11 The Sharp End

Posted on: April 28, 2013


Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memory.—Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library," Die Literarische Welt, 1931

In 1965 a young British man sat in the dark wood-paneled dining hall of the seminary where he was training to become a priest. For the evening reading, instead of a religious book, someone had chosen Jack Olsen's history of the Eiger Nordwand, The Climb Up to Hell. The reader arrived at the end of the 1936 attempt: Toni Kurz hung from a rope, one hand frozen. Cold water glistened down his crampons, turning into spears of ice. A few meters above his would-be rescuers, he struggled with a jammed knot. "I'm finished," he said, and he died.


For the first time that Joe Tasker could remember, all 300 teachers and students fell into complete silence. "Not a knife rattled, not a cup clattered," he wrote. Outside the stained-glass windows, the sky dimmed. The gothic chapel, the fields and the small groves vanished. He'd never thought about climbing before. Soon he began practicing on the pale sandstone of a nearby quarry wall. "It was as if a wondrous new world had opened up." He found a copy of The White Spider and "devoured it by torchlight...long after 'lights out,' until...the words seemed to dance on the page" (Savage Arena, 1982).

Within a few years, he'd left the seminary. He became one of the greatest climbers and writers of his generation. In 1982 he disappeared amid the dark towers of Everest's Northeast Ridge.

For generations, climbers have written about the moment when a book transformed them. Forty-seven-year-old Nick Bullock first read Mark Twight's writing as a weary prison guard: "It grabbed me and shook away the grey." Thirty-three-year-old Freddie Wilkinson discovered Banner in the Sky as an elementary school student. He felt "liberated, finding some encouragement that my silent urges weren't entirely irreconcilable with modern life." Ed Webster's stepmother handed him Luke Jerstad's Everest Diary when he was still a restless boy. Decades later, after climbing the Neverest Buttress of Mt. Everest, Webster composed the classic Snow in the Kingdom, "typing out the words in agonizing taps with...black, mummified, frostbitten fingers."

The writer Harold Bloom once noted that the root sense of influence is "inflow," and that "to be influenced" originally meant to be inundated by a flow from the stars that streamed through minds like a river of light, irradiating and shifting the direction of existence (The Anxiety of Influence, 1973). Beneath the history of mountaineering, a steady, shimmering current ran of great books generating adventures—some of which, it seemed, would always give rise to more great books.

I grew up in a New England town on the edge of a small forest. By age nine, I'd learned each twist of its well-worn paths. And with each step, the mystery had receded, leaving only the sun fading across dry leaves, the hollows behind low hills, the boundaries of roads reached too soon. It was then that I began to dream of mountains: granite towers that burst through fields, sloughing off the maple trees and hay; hallways that turned into icy couloirs; plowed-snow mounds that crystallized into giant white peaks.

I was twenty-two when I realized that existence might be more magic than those dreams. On impulse, I joined my college mountaineering club, after I found its meeting room hidden near the dark corner bay of an old brick building. Mostly, now, I remember the shelves of worn books. Framed by cream-colored paper, their black and white photos gleamed like windows into countless otherworlds: the curl of a cornice, the sharp-glass points of penitentes. After a day of ice climbing, my classmates' headlamps formed constellations in the deepening, violet air. Meltwater fell in silver sounds, splashing and refreezing into giant sheaves of ice. Entire realms, it seemed, could be shattered and rebuilt. The walls between real life and stories might be as permeable as the light of the evening stars.

In 1902 the British magician Aleister Crowley traveled up the Baltoro Glacier with his partners toward the shining pyramid of K2. Porters trudged amid giant boulders and ice pinnacles, carrying food, firewood—and Crowley's vellum-bound library. "Either I took my books with me or I left the expedition," Crowley explained. "I would rather bear physical starvation than intellectual starvation, any day of the week" (Confessions, 1979). Today, the image recalls the extravagance of an imperial age. To many climbers, however, the mere physical presence of books still has an irresistible allure. "A well-thumbed book has history," Bullock says, "much like the stories it has between its covers, and in reading, thumbing, touching the pages, looking at that food stain, that crumb of bread, the reader feels even more connected."

So much of climbing is about touch and form. Our progress—and at times our lives—depends upon reading the changing nuances of rock, ice and snow. Compared with this urgent, vivid contact, digital stories can appear disembodied, ghostlike, summoned and banished with the tap of a hand. "Reading an eBook," Alpinist writer Jerry Auld says, "is like climbing a poster of a mountain." Climbers know (perhaps more intensely than most) how memories can gather like snow and dust within the curve of a polished handhold, the crease of a page or a room full of books.

