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 republished his 2006 story. Click here to read an excerpt from his memoir. –Ed.
“Why do you call each other ‘chug’?” asked the enchanting Italian makeup
artist. It was 1992 and Perry Beckham and I were rigging on the film
Cliffhanger in the Italian Dolomites.
“It’s Canadian slang for half-breed,” I said. “You know, half Indian,
“You are half Indian?” she asked. Excitement tinkled in her voice.
“Only the good half,” I said.
“Did you experience any Indian rituals growing up?” The pupils of her
deep brown eyes flashed wider.
“Domestic violence and alcoholism,” snorted Perry. I joined in his
laughter: we both knew those rituals well. Judging by the deflated look
in her beautiful face, she did not.
I grew up in poverty hard against the railway tracks in Calgary,
Alberta, Canada, in the 1960s, the eldest of five half-breed kids. As it
did for a lot of the guys I ran with, crime seemed a more viable career
option for me than medicine or law. I now see that futurelessness as
liberating: juvenile delinquency meant no expectations. With it came a
freedom to dream. I fantasized about becoming something absolutely
exotic–a mountain climber. The first hints of a vocation came through
words: when I was ten years old, riding the Greyhound by myself after a
visit to my grandmother, a woman read aloud to me from The White Spider.
Thank God for climbing writing: I’d probably be illiterate without it. I
went on to read all the mountaineering books in my high-school library,
and the heroism of alpinism–particularly the words of Harrer, Bonatti,
Terray and Messner–resonated with something inside me. The basement
rafters of our house served as the venue for my first aid climbs. I
learned to rappel from our second-story window, my brother adding his
weight to the anchor, my bed.
During my last year in high school, my buddy Phil attended a basic rock
course, and the next weekend he took me out climbing. For the first time
the coarse gray limestone of the Rockies passed through my hands. Phil
and I soon dreamed of doing a route on the great stone, where the big
guns like Brian Greenwood and Urs Kallen and John Lauchlin climbed: the
south face of Mt. Yamnuska.
Mt. Yamnuska always looked like a castle to me. Coppered in the early
morning light, it seems to present the whole earth’s invitation to human
challenge. Phil came out a couple of times, but Ron Humble, a year older
than I and far more disciplined, became my first dedicated climbing
partner. My half of our partnership was to lead the hard stuff; Ron’s
was to make sure we got there in the first place. Witness the morning he
tapped on the door at 6 a.m. and, receiving no answer, came up the
stairs, past my mother’s room, past my brothers’, past my sisters’, to
throw open my door and shake me awake in my bed. “Blanchard, you’re
drunk!” he shouted. And indeed I was, having staggered in from a party
an hour earlier.
He grabbed my pack and harassed me into dressing, then manhandled me
down the stairs and into his car. Two hours of driving and approaching
saw me sober at the base of the Redshirt Route on Mt. Yamnuska. I
remember traversing out on the last pitch, past the bit made famous by
the black-and-white guidebook photo of Hans Gmoser, to gain what the
book described as an “outside corner (exposed).” Eight hundred feet of
air hauled on my Levis-bound ass while the lugs of my Vasque Ascenders
quaked on small edges.
I lost it there, screamed, “All right, guys! Where are all the fucking
The rope tensed up, Ron sharing in my concern. “Take it easy man,” he
said from the belay. “You can’t fall there.” Breathing helped, as
always. I found the handhold and the hidden piton, and Ron and I soon
pulled over the top to finish the greatest climb of our young lives.
We’d cracked the 5.6 barrier at last.
“Chamonix Mt. Blanc! Chamonix Mt. Blanc!” the conductor’s baritone
jarred the walls of the train. It was early June 1980 when I stepped
onto the wet black pavement. I was twenty-one. The rain had just stopped
and small arcs of mist steamed up from the road. A window opened through
the clouds; the black spires of the aiguilles pierced the sky. I felt
like a mouse staring up at the ramparts of the Potala.
Kevin Doyle and I had quit our jobs and come to the Alps intent on
climbing until our money ran out. We camped illegally under 100-foot
evergreens on the edge of Chamonix; I suspect that the French left us
alone because of our proximity to the cemetery. When it rained, we would
traverse the stone foundation of the railway bridge until our fingers
failed, then squish off to the Brasserie Nationale to nurse “une grand
biere” and talk trash with the Brits.
When the weather was good, we climbed as much as our bodies would allow.
The golden granite of Bonatti’s Pillar passed through my hands, and the
blue, blue ice on the north side of the Aiguille Verte beneath my
crampons. We climbed routes that had felt the passage of Gabriele
Boccalatte and Gaston Rebuffat. As I climbed, and read, I
gradually began to understand the culture of alpinism. Each time I went
into the mountains, I felt as though I were pushing at the door of a
dangerous, radiant cathedral.
By the end of August, Kev and I had tallied eleven alpine climbs between
us and talked ourselves into attempting one of the top ten routes in
Rebuffat’s grail, The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes.
We’d settled on the ninety-ninth route, the second-most difficult, hard
enough to be considered a grande course alpine climb by the French: the
North Face of Les Droites.
