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The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains

Barry Blanchard rappels down the Rupal Face, Nanga Parbat, Pakistan on the cover of his new book, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains. [Photo] Mark Twight

In 2006, Barry Blanchard wrote “The Calling” for Alpinist 15. The piece describes a young Blanchard’s dreams, sparked from a life of poverty growing up in Calgary, and the climbs and partnerships that developed from his childhood musings. Now, eight years later, the storied Canadian alpinist is publishing a memoir, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains.

“I used my piece, ‘The Calling,’ in Alpinist 15 as a road map for writing my book, The Calling,” Blanchard told Alpinist. “The article was a planimetric that I was allowed to flesh out and sculpt into a statue. Magazine articles are written in thousands of words (although the draft I submitted for 15 was 14,000 words before editing), but in the book I had tens of thousands of words to write. One hundred thousand words allows for deeper writing and fuller storytelling.”

The memoir tells the story of climbing in the age of punk rock and youthful arrogance. The Calling is a category finalist for the Banff Centre’s 2014 Mountain Book Competition. “I think that I’m getting better at writing over time and much of that is the process of finding my writer’s ‘voice,'” Blanchard explained. “I like to tinker with words and when they combine and ring as a sentence, well, that is pretty damn fine in my book (my book, get it? Ha! Ha!).”

In honor of the book’s debut, Alpinist has published an excerpt from his memoir.–Ed.

Chapter 13, Excerpt

Andromeda Strain, Mount Andromeda, 1983

At 7:00 p.m. dusk was coming on. TP lowered me and I saw that the weather had come around, few clouds in a clear blue sky, the temperature already falling like a stone. Tomorrow would be perfect alpine climbing with frost locking everything in place. But my mind felt like burnt toast and my body like it had been ridden hard and put up wet. I’d processed as much adrenalin in the last two hours as I had in the rest of the season. I felt small, scared, and intimidated– a hollow husk.

David’s snow cave was incredible: fifteen feet long and three feet wide, room for the three of us to stretch out, and a roof over all of our heads. He had a pot of soup already on the boil.

“I’m fucking fried,” I confessed, knowing that they could see it in my face. “It looks harder above my high point. I don’t know if I’ll be able to climb it.”

“Oh, Blanch, the climbing will look easier in the morning. It always looks easier in the morning,” David said, and he smiled his fox smile. “Here, man, have some hot soup.”

The minestrone billowed steam into the vault of our cave and it was so hot and salty and good. I felt a warm expansion in my chest like the armor ratcheting open, loose, and free.

The climbing did look better in the morning and more importantly I felt good. A small, bold voice within me said, “You can do this.” It was the same voice that had spoken out from my bloodline when I was a small boy lying in bed trying to find my way through my Aunt’s brutal beating. That voice has pushed me forward a number of times. It comes to me from the strong lips of strong women and men stretching back 500 generations, the length of time that my blood has been in North America.

The sky was blue. The air was deliciously cold and perfectly calm. The climbing wasn’t overhanging, but there was less protection and it was harder to find. Forty feet higher I left the corner where Kevin had continued into no-man’s land. A three-foot-high apron of forty-five degree snow led out right, and the only way that I could come up with to cross it was to front point as low as I dared (too low would stress too little snow and the ice might fail and I would skitter off) and stab my picks in at waist level and hold my upper body in by wrapping my hand over the head of the tool. It felt similar to manteling onto the tiles to get out of a swimming pool.

Kevin Doyle, Jim Elzinga, Albi Sole and Barry jump for joy during a trip to Mt. Everest. [Photo] Bob Lee

Thirty feet out from the corner a snow-choked crack led up to where the angle eased. A pendulum fall back into the corner would have shattered me and there was no protection between me and the corner. I couldn’t find anything for my right tool in the rock above and in growing desperation I thrust my forearm down behind the firm top edge of the snow, chicken-winging my arm between the backside of the snow and the rock. Snow fell away and there at my right elbow was a solid black crack that looked like it had been drawn by a felt tipped marker.

A long, shallow-angle piton rang true so I added a second long, thick-waisted knifeblade. Twenty feet higher I found a good fist-width crack splitting a bulge of black limestone. I anchored. The last eighty feet had taken me two hours to climb.

David jumared the pitch with his pack on his back and mine hanging from a long runner clipped into his crotch strap. It was a hard physical act.

