Earlier this year John Porter came to Nova Scotia (He has family here) to give a fantastic talk about his endeavors in the mountains and his part in the birth of fast and light alpinism. It was a hugely inspirational event and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect as it was 5 days before he was awarded the top prize for the 2014 Banff Mountain Book Prize. We were all able to shake his hand and wish him luck which, after having read his book, he really didn’t need. What follows is a review of his powerful book which chronicles his friend Alex MacIntyre’s journey, his ethics, his life and death. It is told from John’s point of view as a mate and climbing parter of Alexs watching him grow. It spoke to me as someone who works hard outside of climbing, has fears about it, but also a huge passion for pursuing this life.
There are so many things that could be covered here, but in the interest of not spoiling the great read I will focus on three topics that stood out to me. The dance between ambition and risk, the balance between mountain life and family life, and the unabashed quest of adventure and travel.
But before I dive too deep into the book I first want to put out a massive thank you to John for writing this book and coming to speak to us in a small shop in Halifax. I also want to thank Alex for his pursuit of a pure style of fast and light alpinism. Who knows where the sport would be today without guys like Alex and John setting a high bar of ethics. I will be forever grateful for their vision, ambition, and drive to build the community into something I am proud to take part in.
Ambition vs. Risk
By following Alex on his journey you get a real appreciation for the time and dedication it took for him to go from a place of not understanding the mountains to wanting to be the greatest alpinist of all time. There is a clear commitment given at the start of an expedition, they know this risks, they climb in spite of a lack of gear or a hailstorm of boulders crashing around them. In the face of rockfall they power on up un-climbed routes that might have to be backed off. The ambition for success is always balanced with an assessment of risk. Several close calls have them questioning their choices and when friends would perish in the mountains the veil of invincibility was broken. My most important take away was an acceptance of a level of risk that I am not yet ready for – but I can see a time in the future when I will be.
Mountain life vs. Family life
John touches a few times on the remoteness of these places they climb in. Days of hiking with porters through torrential rain to reach basecamp- selling stores to pay for porters. The only way they can get a message out is by mail runners or going back to town to make (an often rejected) phone call. This remoteness allowed them to focus everything on the task at hand. Family life and Mountain life were separated by several thousand meters/kms/bodies of water. He talks about the conversations with family “take care of my loved one”, dating climbers and not climbers a like, and the struggle that family has justifying risks they cannot understand. It is an honest reflection on their ability to compartmentalize work, family, and climbing. Even though it was easier when there was no one waiting for them at home.
Quest for adventure and travel
For me this book was the “50 shades of grey” of climbing. I’ve never read it but there are long stretches of what is essentially climbing “romance” that whisked me off into a world half way up alpine routes that I couldn’t comprehend. Stack on top of this being smuggled on trains through Communist Russia, travelling through Afghanistan as casually as you would home, and a focus and dedication to trips pouring literally every financial resource they had into exploration. It was a different world- and inspiring all the same.
There is one evident way that you know this is a book written by a climber for climbers. There is no attempt made to answer the question “Why climb this stuff?”. It is inherently understood by the author and by any climber reading it. Any time the question is posed there is an obvious misunderstanding of the nature of the mentality of the sport. It doesn’t come up until the end of the book when he explains to a design engineer friend that what we gain is a bit like dark matter.
John’s book is truly a masterpiece chronicling the birth of fast and light alpinism and a time in climbing history when a tectonic shift took place. If only Alex had been 2 feet to the left when that rock fell that stole a talent from the world. Who knows what would have become of him and what would have become of our sport. There are so many other topics I would love to cover here, but you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I can’t recommend it enough I feel I now know Alex MacIntyre and the birth of fast and light alpinism through the eyes of a close personal friend.