Mountain Classics, Then and Now
David Roberts reflects on the climbing classics that launched his career
This spring, The Mountaineers Books will re-publish two of the great adventure stories of all time, The Mountain of My Fear and Deborah, by David Roberts, in a single volume. It’s been 44 years since the The Mountain of My Fear was published, but it’s as gripping and honest a story of accomplishment and tragedy in the wild today as it was back then.
To those who don’t know Roberts, as I have for many of those years, it may sound remarkable that he’s still explores the leading edge of adventure—as a writer, collaborator, and mentor to young climbers—with the same honestly and passion as ever. We’re pleased to present his thoughts on this anniversary, as well as an excerpt from The Mountain of My Fear. You can also read David’s interview with the accomplished young climber and writer Freddie Wilkinson. (Photo of David Roberts by Matt Hale)
In 1966, at the age of 22, I knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s why I’d gone to graduate school at the University of Denver, since it was then the only institution in the country offering a Ph.D. in creative writing. But at the same time, I was mired in the emotional torment of the most joyous and disturbing experience of my young life.
The previous summer, four of us, all Harvard undergraduates, had made the first ascent of the west face of Mount Huntington, which we believed was the hardest climb yet accomplished in Alaska. After a month of discouraging setbacks, we stood on the summit together at dawn on July 30. Twenty hours later, Ed Bernd, the youngest of our four, fell 4,500 feet to his death when a rappel anchor failed. Though I was standing next to Ed when he abruptly plunged into the void, to this day I have little idea what went wrong. The mountain was so huge and so treacherous that Matt Hale, Don Jensen and I were never able to search for Ed’s body.
I wrote the obligatory articles about our ascent for The American Alpine Journal and the climbing magazines, but they failed to assuage the torment. Sometime in midwinter, I decided I needed to write a book about Huntington. In my DU writing classes, we students were crafting sensitive short stories and sonnets and sestinas. It was obvious to me that a narrative of a mountaineering trip didn’t count as “creative” writing. I didn’t bother to tell my professors about the project on which I embarked in March 1966.
Spring vacation was a week and two weekends long. I locked myself in my bedroom and wrote a chapter a day—nine chapters in nine days. Then I typed the manuscript up and sent it off. Months later, to my astonishment, the third publisher to look at it—a venerable New York house called Vanguard Press—accepted The Mountain of My Fear.
Just last month, The Mountaineers Books reprinted my Huntington account, 46 years after I wrote it and 44 years after it was first published. It’s paired in a single volume in the Mountaineers’ “Legends and Lore Series” with my second book, Deborah, about a failed two-man expedition to another stunning Alaskan peak that Don Jensen and I had attempted the year before Huntington. It’s very gratifying, of course, to have a book you wrote nearly half a century ago find its way back onto the Barnes & Noble shelves. And it was flattering in 2001 to have National Geographic Adventure rank my conjoined Mountain of My Fear and Deborah among the one hundred best adventure books ever written.
When I reread The Mountain of My Fear today, however, I have mixed feelings. Fate had given me a perfect Sophoclean plot, of triumph ruined by tragedy. But along with writing about what happened on Mount Huntington, in the book I went off on all kinds of cosmic jags, as I tried to unscramble the point of life and the meaning of the universe. Some of the more high-strung passages make me wince today.
Deborah was an altogether different sort of book. Chastised by my DU professors for keeping The Mountain of My Fear a secret, I submitted my second opus as my M.A. thesis. Instead of metaphysical flights, I strove for the plainest prose I could muster. My plot was a somber one—the grinding momentum of a 42-day failure interwoven with the deterioration of an idealized friendship. Deborah took me a month to write, not nine days.
I got my Ph.D. in 1970, having done time in eight or 10 creative writing classes in which I learned almost nothing about how to write. For the next nine years, I taught at Hampshire College, passing on the maxims I’d picked up at DU (“Show, don’t tell”) to students of my own. Meanwhile, in my spare time (of which there was next to none in that workaholic dystopia of an experimental college), I wrote three books—two novels and a memoir. Dozens of publishers turned all three down, for the very good reason (as I now see) that they weren’t publishable.
It wasn’t until 1979, at the age of 36, that I dared to try writing for a living. As I slowly broke into mainstream magazines, starting with Outside, it was mountaineering expertise that got my foot in the door. By now I’ve published 23 books, and though climbing remains my forte, I’ve wandered off into biography, Anasazi archaeology, the exploration of the West and the Apaches’ last stand.
