Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wednesday Morning Time Waster

All that stuff about the new Adventure magazine and I forgot to mention the fun last-page photo of Will Gadd climbing an iceberg off the coast of Labrador. Sure, it's a stunt, but it's a cool one! Check out the photo and video clip at Adventure's website or watch the six-minute Discovery Channel piece at the Arc'teryx site. I noticed that Will was using leashless tools on one of the bergs. Brave man—it's one thing to drop a tool at the crag, but out at sea it's goodbye ice tool! I suppose that's what sponsorship is for.

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What's Left to Do?

Yesterday's rant about the meaning of adventure got me wondering about truly meaningful "firsts" still out there to accomplish. A quick web search yielded a couple of Top Ten lists. This one, compiled in 2002 by Australian mountaineer Greg Mortimer for the Sydney Morning Herald, tilts toward the Southern Hemisphere, but it's a good start:

1. Climbing in the Siachen Glacier region in northern Kashmir, which has the world's greatest concentration of high unclimbed peaks and the largest glaciers in the world outside the polar regions.
2. Circling the globe on the Arctic and Antarctic circles. These are variations on the theme but would represent marvellous adventures.
3. Parachuting from space to Earth. It is possible and it is being seriously considered. The concept involves going to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in a massive helium balloon, then jumping out.
4. Searching for and finding Shackleton's ship Endurance, which was crushed in the ice in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica during the explorer's 1914 expedition.
5. Walking on the moon, in a privately funded, nongovernment expedition.
6. Repeating New Zealander David Lewis's circumnavigation of Antarctica by yacht, as he broke his original journey to return to the warmer latitudes.
7. Walking unsupported from west to east across Australia, as per Jon Muir's south/north crossing.
8. Walking from Commonwealth Bay (Mawson's Hut) in Antarctica to the South Pole.
9. Visiting the deepest trenches of the oceans, such as Mariana Trench.
10. Climbing in the beautiful mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula—this will become the alpine playground of the 21st century.


What else? Only eight of the world's 8,000-meter peaks have been climbed in winter. None of El Cap's main lines has had an onsight free ascent. Literally thousands of unclimbed peaks remain on Earth, especially in the vast reaches of China and Tibet. Huge expanses of winter terrain have never been traversed by skis. Got more ideas? Post a comment.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Adventurer of the Year? Hmmm....

National Geographic Adventure magazine's "Best of Adventure" issue is out, and it names Ed Viesturs as "Adventurer of the Year." Ed's a master at high-altitude moutaineering, and he certainly deserves kudos for bagging all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks safely. (I interviewed him about training for 8,000-meter peaks for an Outside magazine story slated for January). But Viesturs was the 12th climber to polish off the 8,000'ers, not the first. His only claim to fame is being the first American to do it. If that makes you adventurer of the year, then 2005 wasn't a great year for adventure.

Adventure's other climbing and skiing choices were on target: "Elites" included Josune Bereziartu, the only woman in the world who is rock climbing on par with men, and Greg Hill, who last season skied 1 million vertical feet under his own power—no lifts, no choppers. (Think of the last time you climbed a couple of thousand feet on backcountry gear. Felt like a lot, didn't it? Hill climbed more than 10,000 feet on 37 separate days last winter and spring, according to Adventure.) In Adventure's "Iconoclasts" category, Michael Reardon made the list for free soloing Romantic Warrior (multipitch 5.12b) in the Needles and soloing the Palisades Traverse in 22 hours. Now that's adventurous.