Intimidation and fear piled up on me like spindrift. I didn’t sleep
much, spending a lot of time instead wondering whom I was kidding. I was
a city boy from Southern Alberta who climbed in cotton painter’s pants,
two wool sweaters and a blue nylon shell crunched into its kangaroo
pocket and clipped to my belt. Three years ago I knew more about steer
riding than about climbing. Les Droites overwhelmed me; I couldn’t break
it down into pieces that fit in my mind. Kev and I fled to the south of
France to climb rock and get our heads together.
John Lauchlan, my hometown hero, cracked the riddle for me. I ran into
him in the Alpenrose Bar one night. John was five years older than I,
and the first native Calgarian to have pushed his alpinism to a
world-class level. When I confessed that Kev and I were thinking about
the North Face of Les Droites, John locked on to me with his intense
“Do it. It’s perfect for you guys.”
“Oh, man, I don’t know if we’re up to it yet.”
“No. No way. You guys can do it. My partner and I did the Waterfall
Route on it in July. It’s right for you.” His gaze dropped to his
hands, and he swept them up as if they were surfing a wave. “The lower
face is just like doing the North Face of Athabasca, and you guys have
done that. Then you do Takakkaw Falls”–his hands mimed swinging
tools–“then you top it off with Cascade Falls.” He opened his palms
into a so what? gesture. “It’s just three pieces of Canada on loan to
When we returned to Cham in early September, the route unfolded as John
had said it would: ropelengths of alpine ice, cruxes of waterfall ice,
immaculate granite. His body trembling, Kevin fought through the hardest
part, a transparent WI5 curtain, before finding a piton behind the
fragile gray ice.
One ropelength from the top, I took an ice chunk in the face. The crunch
of breaking bone accompanied the splatter of blood across my nylon
shell. I screamed and swore and sheltered my face in the fold of my arm.
Once I figured out that just my nose was broken, I worried about being
scarred ugly. “Oh, man, that doesn’t look so good, Blanch,” was all the
condolence I got out of Kev.
Sixteen hours after crossing the ‘schrund we topped out. My arms hung at
my sides as if I’d just bench-pressed twice my bodyweight a hundred
times. By midnight we were bedding down in the old Couvercle Hut.
The next day we tramped into our illegal campsite. My nose was swollen
and bandaged, but otherwise fine. I sat for a long time looking into the
grass and up to the trees and at the backs of my hands. Kevin and I made
a pact to climb in Yosemite the next year.
1981: The Nose and the Salathe, white cotton pants, half-gallon
chalk bags, red bandanas. I bought my first Friends and danced to the
Clash by the full moon in a meadow with thirty others of my tribe. Back
in the Rockies, Kevin and I did the Grand Central Couloir on Mt.
Kitchener in a twenty-four-hour push, then traveled north and climbed
the Cassin Ridge on Denali in six hard days of storm.
On our return to Calgary, in the words of the old cowhands, “When I hit
the streets of Cowtown I was bust.” I got myself hired on as a
rock-climbing and mountaineering instructor with the Yamnuska Mountain
School. The job did little to resolve my poverty: I made fifty bucks
Canadian a day and lived in a closet that used to hold cleaning
products. But more importantly, my door opened onto the magnificent gray
wall of the Rockies. I now lived in the mountains.
“It will look better in the morning, Blanch,” David Cheesmond observed
from his end of the snow cave. It was 1983, and my first time climbing
with the “Big Cheese.” He and I and Tim “TP” Friesen were wormed into a
tunnel that David had excavated in a van-sized snow mushroom halfway up
the north face of Mt. Andromeda. For two and a half hours I had quivered
my way up seventy feet of the Andromeda Strain’s unsolved crux. My mind
felt like burned toast. David’s encouragement and hot soup helped.
The climbing did feel better the next day, and we topped out in bright
sunshine. All around were beautiful, beautiful mountains. I felt a wave
rising inside me, one that would crest four months later on the North
Face of Mt. Alberta when Gregg Cronn and I completed the third ascent of
George Lowe and Jock Glidden’s incredible route. Like George, I took the
lead up most of the sheer black headwall.
The crux of the Strain and the Alberta headwall demanded everything that
I had learned during my 700 days’ climbing. In those intense moments
when I–the half-breed ne’er-do-well from the tough part of
Calgary–balanced my feet on the razor’s edge, I danced.
I tried to connect with her in Mexico City, but missed; she’d already
taken off for the beaches.* I was guiding the Mexican volcanoes for the
second time and she had been studying Spanish for the last two months.
We were taking a break from being girlfriend/boyfriend, a relationship
that we’d circled around since high school. It had become astonishingly
clear that I loved her. A year later, February 1985, we married and
moved into a Canmore trailer park.
The north flank of Rakaposhi is truly gargantuan: in the seven and a
half miles from the Hunza River to the 25,500-foot summit lies 19,500
feet of relief. The north ridge looks like the leading edge of a
triangular sail when the wind bellies out the cloth.
For forty days through June and July of 1984, David Cheesmond, Kevin
Doyle, Gregg Cronn, TP Friesen, Steve Langley and I worked our way up
the 12,000-foot ridge in 2,000-foot capsule-style chunks. Two weeks of
storm stuffed our summit attempt at 24,800 feet, and we retreated down
to the Hunza River, where we prepared to leave. I had failed on my first
trip to the Karakoram.
