Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tapering Off

Editing the American Alpine Journal book reviews I am struck by Clint Helander’s observation about Simon McCartney’s The Bond, the story of his and jack Roberts’ two legendary and mysterious Alaska Range ascents.  Clint rightly observes that the book is about McCartney’s strength to walk away from it all, which he did abruptly and nearly permanently, emerging only now to tell a nearly 40 year old story.  Helander is in the Revelations as I write this attempting to slay yet another AK dragon.

I saw Andy Kirkpatrick in Banff last fall and over breakfast I asked what happened to his plan to solo Denali in winter—I had expected to see him the year before.  Kirkpatrick has made a writing career out of describing his sufferfests in the mountains.  When you’re reading, you don’t wish for a second to trade places with him.  Andy said that someone, Damien Gildea, as I recall (later: Damien has confirmed this) explained to him that he really didn’t have to do it.  Andy listened.  This time.

At the American Benefit Dinner Mark Twight accepted the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award, which is basically having official badassery conferred upon you.  Mark said that he quit climbing in 2001(I forget exactly when) but that he has thought about it every single day since.

I was reading a thread on Supertopo about Tomaz Humar this morning.  The Slovenian with the bonecrushing handshake who died on his solo attempt on Langtang Lirung's south face.  There was a sense of inevitability about it.  Rolling the dice, and he knew it.

Back when I took running seriously, I liked to say that my favorite strategy was “Start slowly and taper off.”  I was in my late 30s when I said that and thought it was joke.  Now I’m in my 60s .

After Charlie Sassara and I climbed Peak 11,300 in 2015 someone asked him how fast we went on the climb.  Charlie sad, “As slowly as we possibly could!”  Which was really true.  We went the same pace pretty much the whole climb, simulclimbing most of it, but even when we pitched it out moving at about the same pace.  We spent two nights out.  Just about right.

Late last fall Ralph Baldwin and I got caught out in the backcountry and had to survive a night out in a snow cave tempting hypothermia before the helicopter evacuation (a long story).  I remember thinking that if I got through that night I would be satisfied to climb easy bolted rock climbs in the sun, and ski on groomed intermediate runs at the resort.

Then last month I was down at Crystal Mountain skiing with two of my oldest friends Mike Schonhofen and Scott Baker.  Scott has always been en excellent skier, me: not so much. One of Scott’s favorite stories to tell, and he told it a time or two this trip, is about me was of skiing down a long pass in the St Elias Range roped to Jack Lewis—neither of us knowing how to ski.  We would ski until one of us fell and then the other would ski to the end of the rope and be elastically jerked into the air.  We fell uncountable times.  It was a five-mile run.  Scott remains vastly amused by this memory.  I mostly remember that when we got to the bottom of it we could see for the first time our objective, Mt. Kennedy shining in the nearly endless Yukon twilight.

So, Scott wants to show me the mountain.  Mike defers saying: “They used to make you sign a waiver to ride that lift.” 

But up I go.  It’s snowing hard and the snow is deep under our skis. It is not an intermediate run.  Or even close.  Strictly Black Diamond terrain. Steep and through the trees.   Barely manageable for me.

I am a slow learner. Scott gets me up there one more time and I go down a bowl, visibility bad, the snow deep.  Again, not very gracefully.   And I am thinking, “This tapering off.  When does it start?”

Photo: Ralph Baldwin searching for a cell connection or a landing zone in the Talkeetnas, October 2016

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ten Sentences Newly Embedded in My Head This Month, September '16


“They take a time-honored event and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, until something new enters the world.” (4)  This sentence was transcribed onto a tiny purple piece of paper by me, a long time ago and I found it on the floor of the moving van when we moved.  I don’t know the source, page 4 of something.

“I thought that watching the amputation could be the final step in accepting the totality of the danger I posed to myself: my willingness to be completely absorbed by the natural world.”—Kyle Dempster, about a year and half prior to disappearing with Scott Adamson on the Ogre II in the Karakoram, as reported to Alpinist.