It's too bad because Adventure magazine usually gets it right with climbing stories, especially in the last couple of years. This same issue includes a decent reporting job by Dan Duane (marred by a few factual errors) on the Tomaz Humar helicopter rescue in August and its aftermath, and the magazine often features good investigative essays by David Roberts. In mountaineering and skiing alone, Adventure could have chosen from half a dozen other superb exploits this year to find its "Adventurer of the Year." Selecting Viesturs—as accomplished as he may be—only reinforces an unfortunate truth in mainstream journalism: The more famous you are, the more the media love you.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advanced Road Tripping Solutions

Don't you hate tipping over in the passenger seat when you fall asleep? You know how your head keeps snapping up each time you nod off? Dave Goldstein came up with the solution to this annoying problem during an all-day drive to Arizona: The Passive Head Restraint System for Road Trips. Remember, you saw it here first.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Robo-Climber

News from the Brave New World department: A guy named Anurag Sehgal at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy has written a thesis proposing "A Modular Wearable System of Mountaineering Devices." Sehgal imagines a chest harness that could holster a cell phone, sat phone, GPS unit, altimeter, walkie-talkie, digital camera, avalanche beacon, and PDA or laptop computer, all integrated so they are easy to use while, say, descending the Bottleneck on K2 in a whiteout.Fingers too frozen to call basecamp? No problem: Your glove acts as a joystick to control all the gizmos. Can't see the next wand in the whiteout? C'mon! You've got a heads-up display mounted on your goggles!

I don't know. I feel like I go to the mountains to escape all the electronic noise that bombards us. But even on the simplest days in the hills I already carry a digital camera, electronically controlled headlamp and altimeter watch, plus a digital avalanche beacon in winter. There have been a couple of times when I really wished I was carrying a cell phone on a climb or ski tour to call home and let my wife know I was OK but going to be late. I laugh a bit at the guys with their walkie-talkies in Eldorado Canyon, but when I'm screaming "off belay!" over a chinook wind I sometimes wish I had a walkie-talkie too. And I've been intrigued to learn that a GPS unit is now standard equipment on certain remote climbs, not just for techno-wankers but even for some of the world's best alpinists. As we add more and more electronics to the pack, the basic point Sehgal makes in his thesis abstract becomes increasingly valid: "Mountaineers currently carry a number of devices, which were never specifically developed for the context. The interfaces, software architecture, ergonomics, storage, wearability and power source on all the devices pose some form of problem to the users." So, who knows? Maybe Anurag Sehgal has seen the future of mountaineering. Just don't expect me to be an early adopter. I spent an hour and a half yesterday just trying to get a new cell phone to work.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Packing for Pakistan

I spent Monday morning at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, Colorado, where a small crew of American Alpine Club staff and volunteers were starting a two-day push to ship mountains of winter gear and clothing to earthquake victims in Pakistan. The gear was donated by AAC members and a number of outdoor companies; it lined the walls of the center's two large lobbies and a long corridor five to ten feet deep; I think it would have filled my house. Midway through the morning, a UPS truck pulled up and unloaded two dozen more boxes. We just added them to the pile and kept sorting and packing. Six TONS of gear will be shipped to Pakistan today, courtesy of DHL and Pakistan International Airlines. Although there was the usual junk (a pair of flip-flops, a climbing tank top), the majority was at least winter-worthy and quite a lot was expedtiion quality and nearly new. (Bags of clothing unsuitable for winter conditions were donated to Goodwill in the Denver area.) It was a great way to start Thanksgiving week.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

242 Months And Counting

Talk about dedication: In September, Mike Scherer carried skis to a minuscule patch of hard snow in Colorado's Indian Peaks and carved a short series of telemark turns during a sleet storm. Why bother? Because Scherer skis at least once every month, and there aren't many choices in autumn. September was Scherer's 240th month of skiing in a row. That's 20 years. (My story about Scherer's streak is in the December issue of 5280 magazine.) To be sure, it hasn't all been untracked powder and bump runs. The skiing in Colorado often is wretched in late summer and early fall, and some of his outings have been pretty contrived. To keep the streak alive one autumn, Scherer had to tour along a dirt road on about an inch of new snow, with his car's headlights pointing the way. But Colorado has good skiing for eight or nine months of the year. And if nothing else, Scherer says, the streak gets him into the mountains at least once each month. Nothing wrong with that.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Maestri Debate: Case Closed

On November 13, Alessandro Beltrami, Rolando Garibotti and Ermanno Salvaterra completed a new route on the northern flanks of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and, in the process, put to rest a nearly 50-year-old saga of deceit.

