Flowers. Beautiful flowers. So many times I thought of those and what they meant, what they represented, while reading Jens Holsten’s article The Heart of the Day, in the latest issue of Alpinist magazine. Holsten, a young (20-something) alpinist from Washington’s Cascades, takes us through his incredible trip to Alaska with Max Hasson, while also giving us background on his devotion to living in the dirt and making it happen, and a beautiful glimpse into his love for his dying mother.
Damn, Alpinist does a terrific job. I’m a fan of climbing writing and climbing stories that extend well beyond the “and then I put the yellow TCU here and…” bullshit, or the thinly veiled thumping of one’s own chest, and the omnipresent hyperbole. We’ve got TV for that shit. Endless this-will-make-you-cool gear reviews, fashion shots, and pop-culture celebrity covers don’t do it for me, either. We’ve got the paradoxically named Outside magazine for that.
I think that what Alpinist, and all good climbing writing, does so well is to unwrap the deeper threads that draw us together, things shared throughout life despite the different shades within our obscure craft. It’s timeless, but that doesn’t make it old. Sure, we all know “it’s about the experience,” right, right, blah, blah – but when it comes to communicating that through storytelling, it’s damn difficult to do well, and extraordinarily rare to do extremely well. Too often, I think, we fall into the traps of clichés and predictability, miss the line between overly stoic and mawkish, and give in to summary-statement endings (my personal pet peeve) that ruin the article. Side rant: I think that sentences containing “and then I realized that it was…” (so much for “show, don’t tell,” eh?) or “in the end, it wasn’t about the climbing,” and their various devil spawn, should be now and forever banned from the printed page. Not that I’m in any position to criticize, granted.
To drift a little more, there must be something intrinsic to commitment that lends itself to great storytelling, which might explain why, unfortunately, virtually zero good literature exists about sport climbing/bouldering/cragging – not trying to rip on those crafts, fun as they are, utterly mind-blowing athletically at the high end, and much as I enjoy them. It seems it should create some good lit, though – unless I’m just missing it (along with the longtime climbing historians and literature buffs, and the book festival jurors) – surely similar attributes and drive exist among the dedicated. Hell, people live in their cars, make huge sacrifices, get maniacally obsessed with a little chunk of obscure stone, all in order to clip bolts and do boulder problems. Why the lack of great writing? Surely they’re not all illiterate. Hell, brain-damaged alpinists manage to write historically great mountain literature. And baseball – baseball! It doesn’t get any more boring than that – has great literature. One of the best sports books I’ve read is Levels of the Game, by John McPhee. It’s about a tennis match. I hate tennis. Loved the book.
Anyway, I don’t know why the dearth of quality, memorable, lasting sport climbing or bouldering writing, but I think we’re poorer for it. Unless it’s just me missing the boat – fire off your thoughts and theories, I’d love to hear ‘em. I have, however, to prove my point that cragging and great writing shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, heard wonderful things about Jerry Moffatt’s (co-written with Niall Grimes) recent award-winning book Revelations, perhaps one of the first ever great books about short-form rock climbing – but that’s just it, it sounds like it’s not actually so much about climbing, any more than, for examples from Alpinist 29 (I haven’t read every article yet), Jeff Benowitz’s article is about a busted leg (he’s one helluva storyteller and writer, for those unfamiliar with him), Majka Burhardt’s about just ice climbing, or Andrew Querner’s about another perfect-body-posed photo essay.
Anyway, I love the issue and Holsten’s article, with the glimpses of his journey through his early years, striving, dreaming, then reaching a goal you’ve dreamed of for so long that it feels like it isn’t even you, but layered with the complexity of losing his dying mother far too early, her struggle, his youth and dreams, and the compassion of a terrific climbing partner, Max Hasson. But, fair warning: If you need to know the move-by-move and pitch-by-pitch description, complete with ratings and machismo in describing one of the best trips of the year by American climbers, you’ll be disappointed. Not me. It has what I consider a trademark characteristic of good writing in that not only must you continue reading, but it’s not over when you finish the final word. The best writing keeps me thinking for hours, days, or even longer after I finish. It evokes lasting feelings and often makes me think of things beyond the story. Like flowers. How flowers change, adapt, shift form, wilt and die, bloom again and come alive, and show us simple beauty much like the beauty of life.
