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In Brief: Notes from the Banff Mountain Book Festival 2004

In Brief: Notes from the Banff Mountain Book Festival 2004

Twelve years ago North America launched its first mountain literature event: the Banff Mountain Book Festival. Each November the festival celebrates the world’s best mountain and adventure travel stories through readings, presentations, seminars, book signings, a book fair, and the presentation of internationally recognized awards for mountain literature.

Last year 137 books were entered in the 11th annual competition in Banff. A committee selected 32 finalists, which were then submitted to an international jury that included UK-based mountaineer and author Colin Wells; Lisa Christensen, a writer and curator with Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies; and writer, editor, and adventurer Donovan Webster.

The Jon Whyte Award for Mountain Literature, sponsored by the Whyte Museum, went to Life and Limb: A True Story of Tragedy and Survival Against the Odds by Jamie Andrew, Piatkus Books (UK, 2004), a book that jury members found had a “compelling and agonizingly suspenseful quality about it.” It told the story of Andrew’s rescue after five nights trapped by a storm on Mont Blanc. Frostbite injuries are horrible and debilitating. But what happened to Jamie Andrew in January 1999 transcended alpinists’ worst fears. Storm-bound for six days in what proved to be a very effective wind tunnel near the top of the north face of the Droites, he developed injuries so serious that he subsequently lost his feet and hands to amputation. His climbing partner Jamie Fisher lost his life. It’s a grim, ghastly tale and a scenario most climbers would file under “Nightmare.” But what the jury found extraordinary about Jamie Andrew’s book, which recalled his terrible ordeal and its aftermath, was that it wasn’t depressing at all. Instead, it was gripping, intriguing, and often very funny.

Nearly half the book is concerned with the climb on the Droites and the terrible situation in which the climbers subsequently found themselves. In Andrew’s deft style, the tale has a compelling and agonizingly suspenseful quality about it. Andrew skillfully maintains a page-turning impetus by leavening the horror with retrospective vignettes from his climbing life.

What also distinguishes Andrew’s book from most in what might be termed the “Triumph over Adversity” genre, are his insightful observations on life and society in general. And Andrew is not afraid to laugh at himself: “Tales of mastering the art of rolling your own fags without fingers, how to sup a spillage-free pint, or wipe your bum without hands are the kind of thing that rarely find their way into medical textbooks.”

What shines through in this unexpectedly enjoyable book is the writer’s extraordinarily positive attitude. It would have been all too easy to lapse into gushing sentimentality, but Andrew staunchly resisted this. Instead, like Joe Simpson, Andrew discovers a latent talent for writing that only a mountaineering epic seems to have allowed him to uncover.

Other books considered by the Banff jury and of interest to our readers include:

The Best Book—Mountain Exposition award went to Will Gadd for Ice & Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique, The Mountaineers Books (2003). A blend of step-by-step instruction and real-life stories, the book was described by jury members as “utterly bang up-to-date, as Gadd’s still at the top of his game.” The judges found the book to be well laid-out, accessible, and very thorough.

The Big Open: On Foot Across Tibet’s Chang Tang, Rick Ridgeway (National Geographic Press) describes a journey across Tibet’s northern plateau in search of the calving grounds of the chiru, an endangered antelope. Ridgeway was accompanied by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Galen Rowell—Rowell’s last big adventure. The jury commented that it was “a great story and cause.” The cause is the group’s discovery the Chinese government plans to create a national preserve.

The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey Through the Mountains of Norway by Paul Watkins (National Geographic Press) describes a solo adventure through the Rondanne and Jutunheimen mountains of Norway and makes connections between the landscape and mythical presences. The jury called it an “almost perfect blend of personal experience and historic reflection.”

In the Ghost Country: A Lifetime Spent on the Edge by Peter Hillary and John Elder (Free Press) retraces Scott’s epic but tragic journey to the South Pole as the backdrop for Hillary’s own autobiography. Jurists remarked that “weaving literature, adventure lore, and Hillary’s experience achieves something remarkable.”

Everest Pioneer, the Photographs of Captain John Noel by Sandra Noel (Sutton Publishing, UK) collects the official Everest photographs from the 1922 and 1924 expeditions. The panel found the photographs superb and were impressed by the excerpts from John Noel’s own writing.

The 12th annual Banff Mountain Book Festival will take place in Banff, November 2-4, 2005. For anyone interested in submitting an entry into the competition, contact banffmountain-books@banffcentre.ca. A new Mountain Writing Program offers up to eight established writers an opportunity to develop a major essay, memoir, or book project on a mountain theme.

Bernadette McDonald, Director, Banff Mountain Festivals