author, photographer and mountain guide has done it - squeezed the history
of North American mountaineering into a hand-jam sized book, 334 pages
to be exact.
is a view of mountaineering, as if one were perched on Hummingbird Ridge,”
Selters said of his new book: "Ways to the Sky: A Historical
Guide to North American Mountaineering."
scope of his subject is daunting, the book is imminently approachable
through Selters’ deft use of anecdote and detail, which incredibly,
is austere and rich at the same time. He narrates notable achievements
in mountain exploration and peak climbing, while hefting a vigorous
analysis along the way.
of interest to climbers, the book has 353 historic photos and etchings
from the raccoon-eyed, sun-scorched Duke of Abruzzi
on Mt. St. Elias (1897) to Mark Prezelj perched like
a human fly on Light Traveler, Denali (2001).
traveled the continent to conduct interviews with historic figures,
spent months in the various library branches of the American
Alpine Club and corresponded with mountaineers across the continent.
By the time his research was done, he had 25 hours of cassettes, four
feet of stacked notes and hundreds of photos. Selters said his task
was to address the sweeping questions of: "How did we get from
A to X" and “How was the continent explored," but he
also wanted to “get a sense of the why.”
to the conclusion that it’s about “engagement with
the mountains,” which he lightens to “going
up and coming back down.” At the core of engagement,
according to Selters, are dual motivations: accomplishment and experience.
“Accomplishment is the aspect of mountaineering you see on the
Sports Page - who, what, when and where and how hard; experience is
what you read about in the Outdoor Section.”
said he organized his collection of notes chronologically and then stared
at the timeline back and forth, until he finally saw a four-part structure
the first historical period “Discovery by Summiting,” when
the primary goal was making first ascents of the largest mountains.
This is a period of vast exploration encompassing forays into Mexico,
the American West, Canadian Rockies, the Icefield Ranges and the Alaskan
Range from the 16th century until, primarily, the 1920s.
non-native mountain climbers in North America were soldiers and explorers,
Spanish conquistadors who climbed the smoke-spewing volcano Popocatepetl,
(17,930 ft.) in Mexico in 1519, part of what made a god-like impression
on the Aztecs and may have contributed their surrender to Hernando Cortez.
mountaineering traces it’s seminal event to the ascent of Mont
Blanc, the highest peak in the European Alps (15,771 ft) by Michel-Gabriel
Paccard and his porter Jacques Balmat in 1786.
Selters writes that during the Dark Ages, “. . . travelers typically
averted their eyes from alpine views” and “ . . . as late
as 1708, a prominent doctor and authority on the Alps was refining a
classification of the evil dragons thought to inhabit the peaks.”
was urged by a fellow scientist to obtain barometric readings from the
top. So, mountaineering began as a mix of enlightenment and romanticism,
part of the greater movement of throwing off the shackles of superstition,
and the movement to find nature, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
Mountaineering evolved from expeditions to guided club outings to individual
efforts, and yet by 1912, the highest peak in North America still remained
unconquered (although false claims had been made earlier by explorer
composed of Belmore Browne, Herschel Parker and
Merle LeVoy left from Seward early in January, 1912 for their
second try and by June 29, they were poised to reach the top of Mt.
would not have it. “When they crested the summit ridge at 20,100
feet, Browne said he ‘saw a site that will haunt me to my dying
day. The slope above was no longer steep!’ They only had 200 yards
up a trivial grade to reach the summit, but the storm in their faces
was too much and they had to retreat,” Selters writes.
which actually completed the first ascent was organized by Episcopal
archdeacon of the Alaskan territory Hudson Stuck and
his two recruits, Harry Karstens and Walter
Harper, A Koyukan Athabascan. Stuck wrote “’To
roam over glaciers and scramble up peaks free and untrammeled is mountaineering
in the Alps. Put a 40-pound pack on man’s back with the knowledge
that tomorrow he must go down for another, and you have mountaineering
in Alaska.’” They worked day after day and established their
highest camp at 18,000 feet. On June 7, 1913, they summited (20,320
ft) and gave praise to God, singing a Latin chorus of Te Deum.
