Saturday, December 24, 2011


Cold, a seventeen minute film by Anson Fogel and Cory Richards is an amazing evocation of human achievement, self-induced suffering, and, well, cold. Filmed by Richards on his and Simone Moro and Denis Urubko’s winter ascent of Gasherbrum 2, this film lives up to its title. This was the first winter ascent of the peak and the first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak by an American, Richards. The thing about climbing films is that almost no one can keep their finger on the shutter when things turn dire. But Richards did, mostly. It won the grand prize at Banff this year and the reason is not far to seek: the film delivers. For some virtual coldness it ranks up there with Cherry Apsley-Garrard’s The Worst Journey on the World. I don’t know when this will become widely available, but keep on the lookout for it. You can have a taste here:

Last winter I red Dan Simmons’ The Terror. Yet another winter sufferfest, here Simmons tells the fictionalized story of the infamous 1848 Franklin Expedition. Necessarily fictional, because no one really knows what happened to them. In Simmons’ version the arctic is so cold that men’s teeth shatter. It is an astounding feat of research, and it’s utterly compelling, and mostly convincing. I mean, something happened to those guys.

Which reminds me of my friend Jon Waterman’s solo arctic venture over two seasons recorded in Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture. Jon once confided in me that he had probably discovered the graves of some of Franklin’s party. But, for now, he has kept this private. Oh, and by the way the line between the theme of “cold” and the theme of “sufferfest” is blurry indeed, as Jon, perhaps inadvertently, has pointed out. Actually, Jon was probably colder when he did the Cassin on Denali in the winter.

And speaking of “The Terror” (the name of one of Franklin’s ships) Jim Shepherd has also tried his hand with a speculative fiction on the subject, published this fall in Zoetrope’s horror issue. Do you know Shepherd? He is the ultimate in-your-face answer to the old “write what you know” platitude. Every story arises out of a different world, one which the author has not literally lived, yet pulls off as if he had. His list of acknowledgements at the end of his books gives us as many as ten sources per story. His story “Poland Is Watching,” from his new story collection, You Think That’s Bad: Stories, describes a Polish winter Himalayan expedition. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t himself been a Polish Himalayan climber in winter, but, hey, that’s fiction, right? You can actually find a video of Shepherd reading this story aloud here:

This brings me somewhat full circle to Bernadette McDonald’s story of the actual Polish climbers who pushed the limits of the human achievement in the actual, not literary, Himalayan winter, in her recent book Freedom Climbers. The achievements she recounts are astounding, but equally astounding is the service McDonald does both to the climbers and her non-Polish reading audience. Most of these exploits were for years confined to Polish language reports. To write the book McDonald had to commission translation of several books, and basically conduct first-hand interviews (with the survivors). The result is a testimony to, well, as I said, full circle: suffering, cold, and human achievement. The book has deservedly won the Banff Grand Prize for Mountaineering Literature (which is not too surprising because McDonald was a prime force in the Banff Mountain Center Festivals for many years before she retired [I think this is her fourth book since “retiring”]). She has also won the coveted Boardman-Tasker Award, which is more surprising as the British only rarely bestow the honor to non-Britains. Well-deserved on both counts.

I’ve been cold. And the 7 degrees Fahrenheit outside the door right now here in Anchorage doesn’t even earn a blip on my radar screen. I used to say that the coldest I’ve been in my life was delivering the Detroit Free Press through three Michigan winters. That was cold. But my single coldest moment actually occurred in southern California. I entered myself in a cross-country ski race in the mountains north of Los Angeles, off I-5. The course wound through a hilly forest and I was quickly dropped by the pack and lost in the loops of trails. Knowing how to ski probably would have helped. Then, my ski tip broke. I was wet and colder by the minute, postholing and plunging my cotton-gloved hands into the drifts over and over again. Only blind dumb luck allowed me to get out of there in the fading daylight. By the time I got back to the parking lot, not only was the race over, but everyone was gone. My hands were so cold I couldn’t get them into my pocket to find the car key. Once I found the key I couldn’t hold it in the block-o-ice fingers. After I finally managed to get the key in the lock and open the car, I had to repeat the maneuver with the ignition. Then I sat there screaming as warmth and feeling inched their way back into my hands.

A few weeks later the race results arrived. I had actually finished the race, but since no one knew it, I expected to see my name at the bottom of the list with the inglorious DNF, Did Not Finish, following. But despite the fact that the race organizers had my address, my name did not appear on the list of participants. It was as if I hadn’t been there at all.

Stay warm, my friends!