American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Deep Play, A Climbers Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls; Stories of a Young Climber: An Autobiography

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1998

Deep Play, A Climbers Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls. Paul Pritchard. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1997. 16-page color insert. 192 pages. $22.95.

Stories of a Young Climber: An Autobiography. Pat Ament. Two Lights: Boulder, 1996. 262 pages. $15.95.

Deep Play, winner of the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award for mountaineering literature in 1997, is a collection of essays, mostly short non-fiction accounts of “cutting edge” climbs by Paul Pritchard. The book is distinguished by two qualities: the nature of the climbs he describes and the impressionistic style in which he describes them. Of these two features, it is the nature of the climbs that leaves the strongest impression on the reader. In fact, one wonders if the award was made more in appreciation of the climbing Pritchard does and the sacrifices he has made to it rather than the quality of the writing.

The climbing is traditional in the best sense of the word: ground-up, alpine-style, minimal bolting, a penchant for new lines in exotic locales—Meru in the Himalaya, Mt. Asgard on Baffin Island, the Central Tower of Paine in Patagonia. The organization of the text is chronological: we follow Pritchard from his childhood (“I was born on top of a quarry”) to the scene of his recovery from a fall (four crushed vertebrae, a broken sternum, and a fractured skull). This latter, one gathers, is of lesser seriousness than the accident recalled in an earlier essay, “A Game One Climber Played,” which recounts a groundfall (no, that’s wrong, it’s a fall to the water) from which he has to be resuscitated.

When I say “one gathers,” I mean it literally—it’s hard sometimes to tell exactly what happens. Pritchard quite consistently abandons the literal for the figurative, imaginative, impressionistic. The reader can’t always tell exactly what happens, but nonetheless has arrived (if he’s patient) at a sense of what has happened that’s somehow larger than the literal. In fact, my accounting of his injuries from a “Healing Lesson from Andy Parkin” comes not from the essay itself, but from the very useful “Notes About the Essays” that conclude (and clarify) the text.

The book opens with “Firestarter,” a short piece about his childhood among the industrial dereliction of an abandoned mine. Climbers often feel compelled to start the story of their climbing lives at the beginning, and it’s often dull stuff. In Pritchard’s case, however, “Firestarter” is illuminating, rich, and evocative. “My old man didn’t like me going to school,” he tells us, and the only school-related tale in the whole book is of his jumping four stories down a stairwell, an event from which he “woke up in hospital,” the first of many such awakenings. Off hand, I can’t think of another climber writing about his childhood in a way that made me care, or in a way that made me want to read it on its own merits as opposed to because it was attached to someone who later became a climber of interest.

There are numerous memorable moments throughout, often descriptions of falls, fears, or friends. This one from “Just Passing Through” gives a general sense of Pritchard’s level of both observation and lyricism:

… new rock was the essence of climbing for us. Throwing loose holds over the shoulder, feeling the exposed grains crush like sugar on footholds, no chalk ahead to show the way and no idea, apart from a contract the eye has with the body of whether you are capable of getting up a thing or not.… I felt then that Frey was another special place. A place where climbers lived who cared for it, and knew it well enough to say that the yellow rock was more brittle than the red, or that there are hidden holds inside that crack, or that the number of condors is on the up, that the boulder in the next valley gives good shelter, or at what time exactly does the sun shine on that face of the mountain. Simple shared knowledge. That which we have of our home rocks.

I have always admired climbers who explore the limits of the endeavor, that is, whose personal limits are at the very edge of what’s humanly possible at the moment. But one wonders if Pritchard does not rather define this line a little too loosely. In his introduction, Pritchard admits to wishing to emulate the writing of Joe Tasker and Menlove Edwards, but one worries that he may also unwittingly follow them to an early death. Even as his climbing career begins, he exhibits an attitude about risk entirely foreign to my view: “The falls you could take off the hard slate were legendary and I wanted to take one.” He continues: “I didn’t have to wait long”—falling 80 feet, ripping out nine nuts, and stopping four feet off the ground. So when he takes even longer, more serious falls, or when his friends die (three of them recounted in the book), or when I hear that he’s recently been in another serious life-threatening climbing accident, I am deeply saddened but hardly surprised. In fact, I worry that in praising the work, I encourage him to climb on in a manner I myself would not: Are we not then complicitous in his next accident?

Is this the best of mountaineering literature published in 1997, as the Boardman Tasker Award would have it? The judges’ criteria were: “Which of the books went closest to the heart of the nature of modern mountaineering? Which were concerned to describe, explore, respond to what mountaineering has become?” I understand their rationale, although I may not necessarily have voted their way. A couple prospective reviewers declined to review it, citing that they thought it poorly written. For me, the strengths of the prose far outweigh its flaws, which others may perceive as too impressionistic, too sloppy (verb-tense changes for example, a conspicuous disinterest in the concept of “complete sentences”) and a general sacrifice of spatial and temporal specificity for an interior view.

Apparently some American readers have complained about his being on the “dole,” our equivalent of unemployment compensation, to support his climbing. The dole was a pittance by any measure and Pritchard’s standard of living seemed to border on subsistence level. The man lived to climb. There’s a glossary of climbing terms—hardly needed as it’s doubtful the book will reach many non-climbing readers. There’s also a “chapter-by-chapter glossary of British colloquialisms” for which, though far from complete, I will be eternally grateful for the etymology of “knacker”. The colloquialisms and their lyrical flow are very much the charm of Pritchard’s writing style.