“Rabbit Hendricks––a compact man with an ill-fitting set of dentures—was finishing a sketch on the back of a postcard of Damascus that was to serve as a replacement for a disintegrating photograph of Lizard Brancusi’s wife, Maisie.”—from Richard Flanagan’s, Booker-winning, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

“Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.”—Werner Herzog in A Guide to for the Perplexed, which I returned to this week after seeing his new film, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.

“I had a great day climbing today, and I was excited to post on social media about it, and then I remembered, oh yeah, fucking cops just shot an unarmed black man with his hands up—after he was already tazed.”—the writer/climber Chris Kalman on Facebook  September 21, 2016.

“A woman from the State Medical Examiner’s Office first removed the dog from the incinerated plane, wrapping it in a white cloth she carried in both hands.”  --Devin Kelly in the Alaska Dispatch News, September 11, 2016.  This plane went down about a mile from our house and we saw the scene, all yellow-taped and charred trees on our way up the mountain the next morning.

This isn’t the ending we want and the new statistics [on date rape] won’t serve up an Everything’s Gonna be Alright resolution either, but I have been as precisely afraid as the world still requires a woman to be” –the brilliant Debra Monroe, from “Trouble in Mind,” The Rumpus, September 11, 2016

“There comes a time when you realize that everything is dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” –the epigraph of James Salter’s last novel, All That Is.

“Continue up the airy wall, moving slightly right to gain a shallow groove leading to the top.”-- sentence from Murray Toft’s description of Le Solier, a climb I did with John McInerney on Tunnel Mountain in Banff earlier this month.  (Alert: this is an older guidebook and the ratings are not to be taken literally!)

“I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the café on the river and had a drink and later went ton top of a tall building, and all the strangeness and glory and the power of life and of the city was below.”—Thomas Wolfe in a letter to Max Perkins, written just before he died at the age of 37.  This sentence came up twice in one week: first, in the movie Genius about Wolfe and Perkins (see this movie!) and second, cited by James Salter in The Art of Fiction.

*  Sentences listed alphabetically by author, first one is "anonymous," for now.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sweet City Woman, Summer 1971

The summer after graduating high school.  We might get drafted, but we probably wouldn’t.  I had a lousy job in downtown Detroit.  I took the bus to get there, straight down Michigan Avenue past Tiger Stadium.

I remember this one particular Sunday night driving back to Detroit across the Ambassador Bridge.  We had been at the Murphy’s cottage on Lake St Clair, probably having drunk too much, as the drinking age was lower in Canada.  The bridge itself, for those of you who don’t know it, is an enormous suspension bridge.  As I child I was deeply frightened by its sheer height.  Now, cool air off the water cut the humidity a bit and we were on our way home.

I remember cresting the bridge around sunset and you could see all of Detroit lit up in that last brilliant flash of light before the sun was gone. 

We were in one of the McClowry’s convertibles—a newish red Ford LTD. There were the four of us: the McClowry twins and Tommy Murphy.  It’s funny, back then we never called him Tommy, but that’s how I think of him now.

Anyway we were laughing the whole time and I remember Terry singing in this hilariously high voice, along with the radio,”Swee ee ee ee ee, sweet city woman, sweet sweet sweet sweet city woman.”  We couldn’t stop laughing and Terry would stop and give us this hard look and then laugh and continue singing. Terry was a big guy, a world class athlete and both he and his brother Pat would go on to storied college football careers at Michigan State.  Everything was funny, that night and all summer long.  If someone had asked we would have agreed that most likely we would all live forever.

That’s it: no drama.  Just four guys on the verge of changes, the future, whatever it would hold, unknown.

Terry’s been gone a couple years now and I think all of us who knew him remain in shock to this day.  Tommy called me the day we heard and it was just unimaginable.  I hadn’t seen any of them in a quarter of a century, and that’s something I couldn’t have imagined back then.  I miss those days, those guys.

Audio (!):

Monday, January 4, 2016

"What's on your night stand?"

