Mountain reads: ‘Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing’ by Brad McQueen

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

Put yourself in this situation: You plan a mountain adventure with your wife and your dad on what is supposed to be a straightforward alpine hike. As the day wears on, a few things go awry: You make a wrong turn and get off-route. The weather worsens. The darkness of night takes over. And when it’s all said and done, you end up in a freezing bivouac fighting off hypothermia. By the time morning arrives, your spouse has suffered permanent injuries due to frostbite, and all of you are lucky to be alive.

But despite the guilt over what transpired, the pull of the mountains remains so strong as to be undeniable.

That’s the backbone of the 2015 book “Exposed: Triumph and Tragedy in Mountain Climbing” by Brad McQueen, a Colorado mountaineer who has built quite the alpine resume.

When I started the Mountain Reads series, I wanted to find books that told interesting and important stories about adventures in the high country. McQueen’s book does both.

When something bad unfolds in the mountains, people often write a book about it, explaining the highs, lows and lessons that incident provided. “Exposed” does this, but doesn’t stop there. While his mishaps on Mount Evans provide the frame of his story, it’s just one part of a still evolving tale of McQueen’s mountaineering life.

McQueen details not only hikes and climbs in his home state, but also those in Wyoming, Washington, Tanzania, Ecuador and Alaska. You get a good sense of what it takes to prepare for his more ambitious climbs while learning the emotional pull that climbing can bring.

In that respect, “Exposed” is also a family story. McQueen and his wife, Melissa, are in fact an outdoors team, as she has also put together a respectable list of accomplishments in the mountains. Overcoming the trauma of their shared Mount Evans experience is a major thread in this story, and in several places throughout the book, Melissa McQueen adds her words to provide context to their tale.

You might also learn something about climbing in the process (there is a succinct appendix and glossary of terms at the end of the book), including a short but instructive bit about crampon technique on snow and ice. Nuggets like that are scattered throughout the text.

I liked this book, and I think most people who enjoy the high country will, too. Pick this one up and see how a regular guy has lived some extraordinary adventures.

Bob Doucette

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Mountain Reads, part 2: ‘Sixty Meters to Anywhere’ by Brendan Leonard

Imagine sinking so deeply into your vices that your immediate future included jail time, and your long-term prospects would likely involve sickness, heartache and succumbing to your addictions.

Then imagine detailing it, warts and all, to anyone willing read about it.

That’s not the entire scope of Brendan Leonard’s memoir “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” but it is the foundation of this unapologetically open account of how he spent his younger years, and the series of events that turned things around.

Leonard is best known for his popular outdoor blog semi-rad.com, and his debut book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” was a hit among the outdoorsy set. And for good reason: That was a book in which he bared his soul while colorfully retelling the journeys he took – literal and metaphorical – across the American West while living out of his car. Leonard’s prose is spare, and I mean that in a good way – absent are the clunky mechanisms that trap a lot of wordy writers, leaving behind sleek, fast-paced storytelling. (You can read a review of that book here.)

In “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” Leonard’s toolbox is the same and with similar effect: You get a style of writing that is stripped down yet chock full of imagery as he describes his descent into substance abuse, hitting rock bottom, and then slowly climbing out of it during post-graduate studies, far from home and isolated from his family, friends and the demons of his Iowa hometown.

It’s no real spoiler to say that he discovered something to fill the void of the troublesome fun he found too often at the bottom of a bottle – the outdoors. Those familiar with his writing (aside from his blog, he has credits in Outside, Climbing and Backpacker magazines, among others) already know he’s an accomplished climber and outdoorsman. But how he got there is the essence of what lies behind “Sixty Meters.” Baby steps into the mountains, followed by a particularly fortuitous gift (the name of the book comes from the standard length of climbing rope he received), not only gave Leonard a new way to channel his passions, but also a path to fundamentally change who he was and avoid the sad story of what could have been.

Leonard doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings and doesn’t glamorize his accomplishments, and he’s careful to include the ways in which his actions hurt others. You find yourself rooting for him while also appreciating the people who stood by him over the years. It’s that sort of honesty that has won over his fans.

The outdoors has proven to be a haven for people who bottom-out in life, and Leonard’s story embodies that. I’m sure it has — and will — resonate with a lot of readers.

NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series called Mountain Reads. Part one can be read here.

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

I go on reading spurts and droughts, and after a lengthy drought, I figured it was time to read something other than someone’s link on Facebook. So I bought a bunch of books that looked interesting to me – some of them older, some of them newer – and plopped my butt down for a read, this time with my nose in a book and not pointed down toward a glowing screen.

With that in mind, I’m going to do an occasional series called Mountain Reads. The books involved will be some good ones I’ve picked up recently and over the years, stuff from authors whose writings will fill you up with mountain stoke for the spring and summer.

