Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings. David Roberts. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1986. 237 pages. $13.95.
In the nearly twenty years since the publication of his first book, The Mountain of My Fear, David Roberts has become one of our finest interpreters of the mountaineering scene. He has written for widely disparate audiences, as this selection of twenty years of his work demonstrates. Some of the pieces are from mountaineering journals, including the AAJ, but most come from wider- circulating magazines, particularly Outside, which has offered him a valuable forum. They are surprisingly consistent in tone, and in the quality of the writing. The mountaineering articles are unusually personal, while the others are without condescension.
By his own account, Roberts has been fortunate in his editors: many have given him a free editorial hand and plenty of space. He complains, understandably, about the exceptions—particularly about the Backpacker editor who “mangled” his article on Boulder and the Shawangunks into “a promo piece for rock climbing.” A comparison of Roberts’ manuscript, which he reprints here, with the published distortion explains his disgust and shows some of the difficulties of writing about climbing for a general audience. Some of Backpacker’s changes were the kinds of excision familiar in any space-pressured magazine. Others were irritating but minor: “fun” replaced “dissipation”; climbing “graybeards of almost forty” became “almost 50.” Roberts seems most exasperated with the coarse context in which his piece was placed, and who can blame him? It is headed, “Think rock climbing is tame? [How many Backpacker readers thought that?] Then you don’t know what’s going on in these two hot spots.” Doubtless such hype sells copies.
The Backpacker editor had a compulsion to explain. Thus his readers learned that the crux is “the most difficult section of a climbing route” and a belay, “the art of supporting or securing a climber by ropes.” Alas, there was more: two separate sets of parentheses define free climbing as being ropeless— amazing news for the thousands of us who have fallen while climbing free.
The interpreter of mountaineering has, to be sure, deeper problems than explaining what a carabiner is. There is the abiding question of why people climb at all. Here Roberts’ dual credentials as writer and major climber are particularly fitting: his explanations are embedded in his narratives. They hold us as the experiences must have held him. With its introduction and headnotes, the book is tantamount to an autobiography: an account not just of climbs— there are many good ones—but of attitudes toward climbing. Roberts is admittedly ambivalent about this “useless pastime,” as he terms it; and these mixed feelings blend with accuracy and candor to give the book its binding strength.
Roberts has written an entire book about exploration hoaxes, and a faked first ascent is at the center of his novella, Like Water and Like Wind. But what more deeply fascinates him, I suspect, is the obverse: authenticity. His doubts and his fears—key words for him—permeate his narratives. The title piece is a harrowing rendition of observed mountain fatalities. The earliest of these— Roberts and his fallen companion were only eighteen—is an initiation story; it is told from the perspective of a later generation, yet recreates the experience of youth—the time when so many of us feel invulnerable to the hazards of the mountains. A moment’s misstep and that is all gone. Roberts has a writer’s eye, and ear, for the validating detail. As his unseen partner begins to fall, he notes “a soft but unmistakable sound, and my brain knew it without ever having heard it before. It was the sound of cloth rubbing against rock.” After several more deaths, the essay ends on a characteristically divided note: a paean to the exaltation of climbing, but with a last word that is elegy as well as affirmation: “It was worth it then.”
Roberts’ ambivalence is both personal—the advent of married life and its responsibilities—and public. Both the author and climbing have greatly changed since he began. His critique of “the public climber” concentrates on a loss of uniqueness and of privacy. Points well taken; but I am not persuaded by his defense of his own role in the process: “There is a difference between writing without ulterior motive about one’s pastime and signing on to be the star of a live TV ascent.” No doubt. But even the writing popularizes our sport, makes it accessible and plausible to a larger audience.
The longest section of the book consists of vivid profiles of well known climbers like Messner and Wiessner, along with one fondly remembered bush pilot, Don Sheldon. All evoke their subjects as human beings, not automata in ascent. (Roberts complains about climbing autobiographies: “What is missing then? Virtually everything that signifies that climbers are real people, as well as climbers. All the internal things.”) Several of the pieces return to old and fascinating controversies, with glimpses of viewpoints that are still largely private: Roskelley about Nanda Devi in 1976, Jack Durrance about K2 in 1939. While rightly warning that “a writer must not become dependent on the approval of his subjects,” Roberts plainly admires, though not unreservedly, even the most prickly of the outstanding climbers he describes.
Roberts raises but does not fully explore the question of responsibility in the mountains. This issue is joined to his deepest themes: judgment, the linking symbolism of the rope, and above all, risk. In the mountains we all take chances—for ourselves, for the partners of our ropes, and even for those who will try to save us if we get into trouble. Roberts describes the search for two young climbers on Mount Washington in the winter of 1982. One of the rescuers was caught in an avalanche and killed. Such things happen in the mountains, as the victim must have known, but the question of responsibility—and its frequent inner corollary, guilt—remains. Roberts addresses the matter, but it gets displaced by his admiration for his spirited hero’s return to hard climbing, without feet or lower legs. Nor is the question pursued in Roberts’ accounts of other accidents, including those which he had witnessed. He experiences grief, even despair, but the urge to climb always overcomes these feelings. I wish he had explored this area of emotion more deeply.
Roberts is plainly worried about the direction that climbing is taking, particularly in this country. “The life-giving impulse behind our climbing has always been escapist, anarchistic, ‘useless,’ he contends with praise in one essay; and in the next (and most recent) he deplores “a modem drift toward narcissism and depersonalization.” As our sport—or avocation, or obsession— becomes even more popular and more public, some of its joys may become transformed, or vanish. A distressing prospect: but fortunately David Roberts will continue to write about it, with his characteristic skill and perception.