A week later David and I huddled around an outcrop at 25,300 feet while
the wind hauled angry black clouds though the sky. Five days of
alpine-style climbing had brought us there, and as David and I waited
for Kevin to climb up, we agreed that the weather had now defeated us
Kevin pleaded to continue. He was sick with giardia, and electrical
jolts slapped us to our knees every time we rose higher than the
ridgeline, but none of that meant diddley squat against Kevin’s will.
Ninety minutes later we were cowering and giggling five feet below the
Two days later we crumpled into our base camp. I’d lost thirty pounds,
and after descending 11,000 feet the last day, we were all depleted.
Physically I felt as though I should be in an intensive care unit, yet
when I looked at the broken slate below my feet, I felt no separation. I
understood the mountain; I was at home there. Another of the old
cowhands’ words came to me: in mountaineering I had found my “calling.”
July 30, 1985: the Big Cheese and I crossed onto the north face of North
Twin. It was like landing on the beach at Dieppe in 1942: head-sized
rock missiles exploded in the snow, and we sprinted between steep bands
like infantrymen diving into trenches. Gaining the vertical ground of
our unclimbed pillar was a massive relief: the rockfall roared down far
out from the face.
That night David engineered a catchment for the dispersed drips of water
using a plastic bag and a Dairy Queen straw. “Look, free water, man!” he
said an hour later, holding up the first liter.
The next day–and I can still hear the snap! of the tendon in my
wedding-ring finger–the foothold I had been standing on broke. All of
my weight jerked onto my hands, popping the tendon and pitching me off
for a ten-footer. Worse yet was watching that softball-sized hold twist
off and nail David in the thigh fifty feet below.
The bloated finger put me out of most of the leading. David continued
with genius, opening thousands of feet of black limestone and finding,
on our third night, a cave just big enough for two, with ice on the
floor to melt for water and a portal looking out onto overhanging stone.
Outside, lightning discharged, thunderclaps exploded, and hail slashed
sideways from the dark. Two days later David pulled the hardest free
moves of the route to gain the summit slopes. A lightness suffused my
life for the next month: Really, how important could anything else be?
“This is where it’s at,” George Lowe said to me from his side of the
snow cave. Carl Tobin lay between us. It was February 1984 and we’d
been lying there, halfway up the northeast face of Mt. Chephren, for
twenty-eight hours, waiting out the storm and the avalanches on our
hoped-for new route. George would have kept waiting were it not for the
impending meeting of the Everest trip I was slated to join. I should
have listened to George.
Our thirteen-member team went to Tibet in the spring of 1986. I worked
my ass off on the West Ridge to help put Dwayne Congdon and Sharon Wood
on top, then got screwed out of my own summit attempt because of …
well, politics; there may be no way around them on a heavy,
corporate-sponsored, nationalistic siege. I wept about it then and laugh
about it now. Hell, I’m grateful for being told to come down; that
moment defined my climbing. Never ever again would I be part of a big
Nine months later, in February 1987, Ward Robinson, Peter Arbic and I
succeeded on Mt. Cephren where Carl, George and I had backed off. It was
my fifth attempt on what we would name The Wild Thing. On the summit, I
lay looking at the stars. I had dedicated fifteen days of my life to
that route, and I knew now that I was a competent alpinist. I’d created
The honey-colored granite of Taulliraju’s east pillar rose above me. I
could see the line: a blue column of ice led like the slender stem of a
wine glass to the stilted rime summit. The mountain was silhouetted
against a cloudless Peruvian sky–but I could not will myself to make
the next move. An oppressive dread had settled over me.
I rapped to my partner, James Blench.
“I don’t feel good about this,” he said. “I think we should get out of
Back in base camp we learned that three of our friends had been hit by a
serac on Kitiraju and that Rob Rohn, the worst injured, lay on the
mountain with a broken back and fractured leg. It took a dozen of us
five days to stretcher Rob over a col and down to a helicopter.
As I walked out of the Quebrada Santa Cruz afterward, I heard that my
dear friend, David Cheesmond, and his climbing partner, Catherine Freer,
had been killed by a collapsing cornice while attempting Mt. Logan’s
Hummingbird Ridge. Two other alpine brothers, Dan Guthrie and Ian Bolt,
had been lost in an avalanche on Foraker.
Alpinists have to come to terms with death early; too many of us die
violently, and too many of us die young. I didn’t climb for much of my
twenty-eighth year. Instead I spent a lot of time contemplating what I
got out of alpinism against what it cost.
David Cheesmond logged thousands of days climbing, yet never climbed
enough. Alex Lowe used to say that David was “gettin’ after it”–this at
a time when Alex, because of career and family, wasn’t. Both men died.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think about them, nor a season that I
don’t feel them in the mountains.
I have been intense about climbing, yet never as trenchant as David or
Alex. I just didn’t do it as much. I always needed breaks from it; they
“got after it,” as often as their busy lives would allow. I believe
their spirits knew they weren’t going to have as much time as the rest
At one point I was stalled, sitting at my desk, trying to write about
David. All the external noise and light waned until there was only me
and the page and the pen… and then there was David.
