Some good offerings for local armchair alpinists
Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers Are Always Free)
The motto of the State of West Virginia.
Readers/reviewers all have one or two or three subjects that they gravitate to in time of need. Mine happens to be mountain climbing. I think I got the “bug” in my early teens, growing up as a most fortunate son in the Kanawha River valley.
A few minutes away by bike the wide, sluggish Kanawha River was the recipient of effluents from coal mines, glass factories and toilets. The other way, about 10 minutes on foot, were the hills. I ventured there often, past old coal mines, tailing piles, and wastewater lakes, into the hills where I pretended nobody had ever come.
Yes, I took a .22 and a bag of shells. After shooting my first squirrel and watching it fall branch by branch from a oak tree, I gave up the firearm, making way for a more peaceful lifetime to come. But I never got the hills of home out of my system – which led me to books of adventure.
Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska has been climbed many times but is always good for one more book. That was provided by Larry Semento in Tears in the Wind (self-published, $20). Currently a judge in central Florida, Semento got the climbing urge while still a lawyer. After a few climbs, he signed on with a commercial guide and set off to ascend North America’s highest peak – and made it to the summit. The book is an indication of the growing popularity of the sport.
And then, with the first snows of winter pounding my windows, I ventured up to K2. My guide was Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan and the book was Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day (Norton, $22.95).
Eleven climbers died on K2 in 2008. This is a white-knuckle adventure on the planet’s secondhighest mountain. It is also the place where I found out why people climb. “People don’t’ climb because it makes sense. You can come up with reasons – it gives direction to the lost, friends to the loner, honor to the reprobate, thrills to the bored – but, ultimately, the quest for a summit defies logic. So does passion. So does a trip to the moon. There are better things to do. Safer, cheaper, more practical. That’s not the point.”
K2 kills. And in 2008, the mountain outdid itself. Like John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Buried in the Sky is a heavy breather of a book. And it won the Banff Mountain Book Award, enough reason to read it.
Mountaineering books allow the readers to go back in time, back to when there were not the modern aids that get men and women to the top. Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlkovde Pass Incident (Chronicle Books, $22.95) takes armchair readers back to 1959 when a group of experienced hikers met their fate in the Ural Mountains. They all died.
The book is a fascinating portrait of young hikers in the Soviet era. It is a skillful interweaving of their story, the author’s efforts to discover why and how it happened. Eichar retraces the hiker’s steps leading to the first real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.
No, I didn’t spend the week freezing in high altitudes. Instead, I discovered Calixa Lavalee. Don’t recognize the name, you may say? Most Canadians won’t but Robert Harris brings the tale of all of us in Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem (Penguin, $29.95).
I first heard the anthem while still in Denver. It was sung at the first hockey game I ever saw, the players for North Dakota and Denver all coming from the north. I thrilled to O Canada when I stood up in a Barrie Courtroom in 1976 while receiving my Canadian citizenship. And each time I hear the song, I shiver a bit. Harris says it best. “We all know the feeling. A slight unexpected constriction in the throat. Heat rising to the face. Tightness in the chest. Tears – tears! – welling in the corners of our eyes.”
The story of O Canada is one of the great unknowns of our collective lives. It is the odd tale of a French-Canadian composer, a man who spent a decade in blackface, playing in American minstrel shows with a stop off while serving with the 4th Rhode Islanders in the Civil War. Lavalee eventually came back to French Canada where he wrote operas, tried to start a national music conservatory, wrote O Canada in 1880 at the commercial request of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society (as an anthem for French Canada ) and then lived out his life in Boston, dying in 1891.
As an aside, today we recoil in horror at the stunningly overt racism of the minstrel show. And yet, when I came to the Owen Sound Public Library, I discovered a 1920s photograph of a local minstrel group, I think known as the Sea Island Singers. Minstrel racism came to Owen Sound about the same times as the KKK.
I have just about space to tell you of a new cookbook that will be rolled out at the Ginger Press on Nov. 17. The book is Healing Cannabis Edibles: Exploring the Synergy of Power Herbs (Healing Edibles, $27.95). The authors are Ellen Novack and Pat Crocker.
There will be a signing of the book by the two authors at 1:00 on the 17th followed by an actual cooking workshop with discussion and demonstration. The cost is $175.00 (including a signed copy of the book) and prior registration is important – call the Ginger Press for a place in the cooking session that begins at 2 p.m.