Inspirations, Part V: The Wisdom of Exploration

Posted on: April 16, 2008

Jed Brown on the summit of Mt. Anderson, Antarctica, after the first ascent, looking east over unclimbed peaks. "This is probably more like the images that would usually see from me—success on new routes in Antarctica—but the other images here show it hasn't always been like that. However, the reason I've been able to do these Antarctic climbs is because of what I'd done before, and most of those climbs were inspired by INFO. It may not seem like an obvious path, but my climbing has not been about obvious paths." [Photo] Damien Gildea

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. Also check out Vince Anderson's take on The Satanic Bible in the January 2, 2008 Weekly Feature; Kelly Cordes and Masatoshi Kuriaki's vision of High Alaska in the January 30, 2008 Weekly Feature; Simon Richardson's chapter on Gervasutti's Climbs in the February 6, 2008 Weekly Feature and Royal Robbins's infatuation with High Conquest in the April 2, 2008 Weekly Feature.

Damien Gildea on John Cleare and Mountain INFO

When I wrote The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology in 1998, it was no accident that I started the introduction with a quote from John Cleare's 1979 book The World Guide to Mountains and Mountaineering. I loved that book then, and I still refer to it now—there's just so much useful information in it, and it's the information that I love. The climbing and access information may have changed, but the mountains are still in the same place they were back in '79.


Few such books have that breadth and depth of coverage, both of the mountains and their climbing history. A number of books try, with colorful and glossy pages, but they're usually full of rehashed stories and travel photos. Cleare's book was the real deal. It was written by a climber who actually had been to most of the places, and it was illustrated with unique photos taken while he or friends were there, with maps that showed so much more than just Everest and the 8000ers. No tales of near-death and no pseudo-spiritual psycho-babble. That such a huge task had been done so well made it seem possible that I could hope to document pretty much every climb ever done on a continent—Antarctica—with no previous, real written history of climbing. So that's what I did, or tried to do. The Chronology was just one result of Cleare's inspiration. In turn my work led me to seven consecutive seasons of first ascents, new routes and exploratory surveying among the high peaks of Antarctica.

The INFO heading from the September 1994 issue of High magazine, the home of INFO for most of the 1990s. "The page announces that Andy Parkin and Francois Marsigny have linked up two dangerous couloirs on the south side of Cerro Torre, though they did not continue up the Ferrari route to the summit. Even has a topo. In December 2006 Jed Brown and I were sitting out some bad weather in Antarctica when he mentioned that his friend Colin was heading to Patagonia with Kelly Cordes. I said, 'You know, there's this incomplete ice route on Cerro Torre...'" [Photo] Damien Gildea

Here in Australia there's always been a meager selection of mountaineering literature available, so to some extent I was influenced by what I could get. The large-format books of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, Mountaineer and Himalayan Climber respectively, with all their color photos of big mountains in the Greater Ranges were available and genuinely inspirational. They gave me a sense of the recent history of alpinism and some of the characters, but also a sense of what was out there yet to do. So those books again led me into the information-rich of Cleare's Encyclopedia, or expedition reports or area profiles.

But the writings of Lindsay Griffin in the INFO section of High magazine, later Climb, and before all that, Mountain (with Ken Wilson, Paul Nunn, Cleare etc.) were for me always the main event, with a strong support act of the Expeditions section of the American Alpine Journal. They were the key to actually doing new things; I wanted a life of going on expeditions to new mountains around the world, not just rock climbing at home or reading other people's sanitized stories. INFO and the AAJ provided indicators of where to go next without being actual guidebooks. Looking back through old 1980s Mountain INFO you get a sense of how the scene was then—how the Japanese have been the giants of Himalayan climbing. It just seemed normal for expeditions only to try new things, not to repeat something done fifty years ago. Repeats were given a line or two at most. Details were scarce, photos grainy—but how much help do you want? That approach, including only the essential and knowing what to leave out, reflected one of the basic tenets of alpinism. And all without the narrow-minded, style-as-dogma hectoring we get now from wannabe alpine prophets.

Left to right, Mt. Vinson (4892m), Sublime Peak (4865m) and Corbet Peak (4822m) as seen from the summit of Clinch Peak (4841m) to the southeast, on its first ascent in December 2004. "One of the great things about INFO is that by reporting new climbs they often have photos of familiar peaks, but from unfamiliar directions. Around 150 people a year now climb Vinson from the other side. No one climbs from this side." [Photo] Damien Gildea

Along with the AAJ, INFO has been the historical record of world mountaineering and a path to the future. Messner said something along the lines of, "If you want to know what to do, you need to know what's been done." Too many seem to ignore this, as we've seen over recent years with people, often "professionals," claiming first ascents of things climbed years ago or "records" that aren't. The information is out there; often they’re just too lazy to find it, or maybe it's more convenient and flattering for them not to look. Sometimes they play at being too cool to worry about statistics and all that armchair stuff, but usually they're lying, or are just ignorant. Ignorance is stupid, and stupid is only cool in bad movies. Dude Where's My Crampons!

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