When asked what books were on his nightstand, Simon Winchester replied, “It’s rather like a dog’s breakfast.”  I first understood this to mean “a complete mess,” but later wondered if it meant “a little bit of everything.”  Turns out my first impression was more accurate.  In my case, though, it is both: a complete mess and a little bit of everything.

The actual surface of my nightstand is small and usually too cluttered to hold a single book.  Instead, at its feet are three stacks of books.   The stacks are governed by no organizing principle and are in a constant state of reshuffling.  They consist mostly of books I have not yet read, but which I intend to read.  An exception to this are a group of signed books I brought back from the Banff Book Festival: Bernadette MacDonald’s Freedom Climbers and Barry Blanchard’s The Calling among them.  These await my finding a more hallowed permanent location for them.  Also among these is a Paul Zizka photo book of the Canadian Rockies, Summits and Starlight.  It’s a guilty pleasure like a hidden box of chocolates.

A second category is really just three books: Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, and Goethe’s Elective Infinities, a nice hardcover edition published in the 1960s and recently found at Powells.  I also found a nice hardcover edition of the Goncourts Journals—Paris in the 1700s—my curiosity having been piqued by Heidi Julavits repeated mentions of failure to make progress with them (the Goncourt brothers) in her memoir, The Folded  Clock.

A third category is “newly acquired,” which in addition to the Goethe includes other titles from the Powells junket: Denis Johnson’s nonfiction, Leap, and two of Julavits fictions: The Effect of Living Backwards and The Vanishers.  Also: Michel Farber’s’ The Book of Strange New Things.

Almost forgot this category: books sent to me unbidden in my capacity as book review editor of The American Alpine Journal.  These break my heart because most of them will not be reviewed, nor will I read them.

This accounting mentions fewer than half, I’m sure.  And some of the rest are unclassifiable.  There is the Selected Poems of Pat O’Neill, a massive book (for poetry) of 379 pages.  These were culled from various flashdrives and garbage bags of notebooks by the composer and great autodidact, Jerry Brennan.  Never heard of O’Neill?  No, you wouldn’t have; he’s an old high school friend turned northern Michigan curmudgeon (according to his wife) poet.  The work is extraordinary.

Since all these categories (such as they are) are shuffled together my copy of the Dalai Lama’s daily meditations is usually out of sight, and therefore, also out of mind; but when it manages to percolate to the top of one of the a stacks I try to read from it daily.

If “What’s on your nightstand?” is really just another way of asking “What are you reading now?” the answer is Julavits’ The Effect of Living Backwards, which I came to from reading her nonfiction first, a reversal of my usual practice. Thus I am reading “backwards.”  In that book she wrote this sentence: “I am a wallet head of exuberance.”  I would be happy to read a whole book just to find such a sentence, but I liked the rest of them too.

This gives me an opportunity to foresee another obvious question and just come out and tell you that the book I read last year that I loved most was the aforementioned The Folded Clock.  Like much of what I love most it’s hard to articulate why this is so.  When I finished reading it, I immediately started reading it again from the beginning like a chain smoker lighting his next cigarette off the butt of his last, saving a match and keeping the chain linked.

A couple days before Christmas I was in John King Books in Detroit, one of my favorite places in the world.  Oddly, I left without making a purchase, though I had picked up a copy of Chris Bonington’s The Everest Years at an antique store a day before; it too now rests in one of the stacks by my bed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every breath I took inside of John King Books.  In addition to the breaths, I took photographs, somehow invoking the environmentalist credo: leave only footprints, take only photographs.