In 1959, a team led by Italy's Cesare Maestri claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre via a line that started on the East Face and finished on the North Face and North Ridge; only Maestri and Toni Egger were said to have summited, and Egger died during the descent. The ascent soon was questioned, and in 1970 Maestri returned to Cerro Torre to bolt his way up the Southeast Ridge and install the infamous Compressor Route, now the standard line up the tower.

Apparently, plenty of people still believe Maestri climbed the peak in 1959. Check out this photo of a Maestri T-shirt I purchased in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, about five years ago. It says, in part, "Twice on the top of the most difficult mountain in the world."

Garibotti and Salvaterra are two of Patagonia's most experienced and successful climbers; Salvaterra, for example, had already done two new routes on Cerro Torre and made the peak's first winter ascent. Both felt deep personal interest in the truth behind the great tower's first ascent. This year, they made two major assaults on the northern route; they climbed nearly 1,000 meters on the first attempt, and then reached the summit after two days, in alpine style, on their second try. During these climbs they followed Maestri's claimed line for hundreds of meters and crossed it many other times. Their verdict? There was not a single sign of Maestri's presence above a gear cache left in 1959 very low on the East Face, at the base of a prominent snowfield about 300 meters above the glacier. Above this, there was not a single 1959-era piton, rope, sling, rappel anchor or bolt, despite the fact that Maestri said he placed dozens of bolts on the upper face and ridge. The debate is over, folks, if one even remained. Maestri did not climb Cerro Torre in 1959.

Interestingly, as Garibotti points out in a comprehensive analysis of Cerro Torre's first ascent in the 2004 American Alpine Journal, Maestri didn't climb Cerro Torre in 1970 either. (You can read Garibotti's story here.) Although he is often credited with the first ascent via the Compressor Route, Maestri stopped climbing atop the headwall he bolted into submission, about 35 meters below the top; he did not even step out of his aiders onto the icy summit ledges, let alone climb the snow mushroom that caps the peak. Therefore, Garibotti concludes, the first ascent of Cerro Torre was in 1974, when Italians Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari and Pino Negri succeeded via the West Face. "History," Garibotti writes in the AAJ, "has yet to give this ascent its rightful place." Now, perhaps, historians will finally get it right.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Department of Humiliation

So, I was attempting Direct North Buttress in Yosemite with Charlie Sassara, and I was stuck below one of that insecure climb's run-out face sections, four or five pitches up. I kept stepping up from a good foothold, groping at the slippery holds, and then stepping back down for more chalking up and wistful tugging at the bad nut by my knees. After two or three rounds of this, as I lingered on my foothold, a park ranger cruised below Middle Cathedral and briefly touched his siren to make one of those bleats designed to warn pedestrians or scare cyclists into the bushes. Without missing a beat, Charlie looked at me, assumed a PA voice, and said sternly: "Sir! Step away from the ledge!"

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Observations from Mount Washington

Whenever I feel a bit chilly in sunny Colorado, I like to think back to my early climbing days on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Then I feel a lot warmer. At 9:04 a.m. Eastern time today it was 14.9°F atop the 6,288-foot summit, with a brisk 54 mph breeze. I found these stats on the data- and photo-packed website of the Mount Washington Observatory, which sits on the summit. In October, the observatory recorded more than six and a half feet of snow (more than five times normal) on the summit. Does the Mount Washington Observatory photo above look like an October scene to you?

I spent many days on Mount Washington in high school and college, and the brutal weather was great training for bigger peaks, which almost always turned out to be balmy by comparison. Usually, the conditions looked like the Mount Washington Observatory photo at right, taken last January 1. But I remember an amazing New Year's Day when I climbed through thick clouds to burst into blue skies and bright sun on the mountain's upper slopes. At the summit, the air was completely calm. It looked and felt like ... Colorado.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