Nice post and I too agree, fantastic magazine and a wonderful publication. Best of the group but just don’t tell Climbing that…..still got years left on my subscription.
Why are we lacking in sport climbing/boulder writing? They aren’t having the type III fun of hiding in a cold cave or waiting out weather while sliding off a small ledge for hours/days at a time, all of which offers the alpinist lots of time to wonder why am I here doing this again?
I agree. Jens’ article was\is brilliant. I’m still thinking about it a week after I read it. To me it hit all major points. Yes there was climbing, but the writing showed a journey, from the start of his obsession to that point in Alaska. You can see (and feel?) his growth and the pain of losing his mother. The climbing is merely a vehicle for his own self discovery, informed by another major turning point in his life. That to me is the mark of great mountain writing. It isn’t really about the climbing and you don’t have to be told that (ie. “in the end…), you’re left to figure that out for your self.
I think alpinism lends its self to that. Hard to see that struggle in the context of an 80 foot sport route or 10 move V-whatever. However, I’ll admit to being biased.
couldn’t agree more, Bob — very well put.
I hate to say it Kelly but I think that “it’s not about the climbing”. Maybe climbing is just a way that some people tap into something a little more real than what they find in everyday life. That sounds pretty cheesy…
“Safer” and more “mundane” climbing styles can definitely start to get you there but higher levels of commitment really strip away the layers of bullshit where pretty amazing and often frightening things/ideas/aspects of yourself are found. After that you still need a little talent, luck and hopefully good editors to create something that lives up to your (Kelly’s) expectations. Expectations that I fully agree with and rarely find in the modern climbing mag. It’s cool to see Jens evolve as a writer and I hope this is just the beginning.
On the other hand I’m not so sure about my image as a roll-your-own marlboro man. Smoking’s not as cool as it used to be…
Here’s a cheesy quote that I really like, I haven’t read ‘Starlight and Storm’ (anybody?), I actually got it from our local bouldering guidebook…
“In this modern age, very little remains that is real. Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind and the stars. They have all been neutralized; the rhythm of life itself is obscured. Everything goes so fast and makes so muck noise, and we hurry by without heeding the grass by the roadside, its color, its smell and they way it shimmers when the wind caresses it. What a strange encounter it is then between us and the high places of our planet! Up there, we are surrounded by the silence of forgetfulness.”
ha, nice cliche, max — nah, joking, it’s totally true that it’s not about the climbing. the good writers figure out ways to show that without falling into the tired old ways of telling. i think jens did a great job of it. have enjoyed seeing some of your photos, too, btw. great work, keep it up!
love the Rebuffat quote. i have the book, think i read it forever ago, need to re-read. heard lots of great reviews of it.
“…people live in their cars, make huge sacrifices, get maniacally obsessed with a little chunk of obscure stone, all in order to clip bolts and do boulder problems.”
Replace “in order to climb overhanging rock” with “in order to clip bolts and do boulder problems” and you’ve got an accurate statement. Some of us just aren’t interested in standing around on low-angle rock. The bolts have as little to do with the actual climbing as crash pads, nuts, cams and ice tools do with their respective genres.
Your obsession is just as silly and pointless as ours, we just don’t make fools of ourselves trying to pump it up into something it’s not. It is what it is. Doubly ridiculous, though, is pumping up one form of climbing while denigrating another – as if any of it made any difference to anyone.
Want to commune with nature? Go for a hike. Want to pointlessly risk your own life? Go run around in traffic. Want to read a good book? “Lolita”.
Sure, Jack, overhanging rock, you bet. You picked out some minutia and the overriding point flew right past you. Nothing in my post denigrates one form of climbing over another. Through your defensiveness you missed my giving props to some forms of climbing that, I think, along with many others and supported by critics, book awards, etc etc (pretty hard to refute), unfortunately have not produced much in the way of decent lit.
Somehow you missed that I’m talking about the writing, not getting into a penis-measuring contest over what form of climbing is better/worse. “…we just don’t make fools of ourselves by…” uh-huh. And you drift into snide words about communing with nature, running around in traffic, etc, again apparently doing the whole comparing of actual types of climbing — how does that relate to anything of my points? I also criticized the clichés, predictability, and machismo too often found in climbing writing. A lack of reading comprehension helps underscore your whole “fool” slam.