All things considered, this dog eats a pretty damned fine breakfast.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Byron Glacier, June 24, 2009

My son’s first glacier. He, who has been stumbling through his fifteenth year, moves as if born attached to these tools, performing a dance more natural than walking. Even his frontpointing appears effortless, delicate, as if he’s tiptoeing up a sidewalk upon which his heels will never touch, as if youth holds some antidote for ice and gravity. He wants what we all want: more.
            Farther, steeper, higher, the whole mountain, and then, of course, another.
            He knows I go to the mountains, but I don’t think he knows why. And here he is, treating this ice work, this frozen world, with a kind of reverence, as if guessing that for him, too, salvation may be found here.
            Now that we cannot pretend they are not shrinking, every visit to a glacier is more sacred than ever. The Byron is so close, our backyard glacier, an hour by car from Anchorage and only a mile more of flat walking on a well-maintained trail before we enter the primeval world of snow: a jumble of seracs, leaning towers, perfectly named erratics of rock and ice, the alluvial fans of debris where a dozen miniature avalanches have spread their wares as a card dealer fans the deck, pick a card.
            Random, he says, one of his favorite words. He’s right, sure, but I don’t like to encourage him: he seems to see the whole world in the word.
            A glacier is called alive because it moves, advancing, retreating, a frozen army.
            It also speaks. Under the rush of wind, the sound of rushing water. Under the snow, under the ice, creaks and groans, every once in a while a crash, an echo. Ancient, almost translatable, it says beware in every tongue. Jake Breitenbach knew that mountains move: his elegy tells us, his body encased within the Khumbu Icefall. And closer, on Denali, Mugs lies in the crevasse that “swallowed” him “silently, quickly,” as his clients said. When I would see Mugs around town, at the bakery, I was surprised that he walked around, lived, and breathed the same air as the rest of us; but if you knew what he’d been doing in the mountains, it would have never occurred to you that he wasn’t immortal. 
            We say he died doing what he loved. We say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We say when your number’s up, your number’s up.
            But for us this is the right place and the right time. The mountain won’t move.
            We will. Upward, we reach the toe, or the head, opposites that describe the same feature when applied to glaciers: the terminus. Or is this the beginning?

This is the week of the Northern solstice when time becomes unhinged. We’ve got all night, dad, my son says; he sounds exasperated that I want to stop just after nine pm. The sun won’t set for hours, but now it’s gone behind a ridge. In its shadow, we return to winter. We layer on all our clothes, point out with our axes the possible routes to the summit, etching them into memory for future use.
            Why the ridge and not straight up? he asks. Damn, I think, Day One and already with the straight up. I explain the likely paths of the seracs above the directissima, the probable crevasses, and then, for balance, the lesser dangers of the cornices on the ridge. That’s a real word? he asks, direttissima? He looks at me as if for once in his whole life I have told him something possibly useful for navigating the world.
            On the way down a new landscape appears: ice chunks, aglow in the twi-night sun, float across Portage Lake like burning ships. Above the lake, more snow and peaks float on the shadowed forest, alight in the long alpenglow, gateway to the infinite: Begich, Boggs, Maynard, their names map-learnt, not yet experienced. 
            I think of the way my British friends say the word glacier: Glahss-y-ear, making it sound the enchanted place that it truly is. My son and I have been to the glahss-y-ear but my language won’t hold it. “Earth’s the right place for love,” Frost best said, and like him, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The New Yorker Asks Some Questions


I was in an interrogative mood when I read the June 22 issue of the The New Yorker.  Not to be confused with an Interrogative Mood, which is a book by Padgett Powell that I love and that I believe to be a work of genius—check it out, please.  No, I was reading The New Yorker in a particular way: seeing only the questions: in titles in subtitles, in carton captions and in every form of writing, sometimes spoken by subjects, sometimes by the writers.  Here they are:
 “What Else Can Art Do?” [1]
“Was that a lady I saw you with last night, digging up parsnips at Farming Field 3908, or was it just a commissar of the Forced labor Brigade?”[2]
“Chapel Hill wasn’t tiny––what were the chances it was someone they knew?”[3]
“You remember that movie ‘The Constant Gardener?’”[4]
“Before we send a man to prison, shouldn’t we at least be positive that he’s not rich?”[5]
“When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?”[6]
“So what if there was no precedent for a full-scale human melt, bodies reduced to liquid flowing from a window?”[7]
“What is soft dick rock?”[8]
“If  ‘the novel’ belongs to the parents, to the generation that witnessed and suffered and did thongs (or, in the case, of the narrator’s parents, did nothing very much) then what is left for the next generation?”[9]
“It’s as if each picture wondered, ‘What am I? Am I even art? O.K. but what does that mean?’”[10]
“What must he do to keep her?”[11]