Late at night, a library can seem like a forest of infinite paths. I wander from world to world: the floodwaters of the Karakoram, the rain dark mist of Han Shan's Cold Mountain. Each story is a small map of the endless, radiant lands within a writer's imagination—a glimpse of all that vanishes whenever anyone dies.

By the low, wet dunes of Texel Island, the mountain historian Bob A. Schelfhout-Aubertijn spent years amassing books about K2, a mountain that had haunted him ever since his 1993 attempt. Surrounded, at last, by nearly all the written knowledge of the peak, he began to notice "gaps in the story, or irregularities or discrepancies." Any utopian, complete mountain library would have to include missing spaces for lost manuscripts, blank pages for unrecorded tales: the burned papers of the Italian explorer Roberto Lerco, the last thoughts of the Sherpa Pasang Kikuli as he disappeared into the descending clouds. In his rare book about the 1953 American attempt, Pete Schoening described the minute differences in each partner's recollections: "History is the 'recorded' and not necessarily the facts" (K2 1953, 2004). Thousands of climbs take place each day—among them the adventures that alter the course of human lives. Thousands of experiences glimmer and vanish, like the silent melting of the snow.

It seems strange to think that we might have to record, one day, for future climbers, a defense of books. With the expansion of social and digital media, the number of accounts has grown exponentially. Yet much of this narration seems, paradoxically, both less mysterious and less tangible. Video clips and time-lapse sequences portray truncated and accelerated movement, detached from the larger context of an apprenticeship, a journey, a landscape and a history. Trip reports, too quickly posted, can get reduced to strings of jargon, journalese and inspirational slogans. Descriptions can seem almost interchangeable, easily reapplied to other news and routes.

The incessant roar of information can make it hard to hear beyond the mainstream flow. Nevertheless, often in smaller eddies, new and diverse voices still emerge. John Appleby, who edits the "blogazine" Footless Crow, argues that E-publishing might eventually revolutionize a literature that has become, at times, too "conservative and predictable," too much a genre of famous climbers' "subzero suffering and derring-do." Jon Popowich, a book review writer for the Alpine Journal, hopes for a "coexistence" between old and new media, similar to what developed in the music world: "It's rare these days to find the electric guitarist suggesting that acoustic guitars be relegated to the museum, that they are antiquated and should be phased out." Separately and blended, unique qualities could develop in both forms.

Despite all that has been argued about the "death of print," great climbing books are still being written now. In the past two years alone, Jim Sweeney's Marine Life Solidarity presented a cosmic vision of suffering in uncompromising prose; Gordon Stainforth's Fiva resounded with dark-amber echoes of old-fashioned boys' adventure novels; Bernadette McDonald's Freedom Climbers evoked the lost, resplendent world of the Polish Golden Age; and Tanis Rideout's Above all Things filled historical gaps with translucent and ecstatic daring.

The threat of losing print should motivate those of us who love it to strive harder to preserve the kinds of stories that can accumulate more layers of meaning over decades, until they, too, take on the luster of a classic. Our pursuit will always generate authors capable of such tales. As the poet David Craig wrote, the act of climbing is, inherently, "a seed-bed for creative uses of language" (Native Stones, 1996). The very shape of a peak embodies a narrative arc, sweeping upward from its base to the climactic point of a summit. Even on the smallest crags, a flash of sunlight on scattered mica, the flicker of a toad's eyes in a dark crack, piece themselves together in natural, found stanzas.

No matter how widespread the sport of climbing grows, those who seek climbing as an art will always find a fringe and almost mystical experience. The best mountain writers will continue to push their abilities to the very edge of language, and then into an explosion of light and silence. Whether or not climbers remain dedicated readers, they'll still pack invisible libraries with them on ascents—if only as half-conscious memories of all they've skimmed, heard or watched about the wild. What will change is what they put in those collections. And that influence will illuminate much of who they are.

Through my window, the sky is now black. One by one, I close the books on my desk. I gather my gear from a shelf, and slip outside. Soon there are only images: the snowflakes falling across my headlamp beam, soft and bright as dust motes lit by a window; the quiver of eternity between the striking of an axe and the sound of its impact; the glimmer of ice bulges that flow, swift, surreal and inevitable as the passage between waking and sleep, reality and dreams. It takes only an instant to cross that threshold. For there are the fleeting myths that envelop us all, like a flash of sunset that turns a spindrift plume into a brief flame. There are the moments that consume us, leaving the traces of experiences more intimate and more real than any stories we share. Between those opened pages flare the ever-igniting, ever-vanishing fires of our inmost selves.

[Jon Popowich, Freddie Wilkinson, Beth Heller, Bernadette McDonald, Jerry Auld, Nick Bullock, David Stevenson, David Harris, David Dornian, Tami Knight, Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn and John Appleby all provided invaluable advice for The Sharp End.—Ed.]

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