Seriously, man, take a breath and re-read my post. Maybe you disagree, which is fine (and I would *love* some suggestions on favorite/great writings from the shorter-forms of the craft — as I said, it should be possible, and maybe I’ve just missed out on them?), but it’s disappointing to see you make these comments that have nothing to do with what I wrote.
“Your obsession is just as silly and pointless as ours…”
–Absolutely. For the record, I’m pretty obsessed with rock climbing as well, so you can drop the whole “us” vs “them” thing. And, again, where did I pump up one form of climbing while denigrating another? Jesus, I hope your detours and depth of thinking on the topic aren’t representative of all of those who obsess over climbing “overhanging rock.” If so, we might have an explanation for the relative dearth of great storytelling surrounding the short-form versions of climbing. You did some serious selective off-base interpretation of my words.
Maybe try re-reading my post while remembering that I’m talking about writing, not the worthiness (worthlessness) of any form of climbing.
I tuned you out at “…all in order to clip bolts”, a statement which denigrates sport climbing as surely as saying “just to wiggle some widgets” would denigrate trad, or “just to play with tools” would denigrate ice. Yes, sport climbing has nothing to do with actual climbing – it’s all about attaching quick draws to bolt hangers! I mean, how could it possibly be about anything else?
I’ve been reading climbing writing since the early 70’s, Tom Patey was my favorite for his humor, with his article about Rakaposhi from One Man’s Mountains being an example. This quote from that article, standing on the summit:
“Ten minutes were sufficient to snatch a few random snapshots and to bestow our curses on the landscape; ten minutes of shivering misery as a climax to a year’s preparation and six weeks of physical drudgery! I felt I could sympathize with the man who wrote, “The reason I enjoy climbing so much is because it is so entirely irrational.”
You can read the whole thing on books.google.com. No navel-gazing, no BS overwrought soliloquizing, just honest reporting with fine, Brit-style dry ironic humor. As soon as someone verges off into trying to find “deeper meaning” in climbing, I tune out. There isn’t any. It is what it is. Just give me a trip report with a little humor in it, otherwise please just STFU.
the ironic thing here, Jack, is that you tuned-out, vis-a-vis your dismissing wording you perceived as denigrating, at a spot where i think we completely agree. maybe i worded it badly, but that wording was intentional, with my point being similar to yours — as you duly note, it’s all silly and pointless — part of its beauty, which Patey expressed (great quote, and One Man’s Mountains is an awesome book). and so i don’t get why you took offense to my noting how silly it is — indeed, clipping bolts drilled in a chunk of stone that leads to nowhere is about as absurd as it gets. perhaps second only to going up mountains and freezing your ass off.
in discussing this climbing lit topic with my friend Andrew Bisharat, one of the editors at Rock & Ice (he just wrote a great parody of that overwrought navel-gazing writing), in an email just last night I expressed my appreciation for the huge process of working on shorter routes (which i also do) — “projecting, and training, and all the dedication that leads to climbing this chunk of stone every bit as worthless as any chunk of frozen stone and snow and ice in the mountains.”
so, make no mistake, i don’t think climbing matters to the world at large. i’ve written about its overt worthlessness a fair bit, though i greatly value its worth to us individually. man, most things we do in the world are overtly worthless when you stop and think about it. and while i’ve also ruthlessly mocked the overwrought navel-gazing, i think that what makes the good climbing writing good is that it extends beyond just the climbing. with all due respect to the great straight trip reports sprinkled with wit, which i also enjoy.
btw, i suspect you’d love (though you’ve surely read it at some point) Lansing’s book on Shackleton’s Endurance voyage. told straight-up without overwrought soliloquizing, an incredible read of a mind-blowing adventure.
thanks for the discussion, interesting perspectives.
” …my friend Andrew Bisharat, one of the editors at Rock & Ice (he just wrote a great parody of that overwrought navel-gazing writing)…”
Being that everything he writes is unintentional self-parody, I imagine that wasn’t too much of a stretch…
Looks like someone has a case of the muuuundays!