SO BEGAN THE LETTER. Marc Ewing wanted to start a magazine–the magazine, actually, that I had always worried somebody else would start. The timing was good: my seven years with the American Alpine Journal had just come to an end. Shortly after receiving the letter, I called Marc on the phone.
Over the next hour, we went back and forth about what such a venture would entail. The dialogue roamed without inhibition and met no obstacle that I can remember. I spoke of the dreams I had harbored ever since doing The Mountain Yodel eight years ago–of presenting a vision of climbing that has nothing to do with climbing as a vehicle for advertisements and everything to do with climbing in its purest forms, of celebrating it with the voice of those impassioned by the pursuit, of creating a periodical for the soul climbers, the lifers–and was greeted only with assent. He spoke of an emphasis on alpine-style and single-push ascents, climbs that strip away as much of what is not alpinism as possible, leaving only the cleanest interactions with the mountains, the most intimate experiences. He reiterated the words of his letter: “It is my feeling that the gestalt of mountaineering cannot be had in sound bites, cannot be sampled bits at a time.
Mountaineering is not a short-attention-span spectator sport. It is only the continuity of the experience, the immersion in the environment, and the engagement of as many senses as possible that can deliver the full experience.” I could only nod in agreement.
Within the week I had traveled from my home in Jackson, Wyoming, to Marc’s home in Chicago to sketch out the details. It was apparent from the start our magazine would not be all things to all people. Decision-making lies at the heart of climbing, and our coverage would take its cue from this point. Our focus would extend from trad climbs to big walls to the wildest mountains of the world. Our news would report, firsthand and accurately, long new routes significant to the climbing of the area in which they occurred. Such a focus meant we could not represent all the disciplines of climbing, but we realized that only by staying true to our passions would we be able to craft the magazine we both wanted to do.
The design would need to be powerful and clean, making the connection between the reader and the author or photographer as elegant and timeless as possible. Hence, a minimal number of ads; hence, a high cover price. The stories in our pages would be in the ascentionists’ own words whenever possible: only climbers can tell the tale of their climb with the immediacy of the experience itself. These stories would be complemented by ones from great writers, yielding the layered perspective we wanted the magazine to achieve. As for photos, we both believe that what is presented in climbing periodicals is all too often an artfully constructed approximation of reality. Such images are beautiful, but climbing is often an unkempt affair; posed photos that do not declare themselves as such lack a degree of legitimacy we felt essential to our vision. We would try to illustrate the magazine with a photojournalism we both feel is missing from the popular literature.
To borrow from William Morris, we wanted nothing in the magazine that we did not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. History fulfills both prerequisites. It gives climbing context, and half the fun of climbing is the connection it gives you to people of similar bent. History is our heritage, our mythology, the common thread that we share only with other climbers. It encompasses the adventures upon which modern climbs expand. Particularly in this country, we are not so far from climbing’s origins, and the perspectives of the men and women who first pushed the physical and mental margins are accessible to us still. Those perspectives are our link to the past, and we excitedly envisioned their place in our pages.
As for cultural and political boundaries, it made sense to think beyond the confines of North America. Climbers have been scaring themselves in ridiculous and time-honored ways from Joshua Tree to Shishapangma for ages. Anyone who has ever been in a situation and wondered What am I doing here?–which is to say, nearly everyone who has ever climbed–shares a bond with climbers the world over. An aggressive widening of the eyes and a downward glance beyond the heels is universal in its connotations. A magazine true to the soul of climbing would, in our book, embrace an alpine planet.
By the time we’d gotten far enough into it, it was obvious that we were up against something formidable. We were trying to celebrate the climbing life: a convergence of languages and generations and common passion around a lifestyle that allows us to climb as often as possible. It’s not about the highest peak, the longest route, the hardest lead; if it were, it would be time to quit the moment you made the most difficult move of your life. Rather, it is about the moves played out over the course of a very long time, so that one’s climbing begins to seem like a series of pitches, of days and months and years climbing, the jobs and relationships and injuries falling in behind that moment the desire first takes you.
The climbing life. Pull it all together, slap a cover on it, hand it out at base camps and trail heads for a ridiculous price. Marc and I shook hands. Sounded like a plan to us.
Here, then, is the first installment. Enjoy the places it takes you. If you like what you read, spread the word, write us a letter. We hope the stories between these covers inspire dreams of your own–and that you’ll let us know about them when you get back to the valley floor. “I am writing to introduce a new magazine I am creating, tentatively titled Mountaineering. As you might expect, the topic of the magazine will be mountaineering and coverage of the world’s mountains….”— Christian Beckwith
[Reprinted, with the permission of the author, from Alpinist 1, Winter 2002-2003. We remain forever grateful to the leadership, creativity and vision of the magazine founders, Christian Beckwith and Marc Ewing.–Alpinist staff.]