The shadow of death

In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, Jonathan Waterman. The book is appropriately titled, because — while it is not overly morbid — this is not a story of triumph or achievement.

Waterman tells the story of Denali (McKinley, in the more recent, American nomenclature) over the past century or so, mainly concentrating on the ’70s and early ’80s. The early history of the peak is the story of exploration, first ascents via various routes and struggling through rough terrain and poor weather. The later history, unfortunately, is as commercial as that of Everest.
Waterman defends the Alaskan way of life, the traditional name for the mountain and preservation of natural areas large enough for bears and other wildlife to thrive away from human settlement. The main stories, however, paint pictures of various colorful and tragic characters as they deal with Denali in their own ways. These characters, including Waterman himself, fall into one of two camps. At their best, Denali is an obsession. This includes Waterman, many of the talented climbers and lovers of the mountain for its own sake. At humans’ worst, Denali is just a trophy. For these people, Waterman quotes longtime Alaska guide Brian Okonek as saying, it’s not about climbing, but having climbed, “then moving on to something else.”

Whether one is obsessed with Denali or attempts to take it as a trophy, it seems death is a constant possibility. For the longtime lovers of the peak, death may come as a fitting end to a life spent haunting the peak and its surrounding landscape. For those less noble, who seek to experience the mountain before going home, death may come much more quickly (unless it is prevented by needless and costly rescues). Either way, life spent around Denali is full of death, and Waterman seems resigned to that fact.

Recent classics in music and mountains

No Direction Home: The Life And Music Of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton. The first of two well known and respected books I’ve finished in the past week took me quite a while, as I had posted earlier. Shelton thinks very highly of Dylan, and his generally good treatment of Bob in previous writings allowed him to get close enough to make this an authorized biography from an artist who spent hours toying with and lying to a press corp that annoyed the hell out of him through much of his early career. That said, though, it isn’t a biography Dylan would write himself; such topics as drugs, the big divorce and the Christian conversion are treated gently but openly. The book makes Dylan human and likable — nothing wrong with that.

The reason it took so long to get through it is simply that it covers a lot of material — approximately 25 years of the professional life of a prolific songwriter and tirelessly touring performer means there are innumerable recording sessions, concerts and interviews, many of which are traded widely and on my bookshelf. Despite having all of these recordings and having listened to most of them, there was a lot to learn from this book. The one example I’ve been telling non-Dylan fans is this: The song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (written and recorded by Dylan, then covered by Eric Clapton, G&R and many others) wasn’t just made up out of Bob’s imagination; it actually fits into the script of the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Check the soundtrack, watch the movie — it will make a lot more sense when you actually see a sheriff dying as the guitar starts in on the simple chord progression. You’ll also get to check out Dylan’s acting skills. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I did not know that, nor the significance and feel of the 1974 tour as compared with the sensational RTR of 1975-6, nor the controversy behind the Isle of Wight show, or even as much as Shelton explained of Dylan’s experiences in the Vineyard church during and following his conversion to Christianity.

The book isn’t complete: Obviously, Bob Dylan is still going strong, and Shelton’s narrative stops in 1985 after speeding through the most recent 10 years or so. That can be forgiven, because the real treat is the early history, the ’60s, with Bob fighting for fame, then fighting his way through fame. Shelton was right there for all of it, or close enough to get a good sense for what was happening, and that experience makes his account of Dylan’s early professional years the best. I doubt we’ll see a story this detailed of Dylan’s later years, but someone will try.

There is a reason this book has been through three successive paperbook printings since its original release in 1986. I bought mine used, and you will have to, too, but it’s worth it.

Lost Mountains: Climbs in the Himalaya, Stephen Venables. Here is another classic, only available from used bookstores, also published in 1986 and reprinted. I never would have found this if Emily hadn’t bought it for me for Christmas.

The primary thing that hit me about halfway through this book was how pure it is. Think of the accounts of the first summit on Annapurna I, then reduce the size of the expedition and take away the militaristic approach to the mountain. You’re left with pure adventure and exploration by skilled climbers who know little about where in particular they are going and how they are going to reach the summit of whichever peak the choose. No one has ever been there before them, as far as history knows. And things never go quite according to plan, but they love it anyway.

Venables, in what I believe was his first book of several, tells two stories, each of one or more first ascents in relatively unexplored portions of Kashmir in northern India. The first is a success on a climb with just him and his climbing partner; the second is a mixed bag of failure and success with a larger expedition assisted by the Indian army. In neither is there the greed or summit fever found in many of the popular accounts of Everest, for example. These are largely the stories of the mountains themselves, along with details of what the climbers had to do to make their way through and up the peaks.

This is fine writing from a respected English climber with many accomplishments to his name. It is well worth reading if you care to keep the freedom and spirit of the hills alive in your mind until the next time you can be there yourself.