His words sang in my head as they had when our days seemed endless and
we’d run out of food. It was his favorite song: Jackson Browne’s
“Running on Empty,” belting out of the radio that I’d forgotten I’d
turned on. I laughed out loud, shouted David’s name, then sat down and
wrote him a letter.
When I was done, I knew I still wanted to climb, more than anything in
1988: the hot, dry winter sun of Mexico, and a new waterfall ice route
on the west face of Orizaba. Back in Canada a month later, I climbed
Polar Circus alone. In early March, Ward Robinson and I managed the
north face of Edith Cavell. Six days afterward I watched Ward fall
through space and snap onto the rope, all clanking metal and thuds of
We were on the second day of a new route on Howse Peak’s north face;
Ward had just fallen thirty feet over a roof at dusk. He shook off the
fall, went back up and sent the A3 crux. We topped out two days later.
Two months after that we traveled to Pakistan.
Kevin Doyle and Mark Twight were there with us to try Nanga Parbat’s
Rupal Face. The Rupal Face, 15,000 feet high, is the largest escarpment
on earth–think El Cap stacked on top of itself five times. Mark, Ward,
Kevin and I wanted to climb it alpine style.
Mark (spelling it “Marc,” French-like, then, because he was living in
Chamonix) was twenty-seven, Kevin and I were twenty-nine, and Ward was
thirty-one. To this day I can’t imagine being there with a stronger
team. At the time alpinism had reached the core of our lives; we
believed in it unconditionally. The four of us hadn’t accepted the
cultures we’d been born into; we’d rebelled against them by seeing how
far we could descend into the void. The mountains provided a way back.
We were recreating ourselves as alpinists. With any luck we wouldn’t die
in the process.
On our glory shot we climbed from 14,000 to 19,000 feet in one day, all
but 700 feet of it ropeless. The next day we climbed to 21,500 feet,
then to 22,500 the next. Early on the fourth day we climbed into the
Merkyl Gully. In our craziest dreams we never foresaw several body
lengths of vertical, brown waterice at 25,200 feet. Climbing it scorched
our lungs. One ropelength higher an electrical storm smacked us,
lightning exploded and its spontaneous thunderclaps shook us. Blasted by
snow, we lost the option of going up and began the fight for survival
I rapped the vertical pitch first, pounded in a Snarg, then
girth-hitched a 9/16-inch piece of bar-tacked Supertape through the eye.
All four of us were clipped into it when the first avalanche bowled our
feet out from beneath us, snapping us tight to the sling. For the next
twenty-seven minutes avalanches rolled over us. When they finally
subsided, we shook uncontrollably from cold. Over the next six hours we
dodged more of them until we escaped the Merkyl Gully.
In the cold gray light of the new day, we realized that Kevin and I had
miscommunicated. We had dropped our ropes in the maelstrom. I thrashed
desperately at the snow, trying to find them, gutted and sick with
despair. Then I screamed and swore at the top of my lungs.
“Man, you Canadians are like caged gorillas,” Mark said.
We agreed that we would down climb through the storm until we got to the
old waterski rope that we’d seen fixed a thousand feet below. When we
reached it, Ward cut into a duffel bag anchored to the wall. It
contained thirty pitons, fifteen screws, carabiners, food and two
brand-new ropes. They were even the same brand as our sponsorship!
In 1985 a Japanese team had watched four of their members climb into the
Merkyl Gully. A storm hit; the four were never seen again. Their
partners had clipped the duffel to the end of their fixed lines in case
the lost men needed it on the descent. Mark, Ward, Kevin and I staggered
into our base camp late the next day. We were matted, soaked and
shattered, yet we all felt that we now carried traces of other men’s
My strongest bonds with other men were forged in the mountains in the
late 1980s, the same time that I was unraveling the bond I shared with
my first wife.
Back then Mark Twight was, by far, my favorite partner in agony. We had
the ability to bring out the best in each other–and the worst. Mark
lived and climbed in Chamonix; I did the same in the Rockies. Often we’d
end up raving to each other about love and alpinism for hours over the
phone when everyone else was asleep. On one such call I pissed into a
pot rather than go to the john because the phone was in the kitchen and
I didn’t want to break the thread.
“Bubba, what if we had climbed that last 1,000 feet up the Rupal? We’d
have shaving commercials and cars and chicks and shit.”
“We can’t be those kind of whores… can we?”
“More ducats could mean more time in the mountains. Think about it.”
Wind lashes Aconcagua. It drives lines into your face and sand into the
creases of your flesh. Everyone looks older on that mountain. I spent
the last two days of January 1991 camping alone in my little yellow tent
at Plaza Frances below the 10,000-foot south face–a face I planned to
solo. I wanted the act to purge me of my infidelity.
At 3:30 a.m., February 1, I strode onto the broken rock and dirty ice of
the glacier. One mile above, Aconcagua’s seracs formed a perfect scythe,
and I stopped to capture my fear on a small recorder. I planned to use
it to market myself when I returned to Canada.
