Archive for the ‘Climbing’ Category.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering (ANAM) 2010

As I say every year, I read ANAM every year, though with less and less interest as the years pass. Eventually you feel like you’ve seen them all, although this year featured the most bizarre accident ever (a leader strangled by her gear sling when the trigger bar for a cam got caught on a horn–tragically implausible).

The theme this year was bad belaying. There were more “lowered off the end of the rope” accidents than usual and a couple of uncommon “belayer didn’t catch the fall” accidents. I’d almost gotten complacent enough to believe those didn’t happen.

Being in the process of teaching a beginner to climb, I’m rethinking some of my techniques. Monkey see, monkey do. And when you see the monkey do what you have (apparently) been doing all these years, it leaves a different impression. All excuses (I’m more experienced) and rationalizations (I haven’t dropped anyone yet) aside, I don’t ever want to reproach myself with having been less than the safest belayer possible if I’m ever involved in an accident. So I’m reviewing my own belay technique with an eye towards setting an example worthy of emulating. No more one-hand slide when taking in slack. From now on, I grab and go.

Eclipse and stuff I didn’t finish

When I got Eclipse, the third book in the Twilight series, in the mail I was in the middle of reading various other things. I tried to hold off. I really did. But after it sat there calling to me for about a week I gave in and devoured it in two days, then spent the usual next two days re-reading parts of it. I’ve stowed it away on the bookshelf now in an attempt to stop re-reading it before I have it memorized.

This one started slowly and I thought perhaps the series was losing steam, but it got plenty steamy. I regretted the lack of Edward in the last book but it was worth it to set up the Edward/Bella/Jacob triangle which is so deliciously drawn in this book. I anticipate even better things to come in the fourth book, which is already on the way.

The Twilight series is compelling. When I’m reading one of these books, I’m actively reading it. It doesn’t sit on the end table next to me night after night while I watch TV or do crossword puzzles or go for a walk. It floats into my hands as soon as I get within gravitational pull.

“Good for you” books can be compelling too. They can also be good without being compelling by being interesting, thought provoking, beautiful, informative, or revolutionary Unfortunately, many of them aren’t any of those things. Not everything with footnotes or an introduction by some literary critic I’ve never heard of is actually worth reading. For that matter, not every trashy novel is even minimally entertaining.

To wit:

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens: OK, this isn’t horrible and I’ll finish it, but I’ve seen it ballyhooed as Dickens’ best work and it’s nothing but silliness. A Tale of Two Cities, now that’s good stuff: moving, compelling, interesting, heart-breaking. The Pickwick Papers are a disjointed series of humorous sketches sometimes connected by a plot string no thicker than “let me tell you a story.” It was originally published serially, which is exactly how it reads. This was the sitcom of its day. Not that The Simpsons can’t be genius, but will it ever become the sort of “classic” that gets taught in school?

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books: Guess I thought I’d get some insight from this one, either about what might be interesting to read or what might inspire me to do some good writing. I didn’t get either. I got lists. Literally, lists. This book is interesting only if . . . never mind. It’s not.

The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights: This is one of those classics that’s best not read at all. We have a cultural understanding of what it entails: Aladdin and the lamp, genies, flying carpets, Scheherazade telling stories to stay alive. The reality is a misogynistic, racist cesspool of hate and stereotypes. Women can’t be trusted and will cheat if left alone for five minutes. (Men get to have unlimited numbers of wives and concubines, so their faithlessness doesn’t come up.) Not only that, but given half a chance they’ll have sex with a black man, and apparently having one of your hundreds of wives cheat on you with a black man is so unimaginably horrible (despite the fact that it seems to happen almost constantly), that it entitles you to lay mayhem on him, her, and all the women and black men you can reach. This is a thoroughly disgusting, unreadable compendium of vaguely familiar stories.

Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire: Although I don’t climb mountains, most of the climbing literature I read is about mountain climbing. Rock climbing doesn’t seem to make for good stories. Too short for one thing, and we don’t die nearly as often for another. The focus of this book is on the amazing adventures white men have had in conquering the mountains and far off reaches of the world. This being 2009 and not 1909, I’ll assume there was some deeper purpose to focusing so excessively on what white men were doing and why. I couldn’t make myself read the overly scholarly text closely enough to figure out what that purpose was. All I know is that the word “masculinity” appeared approximately once per paragraph in the introduction. So I skipped forward to where I hoped the real stories would begin and found a continuation of overly quoted and footnoted text and yes, the word “masculinity.” So I quit. You don’t need to read this book. In case you’ve been wondering, I’m going to explain why our early adventurers are all white men: they were the ones with the freedom to go climb mountains. Give women and minorities permission to leave the house and the time and money to do it and guess what? We like to climb mountains too. I’ll bet we like to do it in exactly the same proportions as white men. Mystery solved. 200 pages saved.

Ten Thousand Islands: So I’m leaving on a jet plane and I ask my friend Sheila for something to take with me. She has more books than can fit in a single room if you stack that room from floor to ceiling all the way around, and I mean that literally. So she picked out a good beach book (well, forest book in my case but it seems like the same thing), only I couldn’t get more than a few chapters in before I started just not giving a damn. It’s supposed to be a mystery but things weren’t moving along and the characters were supposed to be endearingly quirky but they just seemed overdrawn and the setting was supposed to be exotic but it’s only exotic to people in their living rooms. Perhaps I’d have done better with this on the beach. Somehow having people screaming “Bear!” outside your tent while you’re reading undermines the suspense of how the intrepid PI’s fist fight is going to come out.

I say all of this because my blog would suggest that I’ve been reading nothing but vampire porn lately, which isn’t true. I just haven’t been enjoying anything but vampire porn lately.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2009

Every year the AAC sends me Accidents in North American Mountaineering as part of my membership. It’s an annual recounting of some of the accidents and fatalities that happened in climbing and mountaineering that year. It can make for depressing, though educational, reading.

Usually there’s at least one incident that stands out for me, but this year there weren’t. It did remind me of last year’s standout though, which happened on Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne where I just happened to be climbing a year ago. When I read the story last year, I’d never climbed in Tuolumne and this accident report didn’t help my uneasiness about the area.

Now that I’m back, I re-read the story and although it’s a reasonable story of small but mounting mistakes/misfortunes that ultimately turn fatal, I now have the perspective to see that they made an odd, and critical, choice very early on. Right from the beginning they were planning to rap the route and it’s those rappels that put most of the nails in the coffin. Nowhere have I seen a topo suggest that you should plan to rap Cathedral. Not that their unusual choice means they should have died, and not to suggest I wouldn’t ever make a similar set of mistakes, but it does help take the story out of the nightmare realm and move it to sad-but-possible.

Shawangunk Rock Climbing by Richard Dumais

Shawangunk Rock Climbing is mostly a picture book, but it does give a succint history of climbing at the Gunks. (By succint I mean that I read it in less than an hour and didn’t learn a whole lot.) The pictures are beautiful and make me realize that I need to get out more at the Gunks. We’re not allowed to climb at Skytop these days but Millbrook, Peterskill, and Lost City are open and there are apparently a lot of beautiful routes I haven’t been on.

Good Morning Midnight by Chip Brown

Good Morning Midnight is the story of Guy Waterman and his choice to commit suicide by sleeping out overnight on a mountain during the winter. There’s quite a long chapter about Guy’s son, Johnny, probably because it makes a better story. What can you say about Guy’s death except that he planned it for a while and then did it.

Is depression really the only reason people commit suicide? I have a hard time believing a person can maintain that level of depression for more than a year. I’m more inclined to call it determination. It does seem unfair to his loved ones, but his wife had plenty of time to separate herself in some other way if it seemed preferable.

It was interesting to read about their off-grid home in the woods. Sometimes I think I’d enjoy a simple life like that but then I realize that I’d have to have the internet.