“Holy crap, Cheese, you brought my pack too. Good work, man.”

“Yes, the freight train.” And he put his head down and panted.

Two minutes later he was looking up the route and orchestrating our ascent. “I can lead into the ice of the couloir, and then you or Tim can take all of the screws and we’ll fourth-class up the ice.”

“I’m never fucking doing that again,” TP spat when he reached the anchor. To save on weight we’d only brought one set of Jumars and TP had just prusiked up the ropes, a technique that he had little experience with and one that is definitely more complicated and challenging with a lot of snow around.

“The fucking prusiks wouldn’t slide up the rope.” His red complexion was fired with rage and his green eyes burned. He jerked his head sideways, “And my pack kept getting stuck in the goddamned chimney.”

A travel pack that he had used to tour through Europe five years earlier sat on his back and it had a suitcase handle on one side and a rectangular metal frame sewn inside to make it stand like baggage. The shoulder straps could be concealed by a zippered panel on the back.

With a bruised shoulder blade, Blanchard Jumars up the east face of Mt. Fay. [Photo] David Cheesmon

“TP, you’re a fucking lawyer, man,” David said. “Buy yourself a proper alpine pack.”

“Ya, you cheap bastard,” I added.

“I will, just as soon as we get off of this route.”

Five-hundred-foot-high limestone walls rose to a spear point of the palest blue sky that was so close to being a shallow green. A canted boulevard of neve led a hundred feet deep inside the fold of Mount Andromeda. Higher, it split into twin flows of chrome-colored ice parted around a bulge of snow-plastered limestone. Above that, it looked hard as the rock reared and the ice thinned to nothing. Incredibly a bulge of pale emerald ice hung like a giant pointed jewel on the right wall. If we could get to it, it could be our passage to the top.

David led to the end of the neve, then I charged for four ropelengths feeling like a sled dog leaping into the harness. Dave and Tim could not follow fast enough. Dave took us up the left flow of chrome ice and TP got what would become one of the most iconic alpine pitches in North America–the exit ice bulge of the A Strain.

Like the leading edge of a bird’s wing, a foot-high band of vertical snow arced from us to the emerald ice. Above it lay minutely stratified limestone, vertical and draped in angel’s-breath snow; below, ice glazed edges in file, few of which would take front points. TP set his picks into the snowband and onto what lay underneath and was masked by the snow. He found the edges that would hold his front points and eased onto them with slow and precise transfers of his hips.

There was a thirty-foot belly of rope between him and Dave and I when he planted his right ax firmly into the ice. A fall would have been horrible and when TP clipped his first ice screw Dave and I sighed and relaxed into our harnesses.

The repeating pattern of TP’s placements pocked the virgin ice like bullet holes shot into safety glass and the marring of that unexplored surface gave me pause. It felt like we were defiling something, something sacred. Then I reached high and dead centered the next bullet hole with my pick and climbed up into sunlight and the heat felt so good, so much like the benevolent warmth of life, of blood.

Two more pitches and David cut us through a small cornice and we rose to our feet on the shallow back slope. Packs and ropes were piled there and we walked up to the summit.

Five o’clock in the evening, April 17, we shook hands, smiling, and stood and pointed out the summits that we knew. All around us were beautiful, beautiful mountains. The sun was warm and I was with friends. My life felt good.

“Right, then, we must get down off of this thing.” Cheese snapped me back to the task at hand, and we walked down to our packs and then on to several rappels down the northeast ridge toward the Athabasca/Andromeda Col.

The top of the col fell away like a breaking wave at Maverick’s. I stepped into the slope and dug a shovel shear test just like James Blench had taught me. There was a clean shear a foot down.

“What does that mean?” TP asked.

“Nothing good,” I replied.

And then Dave, who had stayed to coil a rope at the bottom of our last rappel, plunge-stepped up to us and willfully past us and on down to where he turned to face in thirty feet below us and started to down climb. All of his actions saying, “Fuck that, let’s just get down this thing.” Tim and I followed the ‘Big Cheese.’

Growing up poor in Calgary didn’t just encourage dreaming; for one young boy, it necessitated it. Canada’s storied alpinist recounts the climbs and partnerships that sprung from his childhood fantasies in the Alpinist 15 feature that would later become the springboard for his memoir.