Katie Ives speaks with The Mountain Library about Alpinist, mountain literature and the climbing life.
You said in your ‘acceptance speech’ when announced as the new Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist that you view producing each edition of the magazine as a utopian endeavour, and that the team aims to create a work of art. How do you balance creating a work of art and staying afloat, within a 3-month production schedule?
Every issue of Alpinist represents an immense collective effort. If you look at the Additional Thanks on Page 8, you’ll see a long list of readers, climbers, historians and specialists who helped us with advice, fact-checking and research. Particularly with the Mountain Profiles, we try to reach out to as many people involved in the history as we can, so that the ultimate creation reflects the voices and experiences of the community. But our actual staff is very small. Partly because we run minimal ads, Alpinist doesn’t generate a lot of revenue, and as a result, we manage with a restricted budget. We’re idealists, and we accept that the consequences of idealism mean long hours for everyone, from the publisher to the editors to the interns. For us, the opportunity to create that work of art, in which each detail is as beautiful and as true as possible, is worth striving for—with everything we have. Last summer, while I was editing Alpinist 36, I kept track of my hours, and I found I was putting in an average of eighty-six hours a week. It takes a certain amount of creativity to find time for personal climbing and writing. During the winter, I often ice climb late at night, when the classic routes are empty of crowds, and there’s only the reflections of my headlamp across the patterns of the ice, the silent calm of the darkness and the shadows of the trees. During the summer, I might work all night in order to take a day off for the mountains. I try to write a prose poem (if only a short one) after every climb.
Who or what inspired you to begin writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was eight years old, when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time. I was entranced by the idea of creating my own worlds, with all those layers of cultures, myths, histories and adventures. As a grad student, I came across an essay by Tolkien in which he talked about “sub-creation,” and I realised what had drawn me so much: every story unfolds a new realm for readers to wander through and find their own meanings.
What are your thoughts on the current state of mountain literature?
When people take a quick glance at the climbing world, it’s easy for them to see nothing except the glossy, hyper-reality of slick photos, numbers, grades and brand names—and to assume a state of drastic literary decline. But that’s only a small fraction of what’s going on, often more quietly, at times beneath the surface. Since the start of the twenty-first century, mountain literature has continued to become ever more richly varied: novels like Simon Mawer’s The Fall; in-depth histories like Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s Fallen Giants; academic studies like Joseph Taylor’s Pilgrims of the Vertical; lyrical narratives like Daniel Arnold’s Early Days in the Range of Light; cartoons, humor, art and long-form journalism; even a few well-crafted blogs. One of the reasons I began working for Alpinist was that I wanted to do whatever I could to help bring about a renaissance of our genre. As an editor, you have an opportunity to mentor emerging writers and to share their stories with a wider audience. I like to think that our era could be the beginning of a new “Golden Age” of climbing literature, even if, for many, it’s still imperceptible—so much of it taking place beyond the borders of more visible, more popular media.
Is it true that you can translate French and Mongolian into English? How did that come about?
While I was studying at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, I took a number of translation classes, focusing on Mongolian, a language that I’d learned in the Peace Corps. I was particularly interested in a group of Mongolian writers who were influenced by magic realism, and I worked with L. Dashnyam and L. Ulziitogs to get some of their poems and stories published in English-language journals. I’d studied French since high school, so after I joined Alpinist, I began translating articles by French alpinists for our magazine. I love the minute attention to each word and to the nuances of each decision that you learn from translations. There’s that sense (as the philosopher Walter Benjamin explains) of reaching toward some transcendent, “pure” form of expression in the gaps between the two languages.
In The Footsteps on Mt. Hayes you propose that there is a silence at the heart of climbing. Do you think it’s possible to communicate the essence of climbing in the written word? Greg Child once argued that it’s ‘slashing at reality’.
I think that it is, indeed, impossible to capture the essence of climbing in writing. I’ve always kept in mind Marko Prezelj’s statement: “The essence of a climb burns out in the moment of experience. The core of an alpinist’s pursuit will always lie in ashes.” But what we can do—and what keeps me so motivated—is to try to guide readers up to that vanishing point, to where they can see some reflections, at least, of that wordless, fiery radiance. And those “ashes” can have their own aesthetics, one that’s composed of traces, hints, fragments and silences.
In 2011 you expressed concern about the impact of social media on the climbing experience ( On Ledge and Online: Solitary Sport Turns Social ). Do you think social media, in all its forms, can have a good influence on climbing writing?
At its best, social media allows readers to hear a much more diverse range of voices. We’ve “discovered” several of our favourite print contributors because of their well-written blogs or forum posts: Peter Haan, Peter Beal, Jens Holsten, Alan Cattabriga, to name a few. I sometimes read Supertopo threads in search of new talent. There can be an almost haiku-like quality to social media when writers pursue it as an art form, rather than as a quick and easy means of self – or brand promotion. Social media also helps climbing writers who live in isolated areas (as I do) discuss ideas and comment on each other’s work. The problems arise when that blogging or posting takes place on the mountain itself or too soon after the climb. As Andy Selters explains in Alpinist 39: “Today’s hyper-connectivity seems to merge the once-separate acts of sending a route and sending the news of it into a continuous thread.” The temptation to post and to consume posts too rapidly means that “climbing literature that probes the depths of experience…is often cast aside.” It’s important to preserve an interval of silence that lets climbers (and writers) immerse themselves fully in the moment of the ascent—to have that separate space for unmediated, wild and solitary experience.
Readers will know that you write fiction, and you’re working on a novel about ice climbing. Fiction seems to be an under represented genre in mountain literature so I’m interested in your views on this? Can I play devil’s advocate and suggest that the story telling potential of real mountain experiences is so rich and intense that the imagined is viewed as a secondary substitute?
I started out as a fiction writer, but (apart from the novel) I’ve been gravitating toward nonfiction for some of the reasons you describe. Both historical and modern climbs represent an infinite library of “rich and intense” real stories, many of which still await to be told. On the other hand, the experience of alpinism is so closely interwoven with a sense of heighted perception and limitless imagination that it lends itself to experimental writing. When you look at some of the classic mountaineering novels—James Salter’s Solo Faces, David Roberts’ Like Water and Like Wind or Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War—you realise that fiction permitted each of these writers to access an elemental, emotional truth more directly, conveying something that feels deeply, intuitively real, something that could not have been expressed in any other way.
I have so many favorite books. A short list would have to include Eric Shipton’s Blank on the Map, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life, Jack Turner’s Teewinot and Gregory Crouch’s Enduring Patagonia. If you visited my office, however, you’d see that I’m gradually getting more and more hemmed in by my growing book collection. One of my coworkers suggested turning all the wall space into shelves. Even so, the volumes may soon spill out into the hallways.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your climbing life?
For me, climbing is form of meditation. I’ve found that if I can attain that flow state in the mountains, I can summon it back up, later, when I’m sitting at my desk. The ability to embrace uncertainty that I’ve learned from the mountains has helped me appreciate, rather than fear, the unknowns in my everyday life. Whenever I’m anxious about meeting a deadline, adapting to the future of print media (whatever that will be) or keeping Alpinist sustainable, I picture myself free soloing above a huge void—and as odd as that might sound—that image comforts me. There’s that sense of complete peace that comes over you when you know you’re in a state of total commitment.
What artists make your magazine proofing playlist?
I have to have complete silence when I proofread. So the only playlist, you could say, would be the music of my writers’ prose.