Tag Archives: climbing

To the Greatest Heights

I love outdoor adventures, but where I’m at in life, I have to live vicariously through the biographies of others. So I downloaded an advance copy of Vanessa O’Brien’s biography.

img_1908To the Greatest Heights is truly a representative name for O’Brien’s journey, as she lays out climbing the world’s tallest mountains, as well as hitting both poles. O’Brien’s adventures began as something to fill her time after being laid off. A friend suggested climbing Mount Everest and she thought, “why not?”

In the process of training for Everest, O’Brien found she had a taste for the mountains. Though she didn’t set out to make any records or even climb the Seven Summits, nor bag the Adventurer’s Grand Slam, things just started falling into place.

O’Brien writes a very raw and honest memoir of climbing, weaving in the details of her life and childhood trauma, as well. Her story is one that highlights resilience and the search to build a family, that family is sometimes, maybe even often, more than blood. Be warned that this kind of writing usually includes a lot of swearing, and O’Brien’s memoir is no exclusion.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who reads this book and suddenly wants to climb a few mountains or make a trek to the South Pole. It’s not even that O’Brien makes it sound like a picnic— she’s very honest about the challenges and brutality of these feats. It’s simply the draw of being out in nature, pushing your personal limits and simply answering some primal call that’s felt deep in the soul.

Into Thin Air

You’d think that reading about tragedy would curb enthusiasm or interest in risky adventures. But I think Jon Krakauer sums it up perfectly in his introduction to Into Thin Air: “There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.” And it’s not just applicable to Everest.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s personal recounting of the 1996 spring season in Everest, a brutal and deadly season. Krakauer signed on to the Everest expedition to write a magazine article about the commercialization of climbing Everest and found himself part of a team of marginally qualified climbers and experienced guides. The other teams camping out hoping for a summit assault had much the same composition. So when a storm started brewing in the afternoon of several teams’ attempts, the mountain claimed the many lives, some with a lot of climbing and Everest experience.

Reading Krakauer’s account is harrowing, when you reach May 10. Krakauer lays bare the actions he and others took without attempting to justify them (though he does remind readers that at 29,000 feet, even supplemental oxygen is only enough to keep one functional, not necessarily rational). One is left wondering what it must be like to live with the choices made, along with the survivors guilt.

I’m sure many people read this book and think, “what kind of person signs up for that? Knowing the risks?” The answer is, the other kind of people who read the book and think, “I could do that.” I don’t think Krakauer’s book is meant to discourage people from climbing—too many people would see it as a challenge. Nor do I think it’s meant to serve as a guide for what to do or what not to do, though certainly there are lessons one could pull for the pages. If anything, aside from being an attempt to process the trauma he’d survived, I think it’s probably meant to serve as a reminder of the risks, to pose the question, “are you willing to die for this?” Or, more heavy, “are you willing to let others die for this?”

I can’t deny that even though it’s an intense read about worst-case scenarios, a part of me doesn’t feel even more of a draw to the danger. It’s not even really a the competition with nature. It’s more like what George Mallory is quoted saying, it’s simply because it’s there. It is there, and so I must try. (Not that I’m planning on climbing Everest anytime soon. I’ll try some smaller mountains, first.)

Learning to Fly

Do you ever read a book that makes you want to absolutely uproot your life and go chase an outlandish dream? That’s how I feel when I read Steph Davis’ books.

A well-known climber and skydiver/base jumper, Steph Davis lives the adventurer’s dream, going wherever she wants, attacking whatever project catches her fancy, and not weighed down by the mundane everyday trivialities of a job (at least not for very long, only until she’s boosted her bank account enough to afford getting back out into nature).

In Learning to Fly, her second book, Davis opens with honesty, sharing a pretty raw look at what her life looked like when she hit rock bottom. With no where to go but up, Davis went about as high as one can–channeling her emotion into a single-minded dedications learning and mastering first skydiving then BASE jumping.

Davis takes readers along in her journey of healing, wrestling with fear and learning to stretch in new ways. Davis’ second memoir is an emotional roller coaster, full of inspiring moments of overcoming, as well as moments of despair and sorrow. I wasn’t quite prepared for it, when I dove into the book. But Davis’ honesty within her writing strikes a nerve, and I think even people who aren’t into outdoor adventures can relate to the emotions Davis shares in her book.