The climbing disgusted me. Four thousand feet of vertical kitty litter
and loose rock reached a hundred feet shy of the first ice field,
separated from it by a slab. The rock had the consistency of rotting
plaster. I broke off two flakes in the first seventy feet by pulling out
too hard. At 3 p.m. gray clouds tumbled through the air, embracing me,
abandoning me. An hour later the sky was cannon black and snow drove
from the rise of my left cheek to the lee of my right ear. I struggled
to breathe. My eyes began to freeze shut behind my glacier glasses. When
I touched the second rockband, a sheet of ice calved to my right, then
slowly rotated into the storm like an asteroid drifting off into space.
The bulging rock was too steep to climb in this weather, and I was
unable to retreat, so I hacked out a ledge in the ice. Five hundred feet
above me a serac crept toward the glacier. When the first clap of
thunder exploded, I thought it was the serac. My muscles clamped down
and my eyes clenched shut against impacts that never came. I lay there
for twelve hours.
By 4 a.m. the storm had passed, leaving the soft glow of moonlight on a
foot of fresh snow. I clunked fragments of snow into the pot and punched
them apart against the warming aluminum. I envisioned my wife back in
Canada, saw her rising reluctantly, groggy-eyed, imagined her wild,
sleep-matted hair–and felt the weight of the lie between us. Should we
both be free?
I brewed four liters, drank it all and began my descent.
Back on the glacier I lifted a rock, affixed the other woman’s name to
it, then heaved it at an ice-covered tarn. I wanted the rock to shatter
the ice and sink to the bottom with the lie. Instead, it rasped across
the surface, leaving five jagged scratches like the caricature of a
It was too poetically comic, even for me. I laughed at myself, then
erased all the sound bites from my recorder and continued down the
glacier. Behind me the tracks of my retreat had already blown away.
One month later my wife and I flew to Nepal, where I had arranged to
meet two of my clients for back-to-back climbing trips in the Khumbu. I
wanted this to be the trip that brought her and me together again.
With its pleatings of snow, the steep north face of Kusum Kanguru looks
oddly Peruvian. A mile-long gully drops plumb from the Middle Summit;
I’d been catching glimpses of it over my six weeks in the Khumbu. My
clients had left and my wife was trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary with a
girlfriend. I dreamed of climbing the gully direct to the
summit–something that had been omitted on the first ascent of the face.
Tensing, my sirdar, and I headed up the pristine Kusum Khola valley
while throngs trekked to Everest’s base camp far below. In a meadow
below the face, I told Tensing to expect me in two days, then wrote out
my first will. It wasn’t much: I had about $1,000 Canadian in a mix of
rupees, Canadian dollars and greenbacks. I left everything to my wife,
save for one piece of gear for each of the half-dozen men who had been
my climbing partners. That act freed me emotionally to address my
question: Did the universe want me in it?
That night I thought hard about how my life had led up to this beautiful
line high in the Himalaya. I needed to see how close to perfection I
could come in my alpinism. Yet I’d also married young because I wanted
to be a father, one who was there for a child, something I had
absolutely hungered for as a little half-breed. One hand held my wedding
ring; the other gripped my ice axe. It felt as though my two hands were
tearing me apart.
I walked away from my bivy at midnight with seven pitons, two Stoppers,
three screws, four slings and fifty meters of seven-mil rope. I
swallowed my last cough suppressant to fight the wrenching hack that had
plagued me for a month, then eased over the bergschrund as delicately as
I could, a black hole below me.
Two hours later I tapped my way up a seventy-foot, verglas-streaked wall
by headlamp. Each time the ice would take a pick in only one place
hidden in a weave of tin-colored braidings. I found these spots by
intuition. I climbed as if I belonged there.
Twenty-five hundred feet up the face, the cough suppressant quit and I
began to cough, then hack, and finally to expulse knots of green- and
mustard-colored phlegm. As the climb wore on, my lungs began to give
out. So did my mind. I started anchoring my pack to a screw, leading to
the end of my fifty-meter rope, top-anchoring to two screws, rappelling
to retrieve the pack, then prusiking back up.
Four thousand feet up I leaned my head against the mountain and stared
down at my frontpoints. They looked like rounded teeth in an old dog’s
mouth. I coughed and gasped and spit out a chord of mucous.
“You have to stop, Blanchard,” I wheezed aloud. “This is killing you.”
Thirty feet to my right a deep fluting of chaotic snow bordered the
green ice. Within that swirling structure I recognized the universe’s
repeating spiral: the arms of a galaxy, the fronds of a fiddlehead fern,
the decreasing chambers of a snail’s shell. Below one such spiral there
looked to be a hollow.
I protected myself at the entrance with a screw, then wrestled my way
in. It was cramped, but with some work I had a cave. I was safe.
The burner’s constant hiss became the sole background sound to my
coughing fits. I missed my climbing partners, longed for one of them, if
only to compare my mind to his. I needed help.
I wasn’t dead when dawn came, and 1,000 feet up sounded a hell of a lot
better than 4,000 feet of rappelling with a fifty-meter rope. But
sections of the climbing were horrifyingly insecure–wet sugar balanced
on the edge of collapse by diaphanous crusts. At one point the structure
I was on failed, and I scratched down a meter, my body clenched against
the terror of tumbling backward before the frontpoints that I’d filed
that morning caught.
