Inspirations, Part II: High Alaska

Posted on: January 30, 2008

Many climbers have a favorite mountaineering book or essay. Athletes and guides, those whose lives are so deeply connected to climbing, often have literary obsessions—and everything from a story's lyricism to its ethical stance has influenced how they approach the sharp end.

We at Alpinist picked a handful of climbers we found inspirational and asked them to share their literary influences. Read Vince Anderson's first installment in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature.

This second installment features Kelly Cordes, prolific Greater Ranges American climber, and Masatoshi Kuriaki, the "Japanese Caribou" who has spent more than 500 days climbing solo on Alaska's biggest peaks. They chose the same book.

Kelly Cordes on High Alaska, by Jonathan Waterman

High Alaska, the classic from Jonathan Waterman, started it all for me.

Kelly Cordes representing the leisure class in Talkeetna. [Photo] Kelly Cordes collection

But different writings have influenced me in different ways at different times. For me, influence has come from photos, words and people. These have led me to places of inspiration. Photos are obvious: Hey, what's that, and has this line been climbed? Bradford Washburn was, and still is, the greatest photographer. I can't imagine that anyone else has influenced and inspired American alpinists the way he has. You always know a Washburn shot when you see one, and I saw plenty of them in High Alaska and the American Alpine Journal.

I can't remember exactly when I first bought High Alaska, but it was within a month or two of when I first started to climb, the winter of 1993-4, in Missoula, Montana. In May of 1994 I went to Alaska for the first time, aiming for Denali's West Buttress. I was so inept that the Butt was over my head. Still, it meant everything to me then, at least as much as anything I've done since. Even more, all the stories of obscure badass routes and real-deal climbers (unlike me at the time, for sure) inspired me beyond belief. All of my heroes put in their time there. I wanted to be like them.


I'd see something in High Alaska and crave more. More about a specific route. More offshoot conversations sparked by the words and photos. Soon I'd call Gray Thompson (FA of the American Direct on Denali back in 1967, along with a million other great climbs, and a Missoula local) and his wonderful wife, Eloise, to ask if I could come over for a half hour or so to look up something in the AAJ. They're always generous, and they had all the Journals; their bookshelf was the epicenter of new beginnings for me. My "half hour or so" always became five or six hours, because I'd look at one thing and it would lead to another.

I've always loved all climbing periodicals (even those that supposedly make you cooler if you say you don't like them, evoking the timeless "I'm a hardman" phrase: "aww, I never read them mags"). However, the AAJ was, and I'd like to think still is, in a category all its own. As an aside that I never could have imagined back then, Christian Beckwith, then AAJ editor and now, of course, the man at Alpinist, hired me to be his editorial lackey back in 2000, and I've been with the Journal ever since.

Scott DeCapio descending from London Tower, in Alaska's Ruth Gorge, after the first ascent of Trailer Park (WI6 M6+, 3,200'), Ruth Gorge, Alaska. [Photo] Kelly Cordes

Mark Twight, the undisputed king of rants, has influenced an entire generation or more of alpinists. I first read his story "Twitching with Twight" (in his Kiss or Kill collection) when I moved to Estes Park and paid $65 each month to live in a shack. I'd just gotten divorced and struggled hard to get myself together. I had no "real" job, and The Shack was a dump, but it was cheap and two miles from Rocky Mountain National Park—even closer to Lumpy Ridge. Part of me feared I was rolling into a go nowhere, do nothing life, battling with myself over what I loved to do and what I wanted to be rather than following the generic recipe. I love this passage from "Twitching with Twight":

Kelly Cordes (right) and Scott DeCapio back to enjoying the good life on the Tokositna after climbing Mt. Huntington. [Photo] Kelly Cordes collection

"Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions."

The article was over the top—that was the point of it, I think (Mark says so in his Author's Note after the article)—but some parts hit me hard, with power. The other day, while climbing in the Park, a friend and I talked about this article. It still influences me, even with the little things—when I get self-conscious about my gray hairs and deepening wrinkles around my eyes, this line fires me up to always try my best: "Don't worry about the gray. If you're good at what you do, no one cares what you look like."

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