Each time I’ve read a book by Davis, it’s made me want to quit my job and go live out of my car, exploring nature and climbing anything and everything I can. This book in particular struck a cord, Davis’ journey to rediscover herself and her purpose feeling extremely relatable right now. Not gonna lie, part of me feels like I might find myself if I look 14,000 feet in the sky. But, I’m not sure taking up skydiving is the answer right now, no matter how fun it might be.

I’ve got the adventure bug something awful now, thanks to Davis’ book. And more than that, I know how being outside allows the simplicity and beauty of nature to put the rest of life into perspective. Coming into a fresh new year, that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

High Infatuation

Since our trip to Bishop in February/March, my friend Jen has been encouraging me to read some of Steph Davis’ books on climbing and mountaineering. So when an unexpected Amazon package showed up around my birthday and Steph Davis’ book High Infatuation was inside, I knew exactly who it was from.

High Infatuation is a different kind of book. In some ways, it feels almost like a collection of poems, except it’s not really poetry. It’s a collection of her thoughts on life, mixed in with some detailed accounts of defining trips and ascents in her career as a climber, a mixture of basic biography and personal diary. But it makes for great reading.

Davis is a professional climber who got a late start at it, never having climbed before her freshman year in college. But once she tried it, she was hooked. Davis has largely taken a fearless approach to climbing. If she has a knowledgeable partner she trusts, she’ll try just about anything, learning as she goes along.

Her snapshot glimpses into the adventurous dirtbag life certainly ignite if not wanderlust, an intense desire to get out and climb. Davis talks about working part-time jobs to afford to keep climbing, and to take trips to places including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Baffin Island, although after a few cursory mentions of waitressing to earn money for her bills, she doesn’t really mention it again, which makes me wonder how she could afford to climb year-round later on. I guess maybe sponsorship money, although she doesn’t talk about sponsors at all.

High Infatuation feels like a very personal read. As I went through it, several times I got the feeling that, as Davis was writing, she must have also been using it as a way to make sense of things and reflect on herself and her life, where she is and where she’s come from. Getting to read that makes her story very real, even if the book does leave you needing to do a little more research on her professional career (assuming you haven’t already followed it).

I love reading these kinds of books, but every time I do, it makes me want to push my computer away (and push the book away too) and get out there and live it for myself. Instead of reading or writing about other people’s adventures, I want to be out there myself. And with Yosemite not that far away from me… maybe I need to develop some new friendships…

The Push

As the possessor of an active imagination, I’ve already read books and thought how cool it would be to live the story, imagining myself in it or doing something similar. Not often do I really wish to have that life. However, reading Tommy Caldwell’s book definitely woke something different in me, and while I don’t want all his experiences, I do wish I had the freedom and money and talent to climb whatever whenever.

I first heard about Tommy Caldwell in 2014, when he and Kevin Jorgeson climbed the Dawn Wall in Yosemite. And even though that was something I only knew about from a friend, I followed the last half closely, and when I found out Caldwell was going to write a book, I awaited its release with lots of excitement.

In The Push, Caldwell talks about growing up outdoors with his family, doing challenging climbs and mountaineering feats with his dad at young ages. He relates his experience of being a hostage in Kyrgyzstan and how that affected his life for years after, and how, in a way, it led to his passion/obsession with the Dawn Wall.

Caldwell’s story is one of perseverance, if nothing else. He dedicated seven years to the Dawn Wall, unable or unwilling to give up without successfully completing it. Nestled inside his honest, somewhat cavalier writing are some quality truths about failure as a tool to inspire greater success.

I appreciated his honesty as well in regards to how various things in his life truly affected him. Caldwell uses his book as a means of reflection, admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers and that his choices may not always have been stellar. But his honesty prompts a feeling of self-reflection in his readers, or at least in me.

Even though, having followed the climb as it happened, I knew how he story ultimately ended. Yet the book is so much more than the story of climbing the Dawn Wall, it’s the story of how Caldwell developed a need for the Dawn Wall, and how upon completion, he understood what was behind the need.

It’s an exciting, fun, and funny read. And whether you climb or don’t climb, it’s worth the time.