Good God, Blanchard, I thought. Why aren’t you up here with a partner?
By midday I was spitting blood onto the summit. Clouds streamed between
the cornices, harbingers of the afternoon storm. I felt exposed,
anxious. I needed to get as low as possible before the storm.
As the day darkened to a driving gray, I gouged a coffin-sized cave from
a ridge of sculpted snow, sealed off the door with my pack and quartered
my last chunk of sausage into a hobo’s stew. Threads of blood
spider-webbed the green shit gurgling from my lungs, but I was beyond
caring. I knew I would see the next day. “You won’t beat me, you
microscopic motherfuckers,” I screamed at the mottled walls of the cave.
“I am getting up tomorrow and going down!”
The relief I felt as I rapped from the last of my screws and reached
flat ground was Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being”: as if
this event, and all others, happened just one time and life had no
weight or meaning. The engagement was over and even though I hadn’t
performed perfectly, I’d performed well. Several hours of weaving my way
down into richer, thicker, luscious air brought me to Tensing. He was
burning juniper on a small stone altar he’d built. I was a day late, and
he was praying for me.
I sat down on my pack and wept.
She said that she wasn’t getting back onto the motorcycle until I told
her the other woman’s name. Our marriage came apart. In July 1991, I
exiled myself to a minute cabin in a defunct motel, off the grid, end of
the road, Shady Lawn Motel #6, Deadman’s Flats, Alberta. A place I
called “The Cell.”
1991 was the nadir: Mark and I got drunk at the Yeti Bar in the shadow
of the Grand Dru in late July. We raved about the shortcomings of our
fathers, then drove over a foot-high granite parking block and flattened
a row of construction pylons because we were drunk and arguing. I kicked
the heel of my cowboy boot through the windshield to emphasize a point.
In the autumn, a storm mugged my client and me at the Death Bivouac on
the north face of the Eiger. My client bailed.
“A cold front’s coming in after this storm,” Mark said over the phone.
“Things may get really cool around here. You should be here.”
The Argentiere basin crawls with climbers in summer, but the
Grandes Montets cable car had shut down October 1. Five days later Mark
and I walked up from the valley floor and occupied that white,
glittering basin at dusk, the sole humans. When we crunched away from
the Argentiere Hut before dawn, I caught an echo of myself and
Kevin eleven years and twenty-one days earlier in our Peter Storm
sweaters on the same slopes.
The thin strand of pewter-colored ice Mark had spotted on the northwest
face of Les Droites poured down the granite like quicksilver. The crux
was one foot wide, several inches thick and vertical. I snapped both of
my picks leading it and finished by hauling up each of Mark’s tools. At
the belay I replaced one of my picks with a spare, then filed the other
into something usable.
“How come your picks didn’t break in that shit?”
“Grivel made them for me. They’re Mark-proof.” He looked at me, then
looked at the route. “I think it doglegs right here. Give me the small
“You’ve got everything.”
“No, the small blades are on your right, at the back.”
“Well, dropkick me in the butt–so they are, buddy, so they are.”
In that small exchange lay the difference between Mark and me. Mark
never relaxed. It wasn’t because he couldn’t; it was because he willed
himself not to. It’s war all the time up there, yet he still found
beauty, though the kind only warriors see.
I was different. By then, I’d spent so much time climbing that my
relationship with the mountains had evolved into something almost
spousal. Much of the time I was jovial, then something would go wrong
and I’d get pissy. Every so often, as on Kusum Kanguru, I’d see clearly
the deeper weave of the universe and feel euphoric.
I ran out of ice at dusk and anchored. Overhanging granite thrust out
above me as night approached. I brought up Mark. “I get this?” was all
he said. “OK. Give me the rack.”
He powered over the granite bulge, blue sparks grating from his
crampons. His breathing deepened. “Watch me,” he said, then pressed up
and blew out and was gone.
I seconded by headlamp. Mark’s partial-victory smile appeared at the
ridge crest. I manteled over and immediately started attaching the shovel blade to my tool to dig out a bivy.
“Bubba, what are you doing?”
“Getting ready to bivy. We’re going to bivy here, aren’t we?”
“Not when I can be in the Couvercle Hut in four hours, we’re not.” And for the second time in eleven years, I descended the north side of Les Droites to bed down in a hut that has sheltered climbers since alpinism’s beginnings.
A couple of days later Mark and his charming wife, Anne, took me out for a farewell dinner. Mark was leaving for Nepal the next morning, and I was flying home the day after. We drank our way through four hundred dollars’ worth of Moet. When we returned to their chalet, I got sick on the lawn, then hypothermic in the rain. Anne wrapped her arms around the porcelain toilet. Mark wrapped a blanket around her, then cranked Mussolini Headkick, Wired and Helmet to concert levels, one song at a time.
When I woke up, Mark and Anne had gone to the airport in Geneva. Mark’s gloves hung around the wood stove. He’d forgotten them; by the time he got back from Nepal, he’d forgotten Anne as well.