By the early 1920s, a new form of mountaineering emerged, according to
Selters. Along with the notable shift in mood from the loss of innocence
through knowing the world’s vulnerability to war, the Post World
War I era entered with new technology (including early pitons and crampons),
and a more individual approach. With all the major peaks having been summited,
mountaineers found new satisfaction by attempted ever more challenging
routes, according to Selters. " ‘Let’s see if we can
climb that buttress’ “ was heard and never before feats were
lamented the new technology and felt nostalgic for simpler days. Selters
uses quotes aptly placed to articulate the new mountaineers viewpoint.
German immigrant Hans Gmoser answering criticism that
their Austrian style of climbing was emotionless, mechanical and motivated
by showboating, penned this response: “We wanted to inhale and
breathe life again . . . We were rebelling against an existence where
a man is judged by the size of his living room, by the amount of chromium
on his car. But, here we were ourselves again; simple and pure . . .
We were ready to trust each other, help each other and give each other
everything. This mountain to us is not a sports arena. To us, it is
a symbol of truth and a symbol of life as it should be. This mountain
teaches us that we should endure hardships and not drift along the easy
way, which always leads down.”
evolution came in the 1960’s counterculture, when climbers began
to focus on style, rather than “just getting up the route by whatever
said one of the most dramatic climbs was the first winter ascent on
the north face of the Grand Teton. George, Greg and Mike Lowe,
along with Rick Horn climbed the rock wall with ice
all over it, using only basic gear, in super cold. They had leather
double boots, front point crampons and had re-forged their own tools.
“They did mixed climbing in a way, bivouacking on the face, that
people in North America couldn’t imagine. They were so far ahead
of their time,” Selters said. “There was a real sense of
extraordinary saga from this era was the expedition to Canada's highest
peak, Mt. Logan via the Hummingbird Ridge, so named
for tiny bird which buzzed the team at 9,600 feet - “100 miles
from the nearest flower.”
Led by Dick Long and Allen Steck, six partners including Paul Bacon, Frank Coale, John Evans, Dick Long and Jim Wilson,
assembled in 1965 for the long ascent up the south ridge. They started
by hauling 700 pounds of gear up fixed line to the narrow crest, then
continued up lose schist and wild cornices, unstable on either side.
They considered going back, but instead pressed on. Twice they had to
wait out storms, once on a flattened cornice for seven days. After moving
off the cornice, they looked back in wonderment to see it shear off
and fall away. They may not have pioneered the “forward retreat”
(going ahead as a better way to get off the mountain safely), but they
made good use of it. They climbed all of Mt. Logan's main summits, and
descended by way of King Col after their 30 day expedition. No one has
been able to repeat the entire route again.
and modern shift, still defining itself, has been toward sponsorships,
measuring for speed, linking one of more peaks. “We can mark progress
in athletic parameters - harder routes done faster and climbing days
of incredible endurance - but the most vital climbers still measure
their success in the soul, by the depth of engagement and the force
of commitment,” Selters writes.
is comfortable on the other side of the interview table, he is not too
anxious to talk about
himself. He grew up in Glendale, California, the product of a family
who camped and instilled the value of hard work. But, he suffered from
asthma and allergies caused by pollution, so when choosing a college,
he moved as far as one can from Southern California and still be in
the Golden State. He received his BA in Environmental Biology
from Humboldt State University and explored the Trinity Alps, Castle
Crags and Mt. Shasta, as well.
led to a guiding career working in the North Cascades and Alaska Range.
Selters said he early on was inspired by Galen Rowell.
“I got a little hint of what was possible with enough commitment
and energy. Galen Rowell was an amazing tower of energy. His methods
were revolutionary for his time. He said you could go to the Himalayas
without a giant expedition and engage the mountain on a scale more like
you would approach the Sierra, instead of ‘sieging the peak,’”
which was more common.
expanded his guiding to include Nepal - a bit more
adventurous, since he didn’t know the territory or the culture.
