Ascent. Allen Steck, Steve Roper, and David Harris, editors. Golden, CO: The American Alpine Club Press, 1999. Large format, numerous color and black-and-white photographs. 314 pages. $24.95.
Shortly after the New Year, the New York Times published a list of sports and the American sportspersons who excelled at them in 1999. As I recall, there were close to 100 activities, not all of them athletic, including more than a handful of which I had never heard. Rock climbing was not on the list, not even in the version known as sport climbing. The lack of regulated and publicized competition complete with spectators leading to “national” or “world” championships probably has a lot to do with this omission.
At the same time, climbing is almost alone in having a literature produced by the actual participants. Deep-water sailing can also lay a claim here, and perhaps it is the isolation and the accompanying lack of spectators that forces climbers and sailors to the equally isolated task of writing. If they don’t do it, nobody else will or even can, and climbers intuitively know that the as-told-to gambit common in other sports just isn’t going to come close to what they experienced. The surprising thing is not that some climbers write, but that some of them write very well.
So we have the doing, then the talking (writing) about the doing, and then the talking about the talking about the doing: action, narration, criticism. There must be something about thefirst that justifies the second, and, similarly, climbing is the only sport I know of where the quality of the narration has given rise to a discussion of the writing in itself. Of course, as intertwined (incestuous?) as this all is, to discover or perceive something about the narrator through his story is also to discover something about the climber and, perhaps, about climbing.
Which brings us to the 14th issue of Ascent. It reminds me of the thick stews that Chouinard used to cook up after collecting 50 cents each (half of our daily budget) from the exposed-ribbed and culinarily-challenged climbers hanging around camp. Only about a third of the articles are narratives of climbs in the traditional manner (meat). About half of the articles attempt in one way or another to get at climbing through writing about the peripheries of climbing (assorted vegetables in season). There are some fictional pieces and poetry (spices, I suppose). And then one finds several interesting articles directly addressing issues of climbing writing. One wonders, are there articles on golf writing, baseball writing, even ski writing?
Sampling the meat category, Stephen Venables goes off the beaten track in the Himalaya for a first ascent on Kasum Kanguru; Andy Selters wins the Palm d’ Sweat Award while testing the proposition that as far as adventure goes, failure is just as good as success; and Greg Crouch gives a vivid account of going up, then down, then up, then down, then up, etc., for more than two months before finally bivouacking on the summit of Cerro Torre. Without such exploits and the engaging stories that connect the rest of us to them (if only in our imagination), the other varieties of climbing writing would provide less nourishing fare.
As it is, however, when David Pagel goes to have dinner with Anderl Heckmair, the Eigerwand looms in the background as we get a view different from the standard one recounted by Heinrich Harrer in The White Spider. Pagel brings Heckmair alive (like others, I had assumed he was dead by now, but he is not only alive, he twinkles), and Heckmair resuscitates the rivalries, the politics, the personality differences that surround climbers, then as now. (Why was Heckmair standing on a balcony with Hitler with his right hand behind his back? Read the article.) And when Amy Irvine goes into the Tetons alone in the wake of the disappearance of another woman in the Wind Rivers, we feel what we probably knew—not only that the wilderness is smaller, but also that other humans can now be counted as among the objective dangers, in Wyoming as well as in Pakistan. The more extreme joustings also lead John Thackray to consider anew why we do it, why some but not others actively seek sensation. But this time around he offers various psychological and neurobiological theories, not so much to explain our motivations as to provide needed ammunition against those, especially those in authoritarian or influential positions, who see climbing as not only senseless but also irresponsible.
If a main motivation of the editors is to publish pieces that somehow touch on and illuminate the more ineffable aspects of our sport, two pieces in particular must have been especially satisfying: John Embank’s “Ironmongers of the Dreamtime” and Joe Kelsey’s “Too Old for 5.12, Too Young for Obituaries.” Both climbers are now in their 50s; both are grounded in a place, Ewbank in New South Wales, Kelsey in Joshua Tree; both know there is no direct line to where they want to go, so they look around a comer, wander across a face, double back to a slanting crack, hoping it will all connect. Ewbank observes, “Climbers are obsessed with an experience they wish to share, but which they do not wish to be altered or lessened.” Ewbank has in mind physical altering—piton scars, bolts, that sort of thing—but, of course, even the telling will alter it, and even a good climb can be lessened by trying to make it seem like an even better climb. His article was originally a speech delivered a few years ago at the Escalade Festival, and it flows with a raconteur’s ease from Australian climbing history to his own history to discussions of ethics and trends and finally to a kind of verbal arm-waving that indicates it’s up there somewhere, whatever it is we’re after.
For both Ewbank and Kelsey, silence, specifically the silence of rock, enters into the equation. Kelsey avers that he seeks “not the meaning of climbing but the experience of climbing. Given rock’s silence, there’s not much to say about the experience, other than that I’d like to hear the silence, be so at home that a cliff transfigures into Eden.” Like, perhaps, when we were young, before we stumbled into self-consciousness and started trying to shape the narrative of our lives. Kelsey’s piece continues a previous account of middle-aged Joshua Tree adventures, and in both cases we sense that while the JT trips are experiences in their own right, they also provide an excuse for Kelsey to write well about what he loves.
And there is much more in this issue, photos, drawings, paintings, a history of climbing gear from grappling hook to bat hook and beyond, and a history and survey of, of all things, climbing magazines. I found that not everything appealed to me, but I am willing to say that’s just me. I think the book is best put on a coffee table, not for show, but to be dipped into from time to time. That way each of the pieces has some time to breath, like a good cabernet.
The front cover of Ascent shows two very small climbers ascending a relatively gentle but corniced ridge. One suspects that what seems to be the summit is not the summit (never mind that the photo credit says that it is). The back cover, however, provides for me the better metaphor for our sport. A climber, arms raised, legs akimbo, is caught leaping from one pinnacle to an adjacent one while below, a quaint village nestles against a fjord. It’s up there, somewhere, whatever it is we are after.