Mark named our line on Les Droites “The Richard Cranium Memorial Route.” In the years since, several French climbers have asked me, “Oo was zees Reechard Cranium?” “Dick” is short for Richard, I’ve explained to them, and cranium means “head.” It’s a place we were at in our marriages, and a way of thinking we were trying to bury.
Dark clothing, dark poetry, dark music. Climbing was my strongest positive desire, and that longing forced me up. I’m sure many of us can attest to the health of action.
“We’ve got to turn around,” I said. Far to the west Nanga Parbat’s hulking mass had sunk behind a dark wall of cloud.
“Yeah, I think so too,” replied Peter Arbic.
Above us, six men who had come up K2’s Abruzzi Ridge continued into the Bottleneck.
“How can they keep going if they feel like us? With a storm coming? They must be doing better than we are,” I said.
“No, Bubba, we’ve been gaining on them for the last hour. We’re doing better than they are.”
It was late July 1993. Peter and I had started three days earlier on the Kukuczka/Piotrowski line on the south face. On Day 2 we had traversed onto the South-Southeast Spur. By Day 3 we were bivying at 7875 meters, just below the Shoulder. Now, we retreated via the Abruzzi and walked into base camp that evening.
All six men ahead of us at the Bottleneck summited. Then the storm broke, and three of them died.
Peter and I were acquainted with them: they were strong and capable mountaineers, yet they perished on slopes that I’d ski in the Rockies. They died because at that elevation they were forty percent of the athletes they were at sea level and in possession of, perhaps, half their mental faculties.
The last time I traveled to an 8000er was April 1994, to Mt. Everest, and I went mostly because it was an opportunity to climb with Steve Swenson, David Breashears and Alex Lowe. Sandy Hill-Pittman had convinced Vaseline to underwrite our trip, thus making us the “Vaseline Research Expedition.” Also with us was an Irish beauty with mahogany hair and blue-gray eyes: David’s twenty-four-year-old video assistant and base-camp manager, Catherine Mulvihill.
The Kangshung Face is the absolute lee of Mt. Everest. Prevailing westerlies rake all of the snow from the upper mountain and dump it east, over the Kangshung. Before accepting David’s invitation, I read Stephen Venables’ book, Everest: Kangshung Face, and concluded that the face sounded reasonable. In retrospect I realize that Stephen was just trying to justify what he did.
Three weeks after setting up our base camp on the Kangshung Glacier, we were startled awake by the explosive fracturing of a serac high on the mountain. A minute later the avalanche overwhelmed us. My tent flattened, the nylon stretching taut over my face, the fabric funneling between my fingers. I screamed and fought, punching into the assault. Then the wind abated and hissed away and it was over.
I charged from my tattered tent and found a shell-shocked Catherine emerging from hers. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her snow-glazed face. “Thank God,” I whispered.
Our base camp was blown to bits–one washbasin was recovered three miles down the valley–but otherwise we were all OK. We moved the camp a couple of miles down glacier onto a beautiful little meadow. Catherine and I began sharing a tent.
“I just did something I promised my wife I would never do!” I heard Alex say ten days later over the radio. He’d pushed our trench to 7400 meters into fields of hip-deep, avalanche-prone snow with no anchors and no security. We bailed.
Catherine possessed a vocabulary that made my head hurt; I grew to enjoy reaching for the dictionary. I’d fallen in love. She moved in with me in Canmore a month after we got home, and in July we were married in a small civil ceremony. A legend in Alberta family law, Judge Allard was the product of another time: he told us that he guaranteed his marriages.
“Steve House is the kind of climber you and I wanted to be,” Scott Backes, one of our alpine brothers, told me over the phone. Scott had dubbed Steve “The Great White Hope of American Alpinism.”
“I hate that name,” Steve said to me as we sorted gear in the Mt. Robson parking lot, early in April 1997. Joe “JoJo” Josephson and I had been sliding stuff into my truck the day before for a new route on the Emperor Face when JoJo suggested we invite Steve. “Cool by me,” I said. We sent Steve an e-mail. He motored nonstop from his home in Mazama, Washington, and showed up twelve hours later. He didn’t look like a prize fighter; in his plaid shirt, ball cap and “aw shucks,” apple-pie-eating grin, he looked, as Catherine pointed out, “like a simple farm boy.”
We opened 5,000 feet of ground in twenty-two hours on our first day. The bivouac was brutally cold. We were dehydrated; when we could piss at all, we pissed ochre.
“OK–I definitely don’t have it,” Steve said after looking through his possessions for the seventh time. The stove pump had fallen down the face; with it had gone Steve’s sense of self-worth. The blunder did not fit his definition of alpinism.
“You know, Steve, at the end of your life, when you sum up all your fuckups, this is going to seem like pretty small change,” I said. As I did, I realized I already cared far more about him than I did about the mountain.
“Gee, thanks, Bubba,” said Farm Boy.
For the next four years Farm Boy and I organized our annual attempt to climb the Emperor Face. We failed each time–but boy howdy, did we climb some fabulous alpine routes in consolation. The next year, he and JoJo and I climbed a virgin twelve-pitch gully on Mt. Saskatchewan. JoJo and I watched slack-jawed as Steve gunned up a WI6 X pitch right off the deck–a pitch he had started by headlamp. On the summit I felt the same lightness and optimism that I’d felt on top of the Andromeda Strain with TP Friesen and David Cheesmond fifteen years earlier. “This is our silver lining,” Steve said.