That Crag Named

Leave it to George Bell, one of the most experienced climbers on the Front Range, to identify my mystery crag. Several people correctly placed the photo in Colorado's Indian Peaks, and Bell wrote, "Is that the Fair Glacier in the background? My guess is somewhere near Lone Eagle Peak, maybe that big west-facing buttress on the divide between Pawnee and Shoshone?" Yup, that's the one. As far as I know, the cliff is unnamed; I call it the Apache Wall or the Wall of Tears, after the water streaks that run down its steepest face. It's big: about 800 feet high in the middle. Jeff and George Lowe did a route on it many moons ago, and George and I did a route at about 5.10+ up the right side, with 10 pitches (some wandering). I know that Topher Donahue and Kennan Harvey have done a few scary routes here. The rock is not quite as good as the bombproof stone in Rocky Mountain National Park, just to the north. But this cliff deserves more exploration.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tuesday Morning Time Waster

C.A.M.P., the 116-year-old Italian climbing gear manufacturer, still has a sense of humor—or at least its Colorado-based U.S. distributor does. Check out this amusingly bizarre promo video for C.A.M.P.'s line of superlight alpine gear. Parental guidance warning: Animated violence, some gore.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Deep Freeze

I had always wanted to climb Deep Freeze in Rocky Mountain National Park, and on Thursday I learned that Greg Sievers was keen for it too. The road to the Glacier Gorge was closed Sunday morning because of black ice on the pavement, but a certain well-known Boulder ice climber opened the gate, and four cars full of climbers reached the parking lot at about the same time. All hoped to climb either Deep Freeze or Necrophilia, the classic mixed route below Deep Freeze, but Greg and I were first out of the lot, and, as it turned out, we were the only ones who made it to the cliff.

The crux of Deep Freeze is a super-steep column through a roof about 800 feet above the talus, high above the Loch. (The route takes the obvious gully in the center of the photo at left; the crux column is hidden below and left of the huge roof near the top.) To get there, you either climb a grovelly chimney with a desperate chockstone, climb Necrophilia and then traverse left to the Deep Freeze gully, or climb the Northwest Gully and then traverse right to Deep Freeze. We chose the latter for speed: Necrophilia was barely in (the bottom would be desperate in this condition), and we still thought we were racing other parties for the route. The Northwest Gully is about 500 feet of loose rock and snow, followed by a short but fun WI 3 exit. A sketchy downclimb (scary for the second) led to the easy traverse ledge and eventually the gully. Another few hundred feet of snow gained a ledge below the climb: a WI3+ chute to a big amphitheater and the business.

The weather had been OK until now — high winds, but we were sheltered in the gully — but as Greg racked up for the crux pillar snow began to fall, the Loch disappeared from view, and spindrift began pouring over the giant roof. Greg did a fantastic job leading the column. It was touching down but wobbly at the base, and he had to climb about 25 feet to get his first good piece.
The column is superb, with good stemming rests now and then and protection in the rock face to the left. Amazingly, this once-feared route is so popular that it was somewhat picked out, and good hooks were frequently available. (I was still afraid.) At the exit through the roof, the ice narrowed to about 8 inches and 4 inches thick, but a hole on the left allowed relatively easy chimneying moves. At this point, spindrift was funneling through the slot at the roof, and Greg shouted, "I feel like I'm in a Chouinard poster," referring to the great old shot of Yvon on Ben Nevis in full conditions. By the time we began the rappels, we were in full blizzard and the descent was frosty. The walk out was tiring, with deep drifted snow to punch through, but we agreed that it was worth the cold and difficulty to climb all day on a Sunday in a national park without seeing another soul.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Home is a Hole

Here's an absolutely wild tale from Jonny Copp, who recently emailed a wrapup of his latest trip to India to attempt Nanda Devi and other peaks. The team was Copp, Chuck Bird, Sarah Thompson and Pete Takeda (right to left in photo). The following is excerpted (with permission) from Jonny's email:

"By week three our Nepali cook, Depender, said he had never, throughout his fifteen years working in these mountains, witnessed a worse spell of bad weather. 5 or 6 feet of snow had fallen. We had broken many tent poles. Bouldering was out of the question! Slopes were loaded. We were chowing through our precious supply of books and rum.