When I look back on those first two books, the question of their actual merit is less important to me than the turning point they provided in my life. Had Vanguard not publishedThe Mountain of My Fear in 1968 and Deborah in 1970, I would not be a writer today. The failure of my three Hampshire books (each of which took a solid year to produce) would have long since disabused me of the notion that I could “make it” as a writer. I would instead have settled into the rut of the burnt-out English prof, teaching students how to write instead of writing.
In my 20s and early 30s, it was the climbing that came first, not the writing. I organized expeditions to unclimbed peaks and routes in Alaska and the Yukon for thirteen consecutive years. During that span, mountaineering was by far the most important thing in my life.
And those climbs remain the deeds of which I’m proudest. No book has ever meant as much to me as climbing the west face of Mount Huntington did. A great review in The New York Times gives me less gratification than the kind of encounter I had last month, at the annual American Alpine Club meeting in Boston. A young kid—he looked about 22—came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “We climbed your route on Huntington last year.”
“Great!” I answered. “How was it?”
“We didn’t get to the summit,” he added, abashed. “We got to the top of the rock bands, but that summit icefield was just too scary. It was really wet and soft, ready to avalanche.”
“Man, that’s too bad,” I offered.
The kid hesitated. “How’d you guys do it, back in ’65?”
Excerpt fromThe Mountain of My Fear and Deborah, by David Roberts (Mountaineers Books, 2012)
It was 3:30 am. We’d been going for sixteen hours without rest. Now we were too tired even to exult. The sun had just risen in the northeast; 130 miles away we could see Deborah, only a shadow in the sky. As Don looked at it I said, “This makes up for a lot.” He nodded.
There was no one to tell about it. There was, perhaps, nothing to tell. All the world we could see lay motionless in the muted splendor of sunrise. Nothing stirred, only we lived; even the wind had forgotten us. Had we been able to hear a bird calling from some pine tree, or sheep bleating in some valley, the summit stillness would have been familiar; now it was different, perfect. It was as if the world had held its breath for us. Yet we were so tired . . . the summit meant first of all a place to rest. We sat down just beneath the top, ate a little of our lunch, and had a few sips of water. Ed had brought a couple of firecrackers all the way up; now he wanted to set one off, but we were afraid it would knock the cornices loose. There was so little to do, nothing we really had the energy for, no gesture appropriate to what we felt we had accomplished: only a numb happiness, almost a languor. We photographed each other and the views, trying even as we took the pictures to impress the sight on our memories more indelibly than the cameras could on the film…
We sat near the summit, already beginning to feel the cold. I got up and walked a little bit beyond, still roped, down the top of the east ridge, which someday men would also climb. From there I could see the underside of the summit cornice and tell that we had judged right not to step exactly on top.
We had touched it with our ice axes, reaching out, but it might not have borne our weight.
Ed, who was normally a heavy smoker, had sworn off for the whole expedition. Now, out of his inexhaustible pockets, he pulled three cigarettes. He had no trouble lighting them; after smoking two, though, he felt so light-headed he had to save the third. One of the things he must have looked forward to, I realized, was that ritual smoke on the summit, partly because of the surprise he knew it would cause. But that was only one of Ed’s reasons for being there, a minor one. I thought then, much as I had when Matt and I sat on the glacier just after flying in, that I wanted to know how the others felt and couldn’t. Trying to talk about it now would have seemed profane; if there was anything we shared, it was the sudden sense of quiet and rest. For each of us, the high place we had finally reached culminated ambitions and secret desires we could scarcely have articulated had we wanted to. And the chances are our various dreams were different. If we had been able to know each others’, perhaps we could not have worked so well together. Perhaps we would have recognized, even in our partnership, the vague threats of ambition, like boats through a fog: the unrealizable desires that drove us beyond anything we could achieve, that drove us in the face of danger; our unanswerable complaints against the universe—that we die, that we have so little power, that we are locked apart, that we do not know. So perhaps the best things that happened on the summit were what we could see happening, not anything beneath. Perhaps it was important for Don to watch me walk across the top of the east ridge; for Matt to see
Ed stand with a cigarette in his mouth, staring at the sun; for me to notice how Matt sat, eating only half his candy bar; for Ed to hear Don insist on changing to black-and-white film. No one else could see these things; no one else could even ask whether or not they were important. Perhaps they were all that happened.