One Man, A Thousand Stories

A Q+A with acclaimed climber (and breakthrough writer) Freddie Wilkinson

Freddie WIlkinson

I first became aware of Freddie Wilkinson in 2009, when Ed Viesturs and I were writing K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain. The terrible disaster of August 1, when eleven climbers were killed on the mountain, was only a few months in the past. Trying to comprehend that mysterious catastrophe, we came across Wilkinson’s report on the tragedy in Rock and Ice. It was by far the most coherent account of the K2 disaster, and it was well written, to boot.

Shortly thereafter, Freddie and I met over beers in Cambridge—the first of many têtes-à-tête during which we traded thoughts about climbing and writing. Gradually, I became aware of his sterling record as a mountaineer in the great ranges—a career that last month reached a zenith. Freddie and his two partners on Saser Kangri II in Pakistan were awarded the Piolet D’Or, the most prestigious prize in international alpinism.

At 32, Freddie is, I believe, the leading American mountaineering writer of his generation. And he’s supremely ambitious both as a climber and as a journalist. To support his twin passions, Freddie and his wife, Janet Wilkinson (formerly Bergman, herself a world-class climber), live in a cabin in the New Hampshire woods without running water.

Recently I caught up with Freddie to ask him some hard questions.
—David Roberts

Congratulations on the Piolet D’Or—it’s a fantastic honor. Could you briefly describe the genesis of the idea for the climb, and how you, Mark Richey, and Steve Swenson got together, and how Steve nearly died?
Saser Kangri II was the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world, but because of its location—very close to the Siachen Glacier where India and Pakistan have been engaged in a low-grade war for twenty-five years—access to the mountains is highly restricted. From previous experiences in the region, Mark and Steve did their homework and learned how to navigate the permitting process. But at 53 and 57 years old, they wanted a strong young back to join the team. That’s where I came in.

What’s cool is that we made the first ascent of a 7,518-meter mountain in alpine style. What’s not so cool is that, on the descent, Steve got pretty sick. He had been battling a sinus infection, which migrated to his lungs. Soon after we made it down to our ABC tent at the foot of the mountain, he began having these coughing attacks but couldn’t clear any phlegm from his trachea. He was pretty much choking to death. Re-hydrating him was the key, but every time he took a sip of water, it triggered another coughing fit, in which it was quite possible he might go unconscious. We worked through it, kept giving him small sips of lukewarm milk tea—not too hot, not too cold—and he started to come around. With some bold flying, the Indian Army was able to sneak a chopper in between snow squalls to get him later that day.

Can you outline your plans this spring and summer with Ueli Steck in Nepal and the Tooth Traverse with Renan Ozturk and Zack Smith?
Ueli and I are going 6,000-meter peak climbing in the Khumbu. The thought of how my friends up-valley on Everest this spring are doomed to sit in basecamp for two months just to climb one mountain has always struck me as crazy. I’m far more inspired by this alternative style of Himalayan climbing. We have permits for four different peaks, our basecamp will be a nice warm teahouse, and we’ll hopefully climb lots of mountains by whatever routes strike our fancy. It’s going to be real, technical climbing, the same way you might approach a climb in the western Alps. We’re just trading a Swiss mountain hut for Sherpa hospitality.

In Alaska, Renan, Zack and I are going to attempt a traverse of the Moose’s Tooth massif. We’ve tried it before and, at this point, I don’t really care if we are the first ones to do it. It’s an incredibly aesthetic skyline.

What made you want to write your book about K2, One Mountain, Thousand Summits? What was it like for you to get your first book published by a mainstream publisher?
When I reflect on a lot of contemporary writing about climbing, and how climbing is often portrayed in the mainstream media—the recent historiography of the sport, if you will—I notice this pervasive tendency towards a brand of historical nostalgia, this sense that the golden age has come and gone, and these days everybody is in it for themselves. It’s a fair enough reaction if you only read the headlines about Everest on the internet, but ultimately it's not an idea I agree with.

So, a week after 11 people were killed on K2, in August 2008, you have The New York Times running an op-ed about the degradation of climbing ethics. Since nobody even knew what had happened yet, I found that kind of pessimism telling. I became intrigued by the event, especially when I realized the vast cultural differences among the participants, particularly with regard to the various Pakistani and Nepali climbers who were involved. It struck me that there was a subtle strain of alpine orientalism going on behind the scenes. I also realized that whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist about the future depends on whose stories get told and written up in the history books.

It was a huge honor to be published by New American Library at Penguin, and naturally that came with a lot of pressure and stress and late nights. As a writer, looking back on the effort now, it’s not perfect, but I think I raised some crucial questions and changed the tenor of how people were thinking about the story.

What will it take for you to make a living as a writer?
I don’t ever imagine making a living solely from writing books and long-form journalism. I’d be no good at it if that were all I did, and I’m not sure I’d make any money at it, either.

For my generation, being successful means you must be equally adept at writing, shooting stills and video, and radio (podcasts in the modern era). You also need all the requisite wilderness-computer skills and physical fitness to operate in the field, and you need to be able to do both editorial and commercial assignments. You know, Errol Morris won an Oscar, but he pays the bills making advertisements for Miller Beer and IBM. Or, another example, look at what Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington did with their film, Restrepo, and Sebastian's book, War. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the new gold standard in adventure journalism.

I felt that I couldn’t write objectively about climbing until I ceased to climb very seriously myself. I needed the distance of a semi-outsider. You obviously don’t agree.
I’d agree with you insofar as how you write about a subject is inextricably bound to your relationship with it as a participant. Just because you aren't 100 percent objectively detached from a certain event or subject, that shouldn't scare you off from trying to write about it. Sometimes, that means including yourself in the story. That’s the basis of new journalism. I have noticed over the last few years it’s much easier for me to write about other people and their climbs than it is to write about myself and my own climbs. I suspect that will change as I get more distance from certain experiences.

V.S. Pritchett wrote that you spend your first 25 years living, and the next 50 writing about it. I’m more interested in trying to live and write simultaneously.  

What would you like to write about besides climbing?
I’m drawn to so many different kinds of stories, especially stories about history, stories about Asia and the Himalaya, stories that are based here in New England. More fundamentally, storytelling is all about the characters.

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