Swaramandal, by Pat Ament. Boulder: Vitaar Publishing, 1973. 132 pages, 75 photographs.*
Swaramandal is a window into the fierce, pathetic, warm and comic ways of several personalities on the stage of American rockclimbing. It is a portrait of Layton Kor, like a python, drawing out a lie from Ament and of Kor’s later unexplainable conversion to the Jehovah Witnesses; of Royal Robbins and his kingly bent exposed in a letter to the young Ament, “Your ability to think logically is improving, though occasionally I spot a non-sequitur”; of Chuck Pratt writing elegant prose and wrestling with nightmares and beer bouts; of the rare laugh of Dave Rearick, his piercing intelligence and unique gift to Pat of a wooden, Osage-orange nut; of the strong silence clouding the person of John Gill, and the reserve barely veiling feverish passion for perfection; of Peter Haan’s explosive tantrums; of my own sentimentality.
The book is also a journey into the personal growth of the author. We follow Ament from an early egotistical preoccupation with achievement (“Bragging myself into oblivion” and fighting “an evil which must be excoriated”) to a later period when there are “too many songs to sing” and “too many people who mean too much to me.”
Above all, Swaramandal, like the Indian musical instrument after which it is named, speaks in a sound beyond hearing. Poetic fragments stir our senses and leave us with traces of meaning. Pictures catch personalities off-hand, scrapbook fashion, yielding brief impressions. Here we find the essence of climbing is in fleeting joy and glory, fast moving like cloud shadows on granite, or youthful days in the mountains, forever unretrievable. Listen to the moments, simply hewn and passing like the exhilaration of climbing itself:
“Our ride from Boulder to the Black Canyon a one-way affair, we have to figure a way back.… A switchman opens a caboose for us. ‘Warm up. Go to sleep if you want. They’ll wake you later.’ Briggs resembles a corpse as he dozes.… A switch-engine slams us. We run out, a train humming, and jump on as it goes.… We wake up in blackness, suffocating in Diesel smoke, close to home. We wonder if it is night or day. The train’s horns blast. We hit East Portal and meet morning, blue skies, and mountain valleys where a foot of snow has fallen.…”
“Our ropes are ice … and lock into cracks above us. Larry saves my life, as I claw at a crumbling ledge. A hundred and fifty feet above the ground, shivering, exhausted, our minds going wild, we decide to sit. … Stories we have read. European climbers found under heaps of verglas. We have a flashlight with us and shine it at the road.… A rescue team appears … two shadows in the dark cut their way up a rotten, snow-encrusted chimney, traverse a ledge, rappel to us, and get us down. On the ground, waiting, climbers grapple with the scree, radioing back and forth amongst themselves like a British fleet.…” “Royal asks a cow for directions in a lost valley south of Castleton Tower; the windshield wipers break in a rain storm; we are skidding and sliding above sheer drops … coasting on a twenty-mile hill on the reserve tank, cheering as we go over the last bump into Moab.”
The best of Swaramandal is tucked away at the end of the book, almost as a surprise. Here, we meet Jeff Schwenn and Kris Koprowski. After what seems like a dusk gathering around the pages, fading memories and an end to youthful climbing, Jeff and Kris infuse us with crazy hope. Climbing joys live, sweeping up from new and capable spirits, spirits less somber and more fresh than any portrayed earlier. Kris puts the giants and superegos to shame with simple spoken words: “Dear Pat, I am an admirer of yours. I am 13 years old and think you are the best free climber in the world.… I can climb 5.5 or maybe 5.6 and maybe someday I could climb with you.” Jeff, about the same age as Kris and an asthmatic, is as unpretentious as the washed out photo of him framed to cut off his right ear. He says, “Before meeting Pat, I hear he is egotistical. After getting to know him, however, I find—that he is! But what is wrong with someone realizing he is good at something?” About the Umph Slot, “I also wiggle up the Umph Slot (five-ten), but it isn’t really 5.10 because I am able to squeeze through it.” Pat has truly found a gem in the rough. Again, Jeff Schwenn: “My mother tells me to be careful.… Kris, Pete and I scale a 35-foot wall, Armadillo’s Ass, and christen ourselves the Armadillos.… It is a warm and perfect day, and I am feeling happy with myself … for sticking it out. I think about Armadillos and laugh. But, I better not blow my own head up. Might end up like Ament. He tells me he’s going to write a book: ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ I thank God for Ament’s influence when I am rappelling off the Maiden and am so scared I almost choke.… As fall arrives, several of my friends begin to feel and demonstrate a kind of resentment towards me. Maybe they think I have abandoned them for fame and fortune. Ament is like the Bobby Fischer of climbing and can stir things up. But he is the best friend I have ever had. I forgive my other friends and hope they will forgive me—someday. I wish each of them and all the Armadillos could do T2 with Pat.…”
Swaramandal will be received much like Pat Ament himself. Some will say the book is great, others will say it is awful; some will sneer and some will cry. But for those inclined to listen, Swaramandal sings out the sounds of many a climber’s inner world.
*This review reprinted from Mountain Gazette with permission.