[1] Calvin Tompkins, “What Else Can Art Do?”
[2] Bruce McCall, “Shop Till We Make You Drop”
[3] Margaret Talbot, “The Story of a Hate Crime”
[4] Connie Bruck, “The Inside War”
[5] Paul Noth, cartoon caption
[6] Rachel Aviv, “The Death Treatment”
[7] Ben Marcus, “The Grow-Light Blues”
[8] Anwen Crawford, “Soft Apocalypse”
[9] James Woods, “The Story of My Life”
[10] Peter Schjeldahl, “Painting’s Point Man”
[11] Anthony Lane, “Fighting Monsters”

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Life as a Creative Writing Exercise, with rain

These three events happened to me in the last month.  One of them happened in a dream, the other two happened during wakefulness.  Teachers of creative writing will recognize this as a variation of a popular in-class writing exercise. Discuss.
I was driving on a rural two-lane and there were cars ahead of me and I was moving too fast.  Raining lightly. Suddenly the car ahead of me slammed on its brakes and to avoid hitting it I had to pass on the right shoulder, half in the ditch when a kid ran past me and I just missed hitting him.  The car felt like an out-of-control ski run just after you catch an edge and you’re just hanging on before the inevitable crash, even though sometimes you can pull out of it. As I slowed to a stop I could see in the rear view a cop chasing the kid into the ditch and hauling him back across the road.  The kid was bloodied. It was hard to tell what kind of event was in progress, and whether I was going to be ticketed for speeding, reckless driving, and god knows what else. I turned the car off and waited for the cops.  But they didn’t come and I realized that whatever was going on had their full attention and I didn’t really count in that story, so I started the car and rolled slowly onto the next town looking for a place to get a cup of coffee.
We were staying in a modest hotel by the airport after a climbing trip on which no climbs were successfully completed.  Since we were leaving the room super early we were completely packed.  The mood was less than jubilant.  Outside it was raining hard.  In the middle of the night I was awakened by some kind of domestic commotion.   I poked my head out the door and there was guy holding a woman down and punching her, yelling with each punch, “Gimme my money bitch.”    I start yelling at him to stop and debating to what extent I want to get involved.  I am in standing in the rain in my underwear.  The man, too, is in his underwear.  The woman is fully dressed.  “Gimme my money bitch.”  Stop, I yell, the cops are on their way.  “Gimme my money bitch.”  Before I get to him, still uncertain what I will do when I reach him, a cop shows up.  The woman from the front desk is yelling, oddly, at the woman, to give the man his money.  It occurs to me that the woman is known to both the cop and the hotel person.  It occurs to me that the woman is a prostitute.  I leave it in the cop’s hands.  It’s quiet, except for the rain, but I do not fall back asleep.
The phone rings.  2:30 a.m.  Good news is never delivered at this hour.  My son has locked his keys in the truck, do I have a spare?  Yes, but it’s at the office. Figure it out, I tell him and hang-up.  But then I call him back and tell him I’ll go get the key.  When I finally arrive at the truck it is pouring rain and he is standing under the eaves on his crutches.  He is three weeks into a broken ankle. Fuck.  I have brought the wrong key.  Back to the office and return with the right key.  Over an hour has passed since he first called. Then he admits that the key fell out of his pocket and he believes that it was found and stolen by some hopped-up dudes who pretended to help him look for the keys.  As he was starting the car a woman wrapped in a blanket, barefoot, approaches.  “Can you give me a ride?” She asks, “I need to get some shoes and shit.”  Can’t help you, I say, feeling bad.    Before I leave, I say to my son, ”Don’t give that woman a ride.”  He looks at me, like, no shit, and I drive off.