (which is always huge), Matt invited me to come check out the office in Boulder (I lived in nearby RMNP), gave me as many copies as I wanted to share with friends and family, and even forwarded to me a letter to the editor he received praising my article. I don’t know if he even remembers me, but I remember him, seven or eight years ago. (Get Matt’s book which I haven’t read yet but only heard about just now when I googled him: here)
Katie Ives: The first pitch I ever sent to Alpinist magazine was a story in defense of free soloing. The arguments were emotional, aesthetic, unrefined, and had no historical basis. I was pretty floored when Katie (editor in chief, Alpinist) agreed to work on the piece with me. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I got her first edit. Her introductory comments were longer than the article itself, and included what was at the time (and remains) some of the most valuable insights into writing I have ever received. She caught every single cliche, every instance of me trying to sound like someone else, every trite turn of phrase, and nixed it. She also found a stack of books (sometimes including particular passages) that would be helpful in uncovering the true roots of free soloing. I’ve worked on I think 4 or 5 pieces with Katie at this point, and every time it is a major learning experience. What’s more, the writing always comes out better, in my point of view: which does not always happen with edited work. I think Katie does that better than anyone I’ve ever worked with: she takes a diamond in the rough, and shines it to perfection (Make Katie happy and subscribe to Alpinist: here.
Alison Osius: I was just starting to take writing seriously when I sent my article, The Worry Stone, off to Alison. She liked it, and agreed to work with me on it. When I got the first edits back, I didn’t like what she had done with the story. I tried to bail, and pull the story. Alison took my amateur move with candor and patience, and she helped me understand a lot about professional courtesy in the industry. She spent more than an hour on the phone with me in Yosemite Valley assuring me that my story was not ruined, and helping me go over the final edits when the internet was down via telephone. The icing on the cake? Looking back, I like the story she helped me create better than the original piece. I’ve worked with Alison on another piece as well, and always look forward to future collaborations with her. (Make Alison happy and subscribe to R+I, here.)
Andrew Bisharat: A while back, (I can’t remember when exactly) I reached out to Andrew about an article he had written for Rock and Ice that moved me. I think Andrew has one of the crispest, most honest voices in climbing writing, and that was what struck me about this piece. Reading it made me want to write. I was surprised when Andrew wrote back, and we struck up a brief casual conversation. Later, a little over a year ago when I was first trying to start Fringe’s Folly, Andrew gave me some good advice on blogging platforms, and the like. Only a few months later, Andrew and I were exchanging “heated” (tepid by normal intertroll standards) debate over an article I wrote about the significance of TC and KJ’s recent ascent of the Dawn Wall for the self-same blog. Behind the scenes the whole time, though, AB and I were exchanging completely civil emails, and he was always supportive of my work, even if he didn’t agree with it (you can read some of our comments and a lot of other hilarious troll rants here). (Check out AB’s hilarious / informative blog, here)
Kelly Cordes: That article I wrote about the Dawn Wall was my biggest piece for Fringe’s Folly, and probably the most-read thing I’ve ever written (which is a bummer, because it was more controversial than it was good). At the time that I wrote it, I reached out to Kelly because I knew he and TC are good friends. What he wrote back to me went down in my book as some of the best advice anyone has ever given me as a writer, and one of the best edits. Kelly was even so kind as to share a lightly censored version of his response on my blog, here. Kelly is this amazing guy who just happens to be one of the most successful and well-known climbing writers in the world (his book The Tower won more accolades than I can remember or list here). He responded to my query about that piece the same as he always responded to my “cold-call” style emails: in great depth, supportively, and hilariously. Why he has ever felt the need or desire to spend enough time on me to write a 1000+ word email, I don’t know. But I’m pretty glad he did. I think Kelly is just about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Period. (Buy Cordes’ critically acclaimed “The Tower” here)
Peter Beal: That article about the Dawn Wall introduced me to Peter. He caught on pretty soon, and gave me some important advice that I’ll never forget. “I see you’ve stuck your paw into the meat grinder that is mountainproject”, he told me, “lesson learned, I assume.” Yes, I learned my lesson. But Peter also debated the finer points of the article with me, and encouraged me “not to apologize” when the massive amount of troll-hate I was receiving was enticing me to do exactly that. (Check out Peter’s blog, here).