ANAM 2008 by the AAC

I read Accidents in North American Mountaineering every year because it comes free as part of being an AAC member. As the years go on, there are fewer and fewer surprises. Truth is, accidents are caused by the obvious things (exceeding abilities, under-protecting) and mitigated by the obvious things (wearing a helmet, tying stopper knots). There are no new ways to die.

But every year something stands out, if not for novelty then for tragedy, or perhaps pure presentation. This year there were two such incidents for me. One was the death of a well-known climber at Wind Rivers, Wyoming caused by a tourist throwing a rock off the top of a formation. A seemingly random, horribly preventable, tragedy. I was particularly sensitive to this accident when it occurred because Steve was on his way out to the Wind Rivers the very next day. The climbing community was naturally very angry at the tourist, who ultimately wasn’t charged, but who among us has never thrown something off the top of something? It’s like skipping stones on a pond: a natural human impulse. I feel for both the tourist and the climber’s family. There were no winners here.

The other incident was more memorable for its retelling. Sometimes climbers send their own accident reports into ANAM and this was one of those. Told in the first person, they have a greater immediacy, and this particular incident was recounted without foreshadowing. When one of the climbers dies before the tale is done, the reader is as surprised as the narrator must have been at the time. This was a prime example of how small mistakes and bad luck can accumulate into an unexpectedly fatal epic. I expect we’ve all been there, except with a few fewer mistakes, or a bit less bad luck, and so we live and have a good story to tell and never know how close we came.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston

About halfway through Between a Rock and a Hard Place you’re amazed he’s not already dead because he’d been risking his life and nearly losing it for a long time before the incident this book chronicles. By the end, you’re amazed he’s still alive. Although I found his writing grandiose, his ego monumental, and his lack of judgement legendary, I have to admire his fighting spirit and his resourcefulness. I wouldn’t have survived. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to. Kudos to Aron for getting himself out of the mess he got himself into and more for making the most of it.

2007 Accidents in North American Mountaineering

I read ANAM every year since it comes free with my membership in the AAC. I thought this was a rather uninspired edition. It seems like they’re covering fewer areas and fewer accidents each year. Plus, they seem more reliant on the climbers’ own accounts, which are bound to be skewed and are occasionally incomprehensible. For free, I’ll keep reading it, but it’s not the resource it used to be.

Or maybe I’m just getting jaded. To some extent, they’re the same accidents every year. I guess I’d like to see the AAC seek out the accidents that teach real lessons and cover those in more depth while summarizing the frequency and causes of the more obvious accidents. Instead, we get as much depth as the victim was willing to provide which is sometimes a ridiculously long version of “my belayer lowered me off the end of the rope” and sometimes a two line summary of what was obviously a complex and interesting situation.

Addicted to Danger by Jim Wickwire

This guy’s kind of unlucky. I mean, he made it to the top of practically nothing and he watched a lot of people die. On the other hand, he’s kind of lucky. He didn’t die himself, despite some stupid choices like bivouacing near the summit of K2, and he has a wife and family who love him, despite some selfish choices like repeatedly missing birthdays and anniversarys so he could climb.

Addicted to Danger isn’t a bad read, but I felt bad reading it. I know people who’ve been less selfish and have gotten less. On the other hand, I know people who have been so devoted to their families and jobs that they haven’t realized themselves. Perhaps Jim Wickwire walked a fine line and walked it well.

Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner

I started Rock Warrior’s Way a couple of years ago but my head wasn’t in the right place for it and I didn’t finish it. The book tries to teach you to climb confidently by approaching climbing with an attitude of love, not fear. It’s supposedly based on some warrior tradition (Don someone or other) but it reads a lot like Buddhism. It’s about being in the moment, watching your thoughts, and staying centered on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Anyway, I was so wrapped up in fear when I first read it that I couldn’t even hear the message. Plus, I didn’t know anything about Buddhism then. This time around I found the book very wise and helpful and I’m really glad I went back and tried again. I’ve been using the lessons I learned, most especially about engaging the climb (which is often the crux for me – just stepping up) and not trying to make the climb easier but to make myself more capable (rise to the level of the climb, don’t wish it down to your level).