Three Great Climbing Books
Still scrounging around for last minute holiday purchases?
Consider buying a book, because, in the immortal words of D’Mite (in the style of Lil Jon), “Read a book, read a book, read a muh’fuckin book.”
The Climbers, By Jim Herrington
The Climbers is, in some ways a coffee table book. Indeed, that’s where my copy is located. It looks beautiful in or out of its black sleeve, and is hard not to want to open. When you do open it, chances are you’ll flip to a page with a single photo – no text, no distractions. And then, you’re in.
Some of the portraits (those of Bradford Washburn, Layton Kor, Fred Beckey, Pat Ament, Gwen Moffat, and of course Royal Robbins, particularly affected me) you may have trouble turning away from. The eyes draw you deep. You feel suddenly as if perhaps you might know this person who previously was only the stuff of legend.
Of course, you are looking at legends in their later years, which helps humanize them a little. That said, I don’t believe it extinguishes the mystique, or the mystery. If anything, it makes it all the deeper. Could this really be the man with more first ascents to his name than anyone else on the planet? Is this really the first woman to climb Everest? The legend does not disappear, but anchors itself behind the eyes of mere mortals, in their later years. The effect is at once disarming, and delighting… slightly haunting, but at the same time, inspiring.
All of this is to say nothing of the fine writing to be found within (for those of you who DO read). Greg Child’s epic essay is a veritable odyssey touching on more than one hundred years of mountaineering lore and history. Honnold’s foreword is pure Honnold—self-aware, self-confident, a little bit cocky, but somehow humble at the same time. Honestly, I thought Jim Herrington’s preface was the best, most engaging writing in there. Which is saying a lot, given Child’s and Honnold’s chops. And all from a guy who made his name on photographing musicians. Let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised by his alacrity in writing about climbing.
Is there something to Voytek Kurtyka’s rejection to Herrington’s request for a portrait? I can grasp the artistic intention, I may guess the reflective message in showing the brave guys in their late days but please forgive me, it’s too difficult to take part in this spectacle which is, whatever the noble intention stays behind it, a display of “the decay of heros”, or with a bit of imagination “the march of death.”
Sure. But at the same time, I’m glad to be a witness to the so-called death march. I’m glad to have these pictures to remember these mortals by. I’m glad to have a little bigger window into the soul of climbing.
You can learn all about The Climbers, and buy your copy here. You may be able to find it cheaper at Amazon, or elsewhere – but if you buy it here, Jim Herrington will sign it himself!
The Tower, by Kelly Cordes
I know there’s nothing new about this. The book’s been out for a long time now. Many of you have probably already read it. It won all kinds of prizes, everybody talked about how good it was. And it is, really, that good.
But if you’re like me, and it sat around on your “to do” / “to buy” list for a really long time, might I suggest now as a good time to make amends? I know that right now I should probably be talking all about Kelly’s other book – The Push. But I don’t want to talk about that book because 1.) I haven’t read it, and 2.) everyone else is already talking about it (The Guardian, for one), and 3.) it’s not technically Kelly’s book, it’s Tommy’s, and while I’m sure Tommy is an amazing guy (everyone always tells me it’s so), I don’t really know him. Kelly, on the other hand, has become a good friend.
For me, reading The Tower AFTER getting to know Kelly was a really interesting experience. Because I knew him first as the kind of goofy, self-deprecating, kind, generous, funny, sometimes in a lot of pain, sometimes not sure how to handle the loss of so many friends in the mountains… I knew him first as that. Just this well-rounded nice human. He never sprayed, never lorded his achievements over me, and never talked made himself out to be a big deal. I know everybody and their mom in the climbing industry is “so humble”… but Kelly is the real deal.
I got a little bit of a sense of what a legend Kelly is from reading The Tower – not just as a climber, but as a writer, too. The task of debunking 60+ years of history on one of the most iconic mountains in the world (and one of the greatest hoaxes in mountaineering history) is no easy one. But Kelly pulled it off in flying colors.
If nothing else, The Tower made me yearn for Patagonia. El Chalten. To be up on that scream of stone. And that’s incredible. Even if you’re not a climber, I think this book will infect you with its authenticity, and inevitable pull to southern climes.
You can buy it here. And check out the option to buy from him direct. If you do, he’ll sign it for you, and then knock $3 off the cover price as an apology for marking it up. What a guy.
The Art of Freedom, by Bernadette McDonald
I wonder if helping Bernadette McDonald workshop the final chapters of this novel at the 2016 Mountain and Wilderness Writing Workshop in Banff will go down as one of the most surreal of my life. Here she is, multi-award-winning many times published badass brains behind the MWW program itself, writing a book about one of the all-time most legendary figures in climbing history, Voytek Kurtyka… and there I was, bad grammar shit punctuation dirtbag nobody, and I was supposed to give her advice.
I don’t know if I succeeded in helping at all, but I do know that Bernadette killed it with this biography. It’s just perfect. And maybe that’s because Voytek was just perfect.
I mean, not perfect. Totally flawed and human and full of ego and full of regret for his ego and all kinds of other conflicting emotions. The book really paints him in a favorable light, for sure, but it doesn’t do it in a way that feels one-dimensional. Which is good, because Voytek is such an incredibly multi-faceted and interesting individual.
While the story carries itself, often times gripping, or sad, or hilarious, it may be Voytek’s quotes elegantly woven and scattered throughout that remain my favorite parts of the book. And that’s no knock against Bernadette, it’s a testament to her skill as a biographer. This isn’t supposed to be a showcase for her, it’s a glimpse into the life and mind of him, and she managed to do that exceptionally well.
“The nefarious cult of the number took the noble art of ascent and made it one-dimensional, robbed of its soul and artistry.”
“Thou shalt not blame thy neighbour for using spectacles, condoms, or oxygen.”
“The relationships between man and woman and the relationships between man and mountains are better without guides.”
“If the dream turns into public ambition, it’s very bad for the dream.”
“First commandment: thou shalt not pass a toilet without due consideration. Second commandment: thou shalt not waste a hard-on. Third commandment: thou shalt not trust your own farts.”
These fine words, and many others can be purchased here. At the bottom of the page, Bernadette provides a link to her publishers, and Amazon. But I have a feeling if you send her a message via the website she may be able to get you a signed copy, as well.