First up is a 2010 title from author Mark Obmascik called “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High.”

This is an autobiographical account about how the longtime Denver Post reporter decided one summer to hike and climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Climbing the 14ers, as they’re called, is serious business, but not as serious as high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. Lots of people in Colorado try these peaks, and a select few climb them all. Almost all of these people make their living doing something other than climbing, meaning that mountaineering in Colorado is an “everyman’s” sport.

And that’s the route the writer takes. His humorous and self-deprecating style lets you know that’s he’s not the second coming of Edmund Hillary. Instead, Obmascik takes you through the humbling process of willing yourself up the mountain at ridiculous hours in the morning, of trying a little too hard to find hiking partners and otherwise trying to fit this new obsession into the confines of a suburban family man’s life. It gets pretty funny.

That said, Obmascik is a journalist by trade, and every chapter is studded with deeply researched facts on the peaks, on Colorado history, on the people who first settled the state, and of mountaineering in the Rockies. Included are plenty of anecdotes from more recent times, and some straightforward accounts of what can (and did) go wrong in the high country. You walk away from this book understanding how wild the West could get, and how deadly serious its mountains can be.

He also takes care to make sure the story is not just his own. The array of subjects in this book include anyone from weekend warriors to serious endurance athletes, each with stories all their own as to what drives them into the Rockies to test themselves on the peaks.

You can also see how Obmascik progressed, gaining confidence, strength and skill as he topped out on tougher peaks. It echoes a journey so many people have made – painfully trudging uphill, fleeing electrical storms, glorious summit days and near-death close calls.

I relate to this guy. We’re both ordinary dudes with an exceptional obsession with the mountains. The book captures that spirit well while treating you to some great storytelling throughout. If you dig the outdoor life but haven’t read this one yet, give it a look.

Bob Doucette

Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed: Tales of when Generation X wandered outside

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I’m going to show my age a bit and talk about a particular time of transition.

If you grew up in the 1980s, chances are the stereotypes are pretty familiar: huge hair, lots of synthesizers, “greed is good,” and a general optimism that ended up giving us really bright colors in the stuff we wore and the things we had in our homes.

Most of the music sucked. At least I thought so. Even the hard rock and metal I listened to became overly formulaic — a few faster songs, the required power ballad, and vocalists trying to too hard to sound like Robert Plant in his Led Zeppelin II days. Every hair band was from the same cookie-cutter stamp, sort of like how country music artists are now.

At least we had hip-hop. That was original enough.

Then some things happened. We had riots in L.A., we went to war with Iraq and then had a recession. Crack cocaine went from being a Los Angeles/New York thing to a national dilemma, and crime soared. Suddenly all the factory-line optimism of the ’80s wore off, people started wearing flannel and music took a darker, more introspective and heavier tone.

We questioned everything, but not in the hippie, free-spirited way of the 1960s. Those guys/gals were our parents, and became fodder for our angst, by “our,” I’m talking about Generation X. We looked back at the glee of the 1980s and scoffed. No more Duran Duran or Poison. We were all about Nirvana and gangsta rap.

Some of us plowed through anyway. But some of us didn’t. Those few went a different direction. They went into the woods.

Hiking, backpacking, rock climbing — all those “adventure sports” that millions of people do now have always been there, but they just weren’t much of a thing for the masses until my generation came of age. I think it was partly a rejection of traditional sports (“ball sports” is how one doofus on MTV put it) and this funny fixation on “extreme” activities. “Extreme” being pretty much anything that involved jumping from a plane, hanging off a crag, riding your bike on dirt or doing something that could get you scuffed, hurt or killed without a ball being involved. That’s how it was billed, anyway. Never mind that people had been climbing, skydiving and getting “extreme” before that term became a marketing buzzword that got driven into the ground.

In any case, a good-sized chunk of Generation X got downright crunchy in the early 1990s, so much so that Nike started making hiking boots. Yeah, I bought a pair of those. They didn’t last long. But they did get me through a couple of alpine hikes in Montana as I hummed verses of “Under the Bridge” from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s not like heroin addiction in L.A. had much of anything to do with Montana hiking (though heroin was definitely a thing in the 1990s), but it was a big song in a big time in my life when I reconnected with my outdoorsy self.

Others were a little more profoundly immersed in it. Two of them became the subjects of books — one a biography/adventure tale, and the other in an autobiography. One lived to tell that tale. The other died and became almost legendary to a lot of young, aspiring adventure seekers.

It’s probably not hard to figure out that I’m talking about Chris McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. And to be sure, their stories have been compared frequently enough.

But aside from the compelling tales of their lives, I want to be clear on this fact: Theirs are generational stories. They are very Generation X. And I guess that’s why they resonate so clearly with me. These were my contemporaries, in their early 20s, when their defining moments unfolded in ways that only now, years later, I can fully appreciate.

