Video: The Road from Karakol

I chose a bike instead of a partner, the road instead of a basecamp.  I chose Krygyzstan.  Its intriguing network of old Soviet roads and endless peaks.  I had no expectations other than what the guidebook said: Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia.

Kyle Dempster is one of the world’s most accomplished alpine climbers who has trips to Pakistan, China, south America and the Canadian Arctic under his belt.  The Road from Karakol follows Dempster on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011.

Dempster explored Kyrgyzstan by mountain bike, while pulling a trailer full of climbing kit.  In a country where 90% of the territory is above 1,500m and 40% is above 3,000m, that alone is no mean feet.

He had originally intended to make the trip with his girlfriend but after she had to pull out owing to a skiing accident, Dempster decided to make the trip alone.

We use the word suffering way too much.  Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil, the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, by its people.  The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that define our identities give way.  Our mental defenses grow thin.  You no longer know where you end and the world begins.  We become raw.  This is why we take the trip.  That is what we’ve come for.

For two months, Dempster cycled nearly 1,200 km on roads of varying quality through spectacular mountain scenery, crossing rivers, soloing peaks, passing through abandoned Soviet-era towns and drinking vodka, lots of vodka.  

He recorded his journey using a mixture of GoPro and point-and-shoot, filming nearly 25 hours of footage.  On his return, what was intended to be a four-minute climbing film was turned, with the assistance of Duct Tape then Beer and an editing process that took about a year, into the 25 minute The Road from Karakol.

The Road to Karakol is an extraordinary journey.  It is not a self-aggrandizing video or sponsorship film but a personal record of an adventure where things do not go as planned and  where Dempster is prepared to appear naked before the camera (emotionally as well as physically).

The camera is his companion and he shares his thoughts and fears, including a video letter to his family and loved ones, as well as his triumphs.  His journey through the deserted valleys and mountains of Kyrgyzstan to rejoin civilisation is a testament to his determination and perseverance.  Inspiring and impressive stuff.

Here’s what I believe. Real adventure is not polished. It’s not the result of some marketing budget.  There’s no hashtag for it.  It burns brightest on the map’s edges but it exists in all of us.  It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous.  You have to have faith.  It will find you there and when it does, remember there’s just one question.  In this life when the road comes to an end, will you keep pedalling? 

For more background to this story, read Kyle Dempster’s interview with The Bicycle Story, here, Kyle Dempster’s interview with Alastair Humphreys, here, or visit the film’s website, at www.theroadfromkarakol.com.

 

Photo essay: Bolivia’s Cholita climbers

The women climb in their traditional “cholita” garb, but trade in their bowler hats for helmets.

Inspiring photo essay from Bolivian Reuters photographer David Mercado about a group of Bolivian women who have set out to climb some of the highest mountains in the Andes. 

The group of indigenous Aymara women, known as the ‘Cholitas’, are mostly in their 40s.  The wives of mountain guides whose previous experience of the mountains was limited to cooking and cleaning for climbers, they decided to see what mountain climbing was like for themselves.  With no formal climbing experience, they climb mountains in their cholita dresses, shawls and cardigans although do wear helmets and crampons…   

They have now summited five mountains all of which are higher than 6,000 metres:  Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosi and Illimani.  Their goal is to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside Asia.  

Fantastic images and a great story about determination, possibilities and trying new experiences, the Cholitas show that climbing is a sport open to anyone.  And the Cholitas’ verdict?:  “It is difficult but not impossible.”  

 

 

 

Article: Hemingway, the Alps & wintersports

There’s nothing really can touch skiing, is there? The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run.
(from Cross Country Snow by Ernest Hemingway)

Several articles written about the Swiss Alps by Hemingway while working as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star in the early 1920s.

After returning to North America after World War I, Hemingway met his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  They married in 1921, Hemingway was hired as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star shortly afterwards and the couple then moved to Paris.  While there, Hemingway developed a love of the Alps which he reported on in a series of short but evocative articles in the winter of 1922.  

In Flivver, Canoe, Pram and Taxi Combined in the Luge, Joy of Everybody in Switzerland (Toronto Daily Star, March 18, 1922), Hemingway describes an idyllic scene of winter time Sunday outing to the mountains.  Everybody from old grandmothers and street children to the ‘rabid lugeurs’ of the British colony spent the whole day “sliding gloriously down the long, icy mountain road”.