At Sron Ulladale in the Outer Hebrides, he and Johnny Dawes—amid a trip on which they eat little else but cabbage and “glutinous gruel,” and on which they endure a non-stop midge attack—wave at two fisherman out on the Loch, their only human contact of the week. “On our return to our dining cave,” he tells us, “we were warmed by the sight of two trout lying there.” Pritchard, I believe, returns this gesture in Deep Play, a gift that surprises, warms, and nourishes.

In Pat Ament and Tom Higgins’ well known co-authored piece “Nerve Wrack Point,” Higgins says, “Ament and his traveling medicine show. Riding freights. Cutting records. Walking a tightwire over some canyon in Colorado. Running from the law. Having three affairs at once!” Higgins’ description may not quite be literally true (then, in ’73, or now), but Ament’s life story does have that feel: it’s a wild and varied show, tempered in the years since Higgins described him with the sort of self-examination that Socrates claimed makes life worth living.

To paraphrase Stephen Venables opening to his review of Into Thin Air: I approached Pat Ament’s autobiography, Stories of a Young Climber, warily. In a letter to the editor of Rock & Ice, Tom Frost complained rather vehemently of Ament’s treatment in a review. Indeed, Frost and Royal Robbins speak enthusiastically for the book on its back cover. Conversely, others declined to review it because they believed anything bad they might say would be dismissed as a product of envy, rivalry, or some long-standing dispute of which I am happily unaware. In order to avoid assigning the review to the wrong person, I decided to do it myself.

I was greatly relieved to find much to praise here. And while I can’t place myself in one of Frost’s extreme camps (he says you’ll either love the book or hate it), if I had to choose, I’d say that the kind of life he’s led, the sort of climbing he has done, represent the very best aspects of our endeavor.

Ament’s gift as a writer is his ability to evoke a mood, to describe the feeling of what it was to be there, whether it be on the Diamond, the Nose, or England’s Cenotaph Corner. But most often and most specifically, there refers to the crags around Boulder where Ament was raised in the 1950s and early ’60s, and where he continues to live. Ament exemplifies, as well as anyone can, that “simple shared knowledge” of “our home rocks” of which Pritchard speaks. In passing, he mentions that he’s done perhaps 100 ascents of the Bastille’s West Buttress. By 1969 (when he was in his early 20s), he tallied ninety-five 5.10 routes and 253 5.9s. (If you think it’s bragging or compulsive to keep count, you would do well to remember that this list was compiled for an application to the AAC!)

Ament does sometimes come off as egotistical, a charge that seems to puzzle him. But in my view that sense of egotism is almost never in descriptions of climbing but more in service of his other interests: martial arts, chess, music, poetry. His listing of awards, favorable reviews, and particularly the comments of well-known persons on his writing all come across to me not so much as signs of a large ego, but of a fragile, needy one. There are far more occasions in the book on which he comes off as genuinely modest. In fact, his list of material possessions—the things of the world that matter to him—is touchingly modest and best of all, it shows a life committed to matters of the spirit, instead of telling us of such a commitment.

Showing is the far superior narrative mode, for it allows the reader to make up his own mind. For example, the early chapters on childhood and adolescence evoke a Wordsworthian sense of innocence and wonder in nature. For me, this is somewhat undercut in a later chapter when Wordsworth is literally invoked several times. Likewise, the repeated references to what this or that person said of him come off as testimonials and seem to me more likely to produce in the reader the very opposite of their intended effect. Let the work speak for itself. These are really my only criticisms of the book, and in my opinion, could be addressed by a good editor.

Ament is clearly an intuitive spiritual soul and, once in a while, he garners meaning from a coincidence or a glance or a moment that he asks us to take on faith. Sometimes this comes across as new-agey or incommunicable. But more often, and repeatedly, I found myself thinking, “Exactly—he’s hit it exactly right here.”

And for a person of such strong religious beliefs, I think Ament has a light touch—he tells us of a journal of spiritual experiences too private to share. Good move, I think.

I was thinking about this book in relation to Deep Play—one an international award winner and one not even short-listed. And yet, the books seem somewhat similar to me, both in their intents and their strengths: evocative, lyrical, and heartfelt. Though the writers’ commitments to climbing are similar, their approaches are not. In How to be a Master Climber in Six Easy Lessons (a quirky and wise little volume that reminds us that safety and adventure need not be mutually exclusive. Also available from Two Lights, $10.95), Ament begins by stating that “the truly best climbers had to be, by definition, also the safest and … one does not have to sacrifice safety to push standards.” This seems inherently true to me, but apparently not to Pritchard or by extension, to last year’s judges of the Boardman Tasker Award.

While Frost’s judgment that this is the finest work to emerge from American climbing writing is perhaps colored by years of friendship, I can see why he makes the claim, and I think it’s a claim well worth considering. When reading Master of Rock or Spirit of the Age (his bios of Gill and Robbins, respectively) one must admit that Ament has terrific subjects. But when the gaze is directed back at the self—then what? If anything, Ament is more interesting than Gill or Robbins, simply because he’s essentially more mysterious, more troubled, more unknowable, perhaps even to himself. His suffering is a palpable thing and we watch him struggle with the world, well-meaning and misunderstood.

In a year of mountain books dominated by sensational tragedies and gorgeously slick coffee table tomes, Pat Ament’s book is beautiful reminder that a climber’s life might be a modest and holy thing. It’s a reminder we need.

David Stevenson

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