Brendan Leonard: Speaking of straight homies… Brendan was looking out for me before he even knew me. He’s another guy I just cold-called out of the blue. He gave me on-point advice about blogging that I’ve never forgotten, he hooked me up with a gig writing blogs for Outdoor Research, he hung out with me at OR and helped me meet people, he gave me advice when I needed it about whether or not to take an awesome job (I took his advice, and he was right). I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a person that doesn’t like Brendan. He’s just salt of the earth, plain and simple. (Get rad with Brendan at Semi-Rad).
Luke Mehall: I met Luke working on a pot farm in Oregon of all places. We were both pretty amazed to find another climbing writer (much less climber) on the premises. Luke told me he was working on starting a zine, and I was like, “Yeah, ok, that’s cool”. Since then, Luke has published a bunch of books, and his zine is blowing up. He’s always encouraged me to write for the zine, and has been very complementary of my work along the way. He’s a super nice guy, and he took me out for dinner at OR. (You can now subscribe to the Zine! And buy Luke’s books, here).
Chris Van Leuven: CVL. After begging Katie Ives for work and opportunities, CVL – Alpinist’s digital editor – called me up and asked if I wanted to help him with a newswire. I was unemployed, living in Maryland, at the time, and trying to make it as a writer. So I was all in. I worked with CVL on a bunch of pieces last winter for Alpinist.com, and at some point he asked if I wanted to come on as an intern. I was super psyched! But I had just taken a job in California. No problem – CVL told me I could come on in the winter, or whenever it worked, and kept it super flexible to match my hectic crazy life. At this point, I think I’ve worked on writing hand to hand with Chris more than anyone else, as he has taken me under his wing during this internship (I’m half-way through). He also makes great lunches, fascinating and filling breakfasts, and plays it pretty freaking cool when you are responsible for a cataclysmic soup explosion in his trunk. Respect. (The best thing you can do for CVL is read, like, share, and enjoy Alpinist.com… and give him lots of belays).
Fitz Cahall: I admire Fitz on so many levels. He’s a good dad, an entrepreneur, a solid climber, a patient mentor, and a talented artist. One year at OR, he took me into his hotel room and gave me floor space, along with a couple of our mutual friends. He gave me valuable insight into the nitty-gritty of the show, and instead of spraying us all down about how his show was going, he spent most of the time listening to our experience, and trying to help us out to scrounge up gigs or sponsors for an expedition. Fitz is a role model, I don’t know what else to say. When I think of “living the dream”, I think of Fitz. Of course, the rest of the Cahall clan (Becca, Tep, and now Wiley) are all incredible people. I know Fitz better than any of them, but Fitz wouldn’t be who he is without them. They’ve all treated me like a friend without provocation over the past few years. (Fitz and Becca’s incredible company, Duct Tape Then Beer, is worth visiting online. Do it here and check out their “Theory of Human Motivation”).
Mark Jenkins: I reached out to Mark recently when I was looking at the MFA program at UW. Mark hit me with some hilarious and candid emails which I am planning to have printed and framed (for my own personal use). I won’t repeat what they said here, or anywhere, but I definitely think a few brief conversations with Mark provided me with a more honest look at freelance writing than any other writer has before or since. (Check out Mark’s incredible story about a tough expedition to Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, here.)
So, in conclusion, thanks to everyone who has been there for me throughout the years. It has been a wild ride, and the list, of course, is much longer than this. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few people along the way, and that’s shitty. Names like Alex Gauthier, and Mike Gauthier for that matter, too… Freddie Wilkinson for quoting me in a NYTimes Op Edm David Wilkinson who isn’t a climber but a good writer and a good friend, Dave Pegg and Kevin Daniels for believing in my idea for a guidebook for Index, and Rob Price and Todd Kutzke for helping make the digital guide a reality. John Long for trying to help me get into his writer’s symposium (but then I had to bail because of work), Graham Williams, Bill Amos, and Tiff Hensley for believing in me as an “athlete”, a “writer”, or maybe just a good person. Mom, dad, sister, girlfriend, my dog Manu, my girlfriend’s dog Tioga, etc… all have been helpful and influential.
Seriously though, if anyone knows Gary Snyder, I’d love to drink a cup of tea and talk about poetry with him. So far, I haven’t found an email address to cold call him at.