While he admitted to getting “a lot of mileage on moderately difficult
peaks,” the steepest learning curve was personal. “I learned
that happiness comes not from what you succeed at or what you’ve
earned.” He eventually did 8 trips to Ladakh, the Tibetan part
of India, which he described as “one of the most austere places
people live. Death Valley looks like a jungle by comparison.”
A Buddhist culture, “their ancestors moved to that region for
some reason,” Selters said. “They were mountaineers before
there were mountaineers.”
shifted slightly, when he asked for a raise from his guiding company
and they refused. He decided to do “less work for more money,”
selling photos to a stock photography company, with which he already
had experience. At the same time, he moved to the Sierra, at age 33
and continued guiding trips once a year. It was when he turned 40, that
he slowed his pace, but not for traditional reasons. In the mid 90s,
numerous friends died, including a climbing partner on Dorje Lhakpa,
on a 23,000-foot peak in Nepal. At the end of a rappel, his friend,
Kurt Schmierer, called “off-rappel.” Moments
later Selters heard him fall. He never knew exactly what happened.
married Carla Spencer in 1998, they went to Peru for
a honeymoon and Selters extended the trip to act in a motion picture
for Outdoor Life Network in a documentary called Yerupaja,
about a father and son climbing team. He now has his own son, Ace, born
Feb. 11, 2003.
didn’t pursue acting, his next adventure landing him unwanted
media interviews, including one with Oprah Winfrey's staff. He was returning
from a climb on the North Buttress of Mt. Kennedy in Canada's Yukon
-- purportedly, “the most beautiful climb in the world--when tragedy
struck.” The climb went well, but on their return to basecamp,
whiteout conditions prevented travel, and their pick-up plane found
them on a glacier south of the mountain. The take-off was bumpy and
they crashed into a crevasse. Selters incurred a broken back with crushed
vertebrae and was wedged in tight, but alive. His climbing partner,
too, was alive, but unconscious. The pilot, Selters could tell, was
knew they’d come looking for us a long as the weather was good,”
and they did. Twenty-four hours later, they were pulled out of the plane
and transported to Anchorage.
months in a body cast, Selters said he had time for “a hard look
at reality.” That was the summer of 2001, and in the fall while
he pondered his own fate, he watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold.
“Without suffering, you don’t really learn much. With mountaineering,
you try to minimize suffering, but the whole point of adventure is to
push things a bit. Overall, you figure the adventure is going to be
better than the suffering. This is how we grow -- when we approach things
that are both scary and exciting, and that’s the way of mountaineering.”
sees a slightly different culture emerging post-2001, with a slightly
different climbing. In the summer of 2001, the world was our little
oyster. After 9-11, there was a general “contraction culture,”
which Selters views as less advantageous to growth. Yet, innovative
technique still flows, and as war again seems more distant, climbers
are expanding their game again.
for the future of mountaineering is in linking routes and ridgelines
in a visionary way, according to Selters. Sometimes with an individual
mountain, just one of them isn’t big enough,” he said, citing
the “enchainment principle,” defined by Peter Croft.
that are really doing it today have the same kind of balance and character
that the guys had who are now 90 years old. Selters interviewed many
mountaineers who had admirable careers outside of mountaineering, “And
yet in their eyes you could see that mountaineering had been an important
part of who they were. You could see that their eyes were really clear."
said the really old timers did things differently, but they had the
same goals as the younger generation today. There is a certain element
of exploration, as well as a technical challenge that adds to the brotherhood
of mountaineers - the desire to go places where not many people have
been or maybe nobody has been. Put up with cold, organize logistics
. . .”
climbs locally in the Eastern Sierra, but is not planning
any major climbing projects right now. “To climb really hard,
you need a certain sense of optimism that you’ll withstand, that
you can always dig a little deeper,” he said. For now, his next
project is the slide show tour promoting "Ways to the Sky"
and a book of essays and personal stories.
to the Sky - A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering"
by Andy Selters pubished by The
American Alpine Club Press
710 Tenth Street, Suitte 100, Golden, Colorado, 80401 www.americanalpineclub.org