Chances are, you know their tales. McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” rejected the life that was expected of him — college, then a job, then setting down with a family/house in the ‘burbs/career — and decided to wander the American West. He later took on an adventure in Alaska that, despite his pluck, took his life after a series of events, both of his own making and bad luck, proved too much.

Strayed, on the other hand, went into the woods on a whim to reset a life that had spiraled out of control. Unlike McCandless, she survived her foray into the Cascades, and came back a changed woman.

In McCandless’s case, the attraction to his story is hard to define. Certainly, the adept storytelling in Krakauer’s book – as well as some excellent reporting – has a lot to do with it. But there is more to it than that. A lot of the people who read the book felt drawn to wild places, to escape the endless sea of suburban rooftops and chain restaurants, unplug and test themselves in the wilderness. A few of those people make it a point to go to the bus where McCandless died, deep in the Alaskan bush. I get that, and so did a number of my contemporaries well before McCandless’s story became widely known. Hordes of us started disappearing into the backcountry before we knew who he was, mostly because we, as a generation, were seeking something, an experience of authenticity that was very anti-80s. Keep your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Mr. Leach. Just give me a flat spot to pitch a tent and a crag to crawl on.

That’s what McCandless sought, to extremes. A quest for authentic self, straight from my generation to the pages of a book and eventually in the minds of millions who have carried that torch decades later.

Strayed’s story brought about something else, and I believe something wonderful. The book came out only a few years ago, though the events occurred about 20 years before. She was part of a new kind of woman that wanted to break the mold of what women could do.

Now to be sure, there have been some seriously legit outdoor women going back a long way. But there was a turn of mindset back then where a lot of women decided that they, too, could test themselves in the wild. Male-dominated activities like backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering saw an influx of female powerhouses as well as legions of everyday adventurers suddenly come forward. That has its roots well before Generation X took a breath, but the idea of women doing big things outdoors seemed to take flight somewhere around the time Strayed was lugging Monster around on her back, trekking north through the Sierras and learning a lot about the do’s and don’ts of how to make it on an 1,100-mile through-hike.

Now her book (a fantastic read, by the way) is a movie, and people are expecting a big influx of would-be “Wild” hikers to test themselves on the Pacific Crest Trail. In between the movie’s release and Strayed’s hike, growing numbers of women have been getting after it outside, to the point now where gear manufacturers  live and die not just by how good their products are, but how well they can reach and please a growing demographic of female outdoor adventurers. Strayed’s tale may not be unique, but it is emblematic.

So what does all this mean, and how does it relate to Generation X? In McCandless’s case, I’d say it reflected a general dissatisfaction with what proved to be an illusion of what American life offered. Naturally, the preferred escape route was the opposite of where we came from. We fled the cities and small towns and the expectations their denizens had of us, and we went into beautiful, indifferent and difficult places outside. That sentiment has always been there, but I’d say it’s never been more prevalent than it is now, going back to those times when we were all spinning Pearl Jam CDs for the first time.

And in Strayed’s case, it marked the beginning of the ubiquity of the outdoor woman. The guys may still outnumber the ladies when it comes to getting dirty in the woods, but the playing field out there is quite level now and fewer people question why a woman would get all scraped up climbing a big wall or spend days out on the trail by themselves. The oddity of old is now more routine. I’ve seen it, and seen it for years. Strayed’s adventure embodied empowerment of women in the outdoors.

For me personally, the common strains of their stories resonate deeply. When surrounded by the trappings (handcuffs?) of “normal” life, I feel that urge to jump in the car, load a pack and head west until I see towering peaks and a singletrack trail leading into who knows what. I feel the need to hear birds, streams, and, at times, nothing at all. A quiet retreat where I can unload my burdens into an eternal place that’s been around well before I was born and will be around long after I’m gone. I feel the need to empty myself through exertion, to solve atypical problems with only my wits and whatever I’ve hauled in on my back.

Peace comes out of that. A little meaning. And empowerment. Maybe the same tunes were running through Chris’s and Cheryl’s ears as they ventured out that first time, when we fled the plastic excess of the 1980s and headed outside – who knew that our stories might change the way people interacted with the wild.

Bob Doucette

Books: ‘The New American Road Trip Mixtape,’ by Brendan Leonard

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“What is a life?”

That’s the central question driving Brendan Leonard’s first book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape,” an honest and sometimes raw look at the forces that propelled him out of what he thought would be a comfortable urban existence into something much more untraditional – that of full-time life on the road, working, travelling and bunking down in his car as he piled on the miles across the American West.

You may know Leonard from his semi-rad.com website, posts on the Adventure Journal or articles written for a number of outdoor magazines. In his book, he explains how the latest chapter of his life was born and where it’s taking him.