Finally a break in the weather: [We] started up on our first route, East Ridge of Nanda Kot, retracing the steps of a 1966 CIA expedition in which the team placed a nuclear powered surveillance device at 22000 feet to spy on the Chinese. By the end of day two we were hit by a big storm at 20,000ft and eventually escaped into a crevasse. Just past midnight an avalanche poured into our icy home like tons of cement. While it was pushing us deeper into the crevasse and burying us at the same time, I snapped a pole that ended up near my face and ripped out of the tent that was squeezing down around us. Pete was in the other tent and was able to latch one of the ice screws that were in the wall of the cave. Chuck swam out just in time. Their tent ended up six feet under. All our boots were lost. So was the shovel. It was pitch black. Sarah and I were two feet from the bottomless opening to the crevasse. But we were all breathing air.

We found a headlamp. We dug with axes and hands for six hours until we had found all of our boots, crampons, fuel, shovel and food. Then the sun started sifting in through the still raging storm outside. Then, the rumble of another avalanche overhead.

It was light, and then it was dark. We were now completely sealed in to the icy hollow, no one speaking. Then a headlamp popped on. Pete and I began digging a wormhole. Like moles, we started a hole 2 feet in diameter - Pete on the shovel and me clearing behind. At fifteen feet long, we popped through to the outside, then backed back in, dropping to our feet into the hollow where the four of us spent two and a half more days. The storm cleared and the avalanches stopped tearing down around us when we had half a can of fuel left. We went down to Depender’s excellent food triggering only one avalanche on our descent."

Did you get that last part? "...where the four of us spent two and a half more days."

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Name That Crag

It's been a few days since I've posted a decent picture, so here's one of my favorites from the archives. A tip of the toque to anyone who can identify the beautiful crag above the climber. I'll give the answer in a week.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

BD Catalog Saves Leg

Joel Javier Stidham, an Army infantryman in Iraq, posted a report to cascadeclimbers.com yesterday describing how a Black Diamond catalog might have saved his leg. Stidham was hit by shrapnel in the thigh, but only after it pierced BD's 2005/06 ice climbing catalog, which he had stashed in his pocket. "The doc said that the catalog is about the only thing that kept my bone from being shattered," Stidham wrote.

The Mountain World wishes you a speedy and full recovery, Joel. And if you return to active duty in Iraq, choose a Petzl or Cassin catalog for your body armor: They're a bit thicker and have sturdier covers.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Report from Banff (Final)

Movie time. Among the films I saw on Saturday were three that featured good footage of alpine climbing—in two cases hard alpine climbing. This is quite rare: It’s damned hard to shoot film in an alpine environment, in the dark, in storm, under pressure to keep moving.

In his “Harvest Moon,” about a new route on India’s Thalay Sagar, Rob Frost climbed with the four-man Swiss team and documented their progress as they climbed, then captured close-up footage of hard ice and rock climbing from above by cajoling the climbers into releading a few pitches as they rappelled the route. Knowing they were on their way home makes the scene of one climber being nailed with a fire hose of spindrift while climbing steep ice all the more impressive. It’s amazing he even agreed to do it: This is posing, but it's a far cry from a swimsuit-model shoot.

“Sur le fil des 4000” documents French climbers Patrick Bérhault and Philippe Magnin’s fantastic and visionary attempt to link all 82 of the Alps' 4,000-meter summits, in winter conditions, without any breaks or motorized assistance. Bérhault fell and died three-quarters of the way through the project, and the film is a moving tribute to the great alpinist. Director Gilles Chappaz solved the problems of shooting in this environment by covering some tough climbs near huts, where he could set up in relative comfort, by equipping the climbers with a small camera for remote peaks, technical routes and stormy days, and by doing the occasional helicopter fly-by. It’s cool to see how quickly and confidently these two move over the sort of moderate ice, mixed ground and fourth-class and low fifth-class terrain that comprises so much of alpine climbing but is rarely compelling in film.

