American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide; Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs: Rock Climbing on the Edge of Reality; 6194: Denali Solo

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1997

Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide. Lou Whittaker with Andrea Gabbard. Seattle: The Mountaineers. 1994. 271 pages. $24.95.

Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs: Rock Climbing on the Edge of Reality. John Long. New York: Fireside/ Simon and Schuster. 1994. 174 pages. Paperback. $11.00.

6194: Denali Solo. Ed Darack. Davis, California: Ed Darack Photography. 1995. 168 pages. $12.00.

Book reviewing is far from an exact science. Reviewers are responsible to their audience, to the author and publisher, and, in our case, to their knowledge of the history of both climbing and writing about climbing. Also, of course, reviewers are responsible for speaking the truth as they see it. Likewise, book review editing is imprecise. While our goal is to review books annually according to the calendar year in which they’re published (i.e., books published in ‘96 are reviewed in the ‘97 Journal), innumerable are the means by which titles fall through the cracks, human error being by far the most prevalent of these. The following brief remarks are intended to make amends for some notable omissions.

Initially, I saw these three titles merely as a small, randomly selected group of books that ought to have been reviewed in past journals. Thinking about them as a group, other similarities emerged. With not too much of a stretch they provide an answer to the riddle of the Sphinx: what walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? Darack, Long, and, Whittaker, respectively. These three writers are at varying stages of their lives and climbing careers—Whittaker, the three-legged man in Oedipus’ answer (the third leg being an ice ax, not a cane) is now in his late 60s and has spent a full life in the mountains. Long, in his early 40s, has devoted at least half his adult life to the practice; and Darack, crawling on all fours in comparison to the other two, is a 20-year-old with a vision. Another spectrum they span is the variety of their publishers: Whittaker’s book is published through The Mountaineers, a specialty house well known to readers of the AAJ; Long’s, from Harper and Row, a mainstream literary house; and Darack’s, self-published on desktop. They’re all climbers, of course, all Americans, and each is bound to a home range, so to speak: Whittaker to Mt. Rainier, Long to Yosemite Valley, Darack to Denali. Considered as a group they offer an interesting portrait of the diversity of our endeavor that spans three generations.

Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide is a straight-forward, unpretentious autobiography (co-authored by Andrea Gabbard, who has managed to make herself invisible: the voice speaking always sounds like Lou’s). Over the years, beginning in the middle 1970s, I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with Whittaker on several occasions. He has always struck me as an American version of the Russian title Ambassador of Sport. It’s not merely his physical stature (large and aging imperceptibly) that lends to this impression, but his unbounded enthusiasm for the mountains, climbing, and, well, life. So my particular dilemma when reading the book was the fear that it wouldn’t measure up to the man himself. Books rarely, if ever, do.

My interest in the book’s subjects—not just Whittaker himself, but the lively constellation of people who have swirled around him, as well as his life-long association with Mt. Rainier— certainly lent to my appreciation of it. A friend of mine, a literate climber and writer and distinctly Californian, called the book “plodding autobiography.” But one reader’s “plodding” is another’s “straightforward”.

Among the most interesting revelations in the book are about his relationship with his brother, Jim. If you were inclined to think of Lou as the other Whittaker, the one who didn’t summit Everest in ‘63, you’ll find Lou’s account here illuminating. Lou’s reasons for not going to Everest and his genuine happiness over his brother’s success are typical of a person who lives life with few regrets. We learn, however, that the expedition they did participate on together, the K2 expedition of ‘75, did strain their friendship. As Lou points out, Galen Rowell’s Throne Room of the Mountain Gods describes many of that expedition’s conflicts, but not all of them. And while Whittaker is frank in his opinion of Rowell on the climb, it hardly seems personal, nor does he invite the reader in any way to “take sides.” In fact, he recommends Rowell’s’ book to us as a resource at his book’s end.

Memoirs of a Mountain Guide is nicely augmented by short guest essays by family members, friends and climbing partners. Of these, Jim Wickwire’s separate comments on the K2 expedition and on the death of Marty Hoey on Everest in ‘82, as well as Peter Whittaker’s (Lou’s son) description of the guiding accident on Rainier in ‘81 that took 10 lives, are among the most memorable.

For all his optimism and good cheer, there’s a lot of loss chronicled here: in addition to Marty Hoey, Whittaker saw others he was close to die in the mountains. Whittaker was close to Chris Kerrebrock, whose death on Denali was surely among the most horrible in American mountaineering history. It was Kerrebrock, a young guide in Lou’s company, who secured the permit for Everest in ‘81, and Whittaker delivered the eulogy at his memorial service. He speaks respectfully of Willi Unsoeld and mourns his death on Rainier in ‘79. When Whittaker says . . it’s nice to think his [Unsoeld’s] spirit might return someday. In many ways I feel it has never left.” he’s voicing the sentiments of many of us who were touched by Unsoeld. And while Whittaker is far too humble to make the connection or even to imply it, despite their many differences, there’s a lot of Unsoeld in Whittaker: they’re mountain men and teachers who live large and touch many.

When the book ends, Whittaker’s pace seems to be slowing. In addition to the guide service, he runs a bunkhouse and espresso joint outside Rainier National Park; he tells us about doing walk-a-thons, and advises us to protect our knees, especially on descents. But in the very last two paragraphs of the last chapter he’s planning an expedition to Bhutan for an attempt on an unclimbed 7400-meter peak.