Like I said, Leonard is quite frank about his past: A failed marriage, followed by what he’d hoped was a better relationship with a woman whose interests matched his. But when that ended, he found a need to clear his head on the road.

Leonard works through the pain of the breakup as well as the observations and lessons he learns visiting friends scattered across the West while also taking us back to his younger years, the time when he became what he is now – a writer, traveler and climber.

The book is loaded with anecdotes of climbing adventures in the grand peaks of the Rockies, but is also takes us to lonelier moments where it’s just him, alone with his thoughts as he tries to get some sleep in the cramped back-end of a Subaru.

The highs and lows of his journeys are pretty well summed up when he writes, “But a true pilgrimage has to have some struggle, right? If there was no pain or suffering on the way there, was there meaning at the end?”

That resonates deeply with anyone connected to the outdoor community – the relishing of the sufferfest, working out your demons on hard treks, spicy routes or long journeys. Interestingly, Leonard surprises himself that the answer to his central question – “What is a life” – is simultaneously found in his observations of his closest friends as well as the realization that he doesn’t necessarily need to emulate them to find what he’s looking for.

Leonard’s storytelling is solid, and the indictments against many of the trappings of modern living are sharp and, honestly, very revealing.

The book is fast read, and with the weather warming up in time for all those dreamed-about road trips, it just might be the type of thing to get you going. You can get it in print for $9.62 on Amazon or on e-reader for $7.99 on Kindle and Nook.

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: Surviving an avalanche, how to spot a bad partner, father-son adventuring and a new outdoorsy book

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We’re just a few days away from Christmas, and my guess is a lot of you have some time off to spend with family or just relax. My hope is that you’ll find some time to ski, board, snowshoe, hike, climb, run, bike, race or whatever it is you do outside while you’re off. Use your time to the fullest!

All that said, here’s an abbreviated version of the Weekly Stoke…

Not long ago, a video started making the rounds about a backcountry skier who triggered an avalanche in Utah. The slide partially buried her, despite her avy airbags deploying. That skier, Amie Engerbretson, tells her story, and does so in a detailed and humble way.

That said, stuff happens. But are there steps you can take to make sure you’re not out with bad skiing or mountaineering partners? This list shows some of the red flags you need to be looking for.

Want to see a great trip report? And the ultimate outdoor father-son adventure? Read this one from Summitpost. Beats Disneyland any day.

Finally, if you’re looking for a Christmas gift for that outdoorsy, road-trip-loving friend or family member, read this excerpt from Brendan Leonard’s new book. The guy can write, and he’s led a pretty interesting life on the road.

Have a great weekend, and Merry Christmas!

Books: ‘The Will to Climb’ by Ed Viesturs

If you’ve followed the mountaineering career of Ed Viesturs at all, you’d know a couple of things: He’s been as successful in the Himalayas as just about anyone else alive, and he has achieved his reputation with a purist style and utmost regard for safety.

So for Viesturs to come back to Annapurna a third time after being turned back twice by the world’s deadliest mountain, you know that he is also a very driven man.

That’s’ the conflict posed in Viesturs’ third book, “The Will to Climb,” which examines his two failed attempts to summit Annapurna as well as his third and ultimately triumphant climb that made him the first American to bag all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.

True to form from his previous books, Viesturs mixes his own experiences on the mountain with those from mountaineering’s past. The lessons learned from Annapurna echo from its history right through to his own observations while being on the slopes of this massive and incredibly dangerous peak.

Annapurna is not the highest, nor is it considered the technically most difficult of the Himalayan peaks, but it has a track record of being prone to avalanches and bad weather that take the lives of climbers at higher rates than even K2: One out of every three climbers who summit Annapurna die.

Viesturs does a great job looking through archival accounts of early ascents of the mountain — unbelievably, this peak was the first of the 8,000ers to be successfully climbed — while also taking a look at other climbs that were sometimes triumphant while other times tragic. He also dives into the personalities of those who dared to challenge the mountain, be they his friends and teammates or the more storied figures of Himalayan mountaineering royalty.

Like his book on K2, it’s more history than personal. But with “The Will to Climb,” Viesturs finds his voice a little better, and the storytelling is a little richer. I think part of that might have something to do with the fact that his love of mountaineering was born by reading the book “Annapurna,” which describes the harrowing tale of the French team that first climbed it. It also was the mountain that caused him the greatest trouble, planted the most doubt and scared him the most. By summiting it in 2005, he put a major stamp on his career and personal life.

The one common theme with all of his books, however, goes back to his mantra: Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. The caution he describes in his adventures has often led to him turning back within sight of several summits, but he always came home safe, ready to return for another crack at the mountain.

And therein lies his key message of mountaineering, that of measuring risk and tackling a challenge while being as safe as possible. If only all climbers would heed this, there would be far fewer accidents and deaths not only in the Himalaya, but on mountains everywhere.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088