My favorite film on Saturday was “Passe-moi les jumelles: Le Clocher du Portalet," by Pierre-Antoine Hiroz. This one tells the story of two great modern Swiss climbers, Didier Berthod and Simon Anthamatten, free-climbing a 40-year-old aid route under the curious and appreciative gaze of the route’s pioneers, Michel Darbellay and Michel Vaucher, two great Swiss climbers of a prior generation. (Darbellay was first to solo the Eiger's North Face.) The older climbers’ commentary and the interplay between the two generations is heartfelt and filled with mutual respect; it’s clear that a passion for climbing unites all four. This is an understated yet powerful 15-minute film that will be hard to see in the U.S. unless the Banff organizers send it on tour. I hope they do—I’d like to see it again.

Quote of the day: In “Grand Canyon Dreams,” Will Gadd’s short film about paragliding across the Grand Canyon, Gadd initially plans to hang onto a three-wheeled, motorized glider until it reaches sufficient altitude above the canyon rim, whereupon he will jump off. Will doesn’t seem too happy about clinging to one side of this absurdly small and flimsy-looking contraption, and he says so to its pilot, Chris Santacroce, who replies: “Just hang on. You’re a fucking rock climber."

I didn't see the second day of films, but I learned this morning that "Sur le fils des 4000" won the grand prize last night. You can read about all of the prize-winning films at the Banff Mountain Film Festival web site.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Report from Banff (3)

This morning, Geoff Powter, editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal, interviewed Steve House in front of a large audience. House, of course, is one of America's leading alpinists at the moment, and is a blunt voice for the purest forms of alpine-style climbing. Most recently, House and Vince Anderson climbed a direct new route on the 4,100-meter Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in six days up, two days down. Some quotes from today that I liked:

"My mission statement is I want to be the best alpinist I can be. And so I ask myself, how do I structure everything else to meet that goal. Where do I live? What do I do for work? How much do I spend on a car? If you're going to try to be the best you can at anything, then everything else has to follow."

"Different routes have different half-lives, if you will. I might go do half a dozen pitches at Smith Rock, and the next day I'm ready to go climbing again. But after Nanga Parbat I was ready to rest for a while; I was happy not to climb at all. The more intellectually and emotionally involving a climb is, the longer this feeling lasts."

"The perfect climb for me is one that takes everything I have. But, obviously, no more."

Q. Where do you see this taking you?

A. "Back to ground zero. The root of anything, whether it's a project at Smith or Nanga Parbat, is motivation. To find that next project is going to take some time. I just listen to my intuition. Where it takes me next is probably not what people think. They'll think the next bigger, badder, most awesome face. But that's not what's interesting to me. To me that's not pure. It's looking at the target and not at the process."

By the way, Vince Anderson has posted some terrific photos of the Nanga Parbat climb at his Skyward Mountaineering web site.

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Report from Banff (2)


Last night my book, Longs Peak, won the Mountain Exposition Award at the 12th Banff Mountain Book Festival—one of seven winners out of 153 books entered from eight countries. What's Mountain Exposition? Basically it means "other," which is the only place my book really belongs, with its mix of history, climbing stories, geology and nature. (Most of the past winners in this category have been guidebooks; I was told by one organizer that my book was considered for Mountain Literature until the final round of voting, but it's a good thing it was moved—I didn't stand a chance against the superb works there.) The other winners are:

Grand Prize: "Being Caribou," by Karsten Heuer
Mountain Literature: "On Thin Ice," by Mick Fowler
Adventure Travel: "Learning to Breathe," by Andy Cave
Mountain History: "The Villain," by Jim Perrin
Mountain Image: "Mountain Ranges of Colorado," by John Fielder
Canadian Rockies Award: "The 11,000'ers of the Canadian Rockies," by Bill Corbett

I must say it is pleasing to be recognized this way. Writing a book is a load of work for very little financial reward, and it is great to hear strangers say they like what you've done.