When I first read in the foreword, “Everything I know, everything I believe in, I’ve learned in the mountains,” I felt uneasy for the man who wrote the words. I thought he might not be able to keep from coming off the page as a kind of single-minded jock. But when I looked back at the line from the book’s end, it simply seemed true and straightforward, like the rest of the book, like the man himself.

The title of John Long’s Rock Jocks, Wall Rats and Hang Dogs: Rock Climbing on the Edge of Reality says a mouthful, and a reader’s first impression might be that the title was thrown together in catchy one-syllable adjective/noun pairs to merely grab our attention; the subtitle added to ground Long’s particular hipness to the more general “edge of reality” theme (the stuff of soft-drink commercials), all for audience appeal. As it turns out, the title has been much more carefully considered: each pair of words bespeaks a historical progression in the “sport” of rock climbing, and Long’s purpose here is to delineate this movement and place himself in it (though he works backward, as it were, from the self outward). The subtitle is catchy, but serves to ground us more literally than the preceding trio of terms, which are abstractions. In fact, the edge of reality is very much Long’s subject here. His edges are numerous: between experience and memory, the horizontal and the vertical, Yosemite Valley and the outside world, dream and consciousness, humility and pride, the speakable and the unspeakable, the sacred and the secular. In other words, it’s an ambitious book.

The text is organized into an introduction and three sections. The first section is a prelude to Yosemite (self-consciously so) and, combined with the introduction, takes up nearly half the book. Part Two takes place almost exclusively in Yosemite and comprises the largest section of the text, including: a very generous tribute to Jim Bridwell as mentor; a description of the community of Camp 4; Long's ascent of the Nose; his ground-breaking one-day ascent of the Nose; and the phenomenon of John Bachar. The third section is brief and offers an overview of what happened to climbing after Long left it and an even more distanced epilogue (though it’s not explicitly set aside as a epilogue).

Thankfully, Long has included the classic photo of the one-day ascent of the Nose team that features Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell, and Long himself standing below El Cap in their psychedelic/polyester garb, cigarettes dangling from their lips in arrival-announcing posture. It’s one ofthe classic photos of Yosemite climbing—a generation-defining moment, in fact. But this book goes a long way in glossing that shot; as much as we might like to believe that a picture says a thousand words, Long shows us here in his writing that the real picture is much larger and the thousand words that photo might show us are just a thousand of many thousand more. The writing, of course, is the work of an older and wiser man. (The fact that Bridwell and Westbay are misidentified in the photo may in fact suggest that aspects of the book’s production and shape somehow got away from the writer’s control.)

Clearly, Long himself holds El Cap in especial esteem: the two most sustained accounts of actual climbing in the text are Long’s first time up the Nose with Ron Fawcett, and later his famous one-day ascent of the Nose in a day with Bridwell and Westbay. Interestingly, Long was also a member of another of the most famous climbs in the valley, the first free ascent of the East Face of Washington Column, which was renamed Astroman after the ascent. And he does mention the importance of Astroman in the evolution of climbing in the Valley, but curiously does not mention his role in it. It’s a surprisingly humble omission, but I think it speaks as much as anything to the hold El Cap has on his imagination.

In the end it’s Long’s humility and awed response to the Valley that stay with the reader. In the introduction he paints himself as a callow youth:

“We had no sensitivity at all concerning Yosemite as regarded by Ansel Adams or John Muir or anyone but fellow climbers.”

This statement (which seems both confessional and humble in tone) seems wrong-headed to me. Long is probably wrong about his relationship to Muir and Adams—wrong about them, and ultimately wrong about himself. They are much more alike than decorum would have Long claim. The humility he learned from Jim Bridwell (a neat trick—to describe oneself as humble and have it appear to remain true!) is perhaps overwrought here. The book itself works against this disassociation from Adams and Muir, and in fact speaks to their common passions, their shared artistic endeavor of turning their varied experiences and visions of Yosemite Valley into art.

6194: Denali Solo is Ed Darack’s story of his solo climb of Denali in 1991 when he

was 20 years old. Darack is a novice climber, but of the old school. He didn’t learn climbing at NOLS or Outward Bound, and he didn’t take a course or hire a guide. He’s not a trust fund baby and he didn’t have an older, more experienced friend show him the ropes. He made his own way.

The climb he accomplished on Denali was the oft-traveled West Buttress, and while not a member of a climbing group, Darack is the first to admit he often climbed near others or camped in their company. As a writer, Darack is no prose stylist. His photography is certainly interesting but the printing here is only good enough to let us know that much (Darack hopes to some day republish the book in a coffee table edition with full color reproduction. It would be well worth a look).

To recap: an average climb, average (at best) writing, good photos but average reproduction. So why do I love this book so much?

Simple. I admire the writer’s drive and I admire his vision, both as a climber and as a self-publisher. He’s self-reliant in a way that seems out of fashion these days (yeah, I’m well over 40).

There’s no whining in this book. And even though it’s a desktop effort, its design and layout are first rate. The record of his photograph-making is meticulous (if perhaps unnecessary). Considering the fact that it’s self-published, the book is remarkably free of self-aggrandizement—no small feat.

There’s no bolt clipping in this book. (I know, that’s a cheap shot, betraying my traditional prejudices. In fact, I enjoy clipping bolts myself; I just don’t think the subject makes much of a story.) That admission aside, I think this book offers the hope that the future of climbing can be as glorious as its past, a promise I simply do not expect to be fulfilled by the chronicles of sport climbing.

When I paid full price for 6194: Denali Solo at the bookshop, I did it out of curiosity: I wanted to read the book, find out about his climb and what he got out of it. But more than that, I wanted to support the effort: I want to see what the kid does next.

David Stevenson

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