A Round of Applause for Kelly Cordes
His kind note to me, and his signature.
That’s the first thing I saw when I opened Kelly Cordes’ book, The Tower, and it’s the last thing I saw when I finished reading it.
In the time that elapsed, through some mysterious alchemy, that signature transformed. I knew it was there all along, but as I went to put the dust jacket back on the book, I read his words again as if for the first time. Suddenly, it meant so much more.
I reached out blindly to Kelly in 2014 via a fanboy email that I’m embarrassed to re-read now. I was pretty floored when he responded. And although I’m too chickenshit to share my message to him publicly, I’m too proud not to share something he wrote in response: “I’m a fan of your writing as well… In fact, not long ago my friend Rolo Garibotti sent me the link to your “Murder of the Guidebook” post, which he thought was poignant. I thought so, too…”
Fuck man. I definitely swooned. But his letter was a lot more than that. It was candid, full of good advice, heartfelt. Man, it was like the kind of letter you get from a friend. I didn’t know what he was thinking, or why he sent it to me. But it was more than I had hoped for, and it certainly inspired me to keep on writing.
Kelly also told me in that letter that he had “just finished a book project, so fucking stressful, two years of work, it’s hard to imagine ever writing again after all that.” I’m ashamed to say it took until Kelly handed me a copy in person on a cold day in Eldo, more than three years after his letter, before I got started.
‘Oh yeah,’ I remembered, ‘we were supposed to exchange books.’ I had just finished a guidebook to a crag in Washington – a big project for me, but not exactly an even trade for one of most highly praised climbing books of the past quarter century. To me, Kelly was getting the short end of the stick. And yet, who do you think forgot to bring the book? “I’m the asshole,” Kelly said, “because I knew you would forget, so I made sure to remember so that you would feel like an asshole.” He’s a comedian, too.
I’m a skeptic. I don’t know why, I just am. I was skeptical of Kelly’s claim that he could say definitively that Maestri had not summited Cerro Torre in 1959 (or in 1970 – via the infamous Compressor Route – for that matter). I was skeptical that Hayden and Jason removing Maestri’s bolts was the right move. And I was (for reasons I can’t explain) skeptical that Kelly’s book would live up to the lofty praise I had heard about it.
By the time I finished The Tower, Kelly had divested me of my doubts on all three accounts. Handedly. But more than that, he made me yearn for those mountains in a way that I never have before. His story telling is expert, but he’s not boring like you might expect an expert to be. He’s real, honest, authentic, unpolished where necessary, and surprisingly refined in just the right places. Much of the book reminded me why I love to climb, particularly in a way that seems less and less in fashion now, embracing the unknowns more than the accolades that come from succeeding.
And then, right when I was ready to buy my ticket to El Chalten, his sensitive and poignant description of Carlyle Norman’s sad death in those mountains reminded me why I have chosen not to climb there. It was that real. That visceral. And in my opinion, his ability to weave that story in with Hayden and Jason’s bolt removal on the Compressor Route was one of the crowning achievements of the book. It allowed us to see more fully, more thoroughly, and more deeply what these mountains, and these mountain climbers, are all about. Though at first I thought it would be a distraction, it actually ended up being one of the most important parts of the book. Suddenly, folks like Colin Haley, Rolo Garibotti, Jorge Ackermann, Joshua Lavigne, Hayden Kennedy, Jason Kruk, and all the others who helped out looked less like climbing heroes to me, and more like plain old heroes.
I get so sick of the “humble hero.” It’s like, if you’re a pro climber who’s not a complete narcissistic ass hole, you’re automatically deserving of the highest praise. Is humility a prerequisite to climbing well? Does it come with big forearms? Come on. I find it hard to believe that every pro you’ve ever heard of is humble as a monk.
But when it comes to Kelly, I don’t know what else to say. Dude. Kelly Cordes is so humble!
When I first saw Kelly’s inscription to me in his book, all I saw was a little note from a friend. By that time, we had climbed together and hung out enough for me to get over the fanboy stuff, and just see him as a regular old human.
But when I finished the book, and looked at the signature again, it was as if I suddenly remembered who Kelly is. He’s not just a regular old human. His climbs of the Azeem Ridge with Josh Wharton and the Tiempos Perdidos/Ragni Route link up on Cerro Torre with Colin Haley are climbing achievements than I will never have the balls or skills to emulate. And as a writer, well, shit. I hope I might produce a work worthy of comparison with Kelly’s phenomenal book. But I certainly haven’t yet.
Reading The Tower was incredible because it revealed to me the famed Cerro Torre—the mountain behind all the mystique, all the legend, all the stories you hear. As Hayden Kennedy said at his presentation about Cerro Torre at the 2012 5 Point Film Festival, following his and Jason Kruk’s first fair means ascent of the Southeast Ridge, “let’s have a round of applause for Cerro Torre.”
But after reading his book, what I really want to do is clap my hands for Kelly Cordes.