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.