In another piece, about the thrill of bobsledding rather than the luge, Hemingway’s joy at the winter scene seems a far cry from a man often associated with the heat of Key West, Africa and Cuba:  

While you wait for the train, you munch at ham sandwiches that a little boy peddles from a basket to the bobsledders, watch the sun go down over the great sweep of snow-covered country and wonder why people go to Palm Beach or the Riviera in the wintertime. (from Try Bobsledding If You Want Thrills (Toronto Daily Star, March 4, 1922) 

And, while describing the eclectic mix of characters who congregate at its hotels, Hemingway describes Switzerland as “a small, steep country, much more up-and-down than than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo-clock style of architecture.” (Queer Mixture of Aristocrats, Profiteers,Wolves and Sheep at the hotels in Switzerland, Toronto Daily Star, March 4, 1922.  

A love of the Alps stayed with Hemingway, who returned to them to finish his first novel, The Sun also Rises (published in the UK as Fiesta) in Schruns, Austria rather than Switzerland (possibly owing to the exchange rate? see Tourists Scarce in Swiss Resorts, Toronto Star Weekly, February 22, 1922). 

Despite sustaining leg injuries during World War I which could have resulted in amputation, Hemingway also developed a love of skiing, a sport then in its infancy, which found its way into his writing.

In the short story Cross-Country Snow, Hemingway conveys the thrill of dropping down steep slopes in passages like these:

EH7966P 1927 Ernest Hemingway skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland, 1927. Copyright unknown in the Ernest Hemingway Collection of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Scanned from original print by LAA DAMS2B.The gale scouring the exposed surface into a wind-board crust, Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight.  He jumped from the car sideways onto the hard wind-board, made a jump turn and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.


The rush and the suddens swoop as he dropped down a step mountain undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body.

Hemingway also evokes the camaraderie and satisfaction of getting out of the cold and stopping at mountain inns for meals: 

They stacked the skis against the side of the inn and slapped snow off each other’s trousers, stamped their boots clean, and went in.

Schruns also founds its way into The Snows of Kilimanjaro, while Harry is reminiscing at the start of the story:

In Schrunz, on Christmas Day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church.

…the snow as smooth to see as coal frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made a you dropped down like a bird.

Ultimately, Hemingway recounted his experiences in the Alps in his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Although well known for describing his period as a struggling writer in Paris, the final part of the memoir recalls his time in the Austrian mountains while writing The Sun Also Rises:
I remember the snow on the road to the village squeaking at night when we walked home in the cold with out skis and ski poles on our shoulders, watching the lights and then finally seeing the buildings, and how everyone said ‘Grüss Gott’.
It was obviously a time he remembered with fondness: walking up mountains to ski with seal skins on the bottom of his skis, sleeping in alpine club huts, avalanches, skiing lessons and the smell of pines.

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Hemingway’s time in Austria also marked a period of transition, with the completion and publication of The Sun Also Rises, the arrival of the rich in the ski resorts and also the impending breakdown of his first marriage.

In literary terms, at least, the Alps were for Hemingway a gift that kept on giving. 

Cross Country Snow and Snows of Kilimanjaro are both published in The First Forty-Nine Stories

        

Book: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupéry

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)

We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were infinitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.

In his NYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry ($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).  

Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight.  In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”  He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen. 

St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying.  He  expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”).  Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:

The aeroplane is a means, not an end.  It is not for the plane that we risk our lives.  Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs.  But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.

The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living.  In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.

He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight.  Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazine observes that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.”  The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed.  Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous.  The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.   

Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger.  There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.

Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.   

St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays.  Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).

Some men stay closeted in their title shops.  Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life.  Its message is not that to live we must fly.  It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning: 

When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.

It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:  

What saves a man is to take a step. And another step.
It’s that same first step repeated.

For further reading, see this article by Daniel Buck in the magazine of the South American Explorers Club: 

Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill.  The trick is to get back down alive.”

Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article.  In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest.  He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall.  As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died.  Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.

Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty.  It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.  

He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research.  However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers.   Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude.  His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”).  He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:

“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”  

Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either:  “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.  

Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice).  Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity.  There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional.  However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and  “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy?  The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:

To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”