I did get a good insight into the power of celebrity in the book world, even in the tiny world of mountain literature. Arlene Blum, author of the landmark 1980 book "Annapurna: A Woman's Place," has just published a memoir, and she gave a talk after the awards last night. Then she and all the award winners signed books in the lobby. Blum had a line forty deep that kept refilling with eager buyers. Meanwhile, Andy Cave and I each signed three or four books and then gave up and headed to the pub. The scene did prompt a good story from Cave. Blum was selling her iconic expedition T-shirt, "A Woman's Place is on Top," and they were going like hotcakes. Before we left, Cave leaned over and told me about a climb he'd done where a Korean women's expedition was in the same area. All of the women proudly and innocently sported T-shirts that read: "A Woman's Place is on the Face."

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Report from Banff

It was T-shirt weather when I left Denver, and it's winter in Banff. But not winter enough, unfortunately. I called a friend upon arriving in town and he gave me the classic, "You should have been here last week" (when it was in the mid-60s and the rock climbing was fantastic), followed immediately by, "You should have come next week" (when colder, cloudy weather is supposed to bring some ice into shape). Well, I'm here now, and only for a few days. Oh well.

I'm here for the Banff Mountain Book Festival, and a bit of the film festival too. First time for me. It's really quite amazing to see a large auditorium with perhaps 400 people who have come out to see...an author. No slides, no video, no celebrity who just appeared on "Oprah." Just a guy talking about books about climbing.

Tonight I saw Jim Perrin, the British author of several fine books, including the new biography of Don Whillans, "The Villain." I liked "The Villain," which is extraordinarily thoughtful and literate, as climbing books go, and also is filled with lively footnotes, in which Perrin, an insider's insider for decades of British climbing, offers the backstory to his accounts. Tonight he gave the backstory to the backstory, explaining how one of his best footnotes actually wasn't what he wrote originally.

The footnote described his visit with Joe Brown, the greatest of all British climbers, who was at once a partner and rival of Whillans. Perrin went to Brown, a longtime friend, to tell him he planned to write a book about Whillans and to ask for his help. Brown sat him down in front of the fire, poured him a large glass of whiskey, and asked, "Why you writin' this book?" (One of the great pleasures of hearing an English writer read from his work is, of course, hearing him imitate his subjects' regional English accents.) Perrrin then "stammered some flummery" about his reasoning for pursuing the book, and Brown went silent for a full five minutes, staring at Perrin the whole time. He broke the excruciating silence to say, "You do know he was an absolute cunt, don't you?"

Except that's not what it says in the book. The backstory is that Brown asked to read the manuscript before it was published, and Perrin agreed. Brown liked it, but a month or so later he called Perrin back and told him that his wife had read it, too, "and she doesn't think I use that sort of language. She's a bit of a feminist." He suggested instead: "You do know that he was an absolute twat, don't you?" Perrin stifled a laugh and suggested, "You know, it does mean about the same thing, Joe." Brown thought some more and then said, "You better just say 'bastard.' But make sure you add this: 'One to one, he was the the best climbing partner I ever had." And that's the way it appears in "The Villain."

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Genetics and Hard Work

It's interesting to read all the Internet chatter this morning following Tommy Caldwell's amazing one-day linkup of the free Nose and Freerider on El Cap. Words like "mutant" and "superhuman" pepper people's comments. Sure, Tommy is a gifted athlete. But athletes never rest on their genes to achieve such great feats. To prepare for this linkup, Tommy did months of incredibly hard endurance training. According to Kelly Cordes, his next-door neighbor in Estes Park, Colorado, a typical training day for Tommy would involve a long, hard bike ride in the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park, followed by sport climbing up to 5.14, followed by a session in the weight gym, followed by more hours on the climbing wall at his dad's house. Week after week after week. I'm sure people don't mean to diminish his accomplishment by calling him a "mutant," as if it comes naturally to him, but in my mind his achievements are only magnified by knowing how hard he works to reach his sky-high goals.

It reminds me a bit of the comments after Matt Carpenter destroyed the record for the Leadville Trail 100 this August. "Well, of course he did it," some said. "He's genetically gifted when it comes to high-altitude running." Yup, Carpenter has the highest VO2 ever tested for a runner. But he also trained hard 13 times a week—that's nearly two sessions a day—every single day for five months in a row to prepare for his great run at Leadville. The greatest athletes start with good genes and then work harder than any of us can imagine to make the most of them.

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