Great. Climbing. Writing. – Editor’s Note #245

Ueli Steck’s life and climbing were original, and interesting. In this issue, John Heilprin brings to life the fastest man in the mountains, and why he insisted on paying his own way on his expeditions—for the freedom.

By Francis Sanzaro | September 4th, 2017

The great Ueli Steck. Cover photo by Patitucciphoto.

As we neared the ridge, the limitless vermillion sky shrank to nothingness. The clouds settled as if God had thrown cotton balls onto the range, and I felt, for the first and last time in my life, why we climb—to get outside ourselves, to transcend the daily struggle, to tap into a presence greater than ourselves.

Point one: That was a horrific couple of sentences. They were cliché, overly romanticized, and we’ve all heard them before. Let’s move on to the topic of ‘interesting.’

Here are some good examples of ‘interesting’: Finding a skeleton and carrying his bones in a backpack. Bending over in a back-country hospital after an attack by a bat. Using the quickdraws of a deceased brother. The paradox of finding strength in not eating and yet desiring to have a different type of strength, climbing strength, so as to know the holds and textures better than your ribcage. Failure, spirit-crushing failure: the kind that can’t be drunk away or even reasoned with. Failure in the mountains is like shitting in the pool—you have to drain the whole thing.

“Wait, I liked that part about shitting in the pool,” I said, instructing at the John Long Writing Symposium held this past June.

“Glad you liked it,” said the student author.

“But it doesn’t make any sense,” said another student.

“Sure it does,” said the author.

“What’s it got to do with writing?” asked another student.

“ … you know, failure is infectious. It makes you question everything,” said the author.

“Why didn’t you just write that?” I said.

Point two: Climbing writing has to be about something interesting, and it needs to be clear. It also doesn’t have to be about a great climb. Case in point is Nathan Smith’s “The Burden” (page 54), a moving meditation on what it’s like to feel responsible about the death of close friends, Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson.

Gracias, Largo. The 2017 John Long Writing Symposium is a wrap, and it spawned the topic of this Editor’s Note: What makes good climbing writing. For an unadulterated week, we subjected a courageous group of 10 students to our words of encouragement, harsh criticism and editorial compassion. We salute you, and we know, as well as anyone, to critique your own writing is to stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself it isn’t the mirror’s fault.

Ed Drummond’s 1973 haunting and self-deprecating recounting (“Mirror, Mirror,” page 46) of his 20-day first ascent of the Arch Wall of the  Trollrygen Wall in Norway, is a masterpiece—it’s interesting, creative and clear. Wait, that was a lie. It isn’t clear, not at all, but Drummond is in full control of the lack thereof. Emily Weinstein’s “Into the Tribe” (page 56), another lyrical journey, weaves an analogous bit of madness and solitude on the fringes of Joshua Tree by way of the California Stonemasters Mike Lechlinski and Mari Gingery. Yet another reason to love J-Tree.

Ueli Steck’s life and climbing were original, and interesting. In “Self- Made Superman” (page 26), our definitive profile of the late alpinist Steck, John Heilprin brings to life the fastest man in the mountains, and why he insisted on paying his own way on his expeditions—for the freedom. All of us should take note of that. Last but not least, feast your eyes on Québec’s boulders and crags in a photo essay worthy of the name (“Je Ne Sais Quoi,” page 36).


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