“That’s a good name for it,” JoJo replied.
“No–I mean that not getting onto Mt. Robson was our cloud and this is our silver lining.”
I agreed with JoJo. It was a perfect name.
Luck and skill: dear God, how the alpinist needs a boatload of both to get by. Skill you can develop, though never to perfection. As for luck, why do some survive while others, standing six inches away from them, don’t? Do you have to die to find out?
In 1999, two days before my fortieth birthday, Scott Backes, Farm Boy and I were descending to our snow cave after making the first ascent of M-16 on the east face of Howse Peak. It was dark, our fourth day on the mountain, and it had been storming for forty-eight hours. Scott rigged the last anchor from an overdriven angle piton and an ice screw. Leashed in on the left side of a six-foot gully, I waited to rap the final pitch and join the boys at our cave. Above me the gully opened onto a wide snow ledge; above that loomed a 500-foot, overhanging wall crowned with massive snow mushrooms–a perfect funnel.
The crack was thunderous. A snow feature had fractured; it now exploded down the gully. Tons of solidly bonded snow slammed me into the wall and under a small roof. I thought I was tumbling down the gully. I expected to feel the weightlessness of free fall, then my bones shattering and finally the blacking out of death.
I’ll never see Catherine again!
“No,” I pleaded. “Not now.” My life was good. I wasn’t ready to have it taken away.
Blocks continued to batter me. I realized I was still at the anchor, rag dolling in the surge from Scotty’s beautifully overdriven piton.
Seven seconds after it had begun, the pummeling tapered off, then ended. My jaw quivered uncontrollably; spit streamed from my mouth. My shoulders quaked. I groaned in pain.
“Barry!” Steve screamed from below. “Barrreeee!”
A knot in my throat pulsated. Finally I shouted, “I’m OK!”
Which was bullshit. I was in shock. My pack had been shorn from my back. By the erratic light of my malfunctioning headlamp I saw that my gloves had been half-taken from my hands; my wrists were exposed and packed with snow. The ice screw hung from the Spectra cord, a deracinated thing. The piton flexed as I pulled into balance over my left foot. With trembling hands I replaced the screw, threaded the ropes and hobbled down the rappel, my right leg unable to bear weight.
Steve pulled me onto the ledge outside the cave. I saw horror in his eyes as he looked into mine.
“Oh, Bubba–fuck, man,” he said.
It was all I could do to stand. Steve bearhugged me, and we cried.
They got me into Scott’s huge synthetic bag, sealed the door of the cave with snow blocks and gave me a liter of boiled water to put between my thighs. I removed my helmet; the inside of it was tamped with an inch of snow solid enough to take a pick. My right knee was the size of a honeydew melon and marbled with patches of yellow and green and dead-blood black.
Half an hour later my eyes had undialated and I had stopped quaking. Scott and I spooned together in his bag, listening to an encouraging forecast on my VHF radio.
I woke up at 2 a.m., afraid of dying.
The new day was lighter; the spindrift had stopped. I hopped down the raps on my left leg, swearing mightily whenever I snagged my right. Without the radio (I’d tried it from inside the snow cave but it seemed to be shorting out) we were all wondering what would happen when we got off the wall and to our skis. We knew I couldn’t ski.
Midmorning I tried the radio again. This time, it worked.
“Climbers on Howse Peak for Parks Canada.”
“Hi, Barry, this is Gord. How’re you guys doing?”
I held the radio out and looked at it. Was this the one chance I’d get to ask for help?
“Gord,” I said, “we could really use some help getting off of Howse Peak.”
“OK. We’re on our way….”
The helicopter found us anchored to a small cam and my spare pick (we’d run out of pins). The rescuer, my friend Mark, slung in fifty feet below the ship and hooked up to me. Forever the opportunist, Scott clipped his pack onto the back of my harness as we drifted away.
Catherine escorted me to my fortieth birthday party that night on crutches. It was so very good to be alive, and in a room full of people! But back at home I lay awake, remembering the cold and the dark just before the hit. Death had been there: I had felt the rotten fucker’s fingers, and I knew that Alex and David had felt them too. But the right kind of indifferent luck had been with me, and that bony hand had swept off down the mountain, empty.
“Alex Lowe is dead,” I repeated the words to Catherine.
“No!” she screamed. “NO!”
Then her knees buckled and I held her in my arms to keep her from hitting the floor.
It was October 1999 and we were in Queenstown, New Zealand.
Eventually her sobs subsided and she wiped her face with the back of her sleeve and stood up and said, “I don’t care how much it costs: we are going to say goodbye to Alex.” We traveled fifty-eight hours to spend thirty-six in Bozeman, Montana, Alex’s hometown. I didn’t lose it until I saw Conrad Anker, his freshly shaved head still scarred from the avalanche that killed Alex on Shishapangma.
In the spring of 2000, as they flew by the Hummingbird Ridge, Parks Canada wardens spotted some color. Gillean Quinn, David Cheesmond’s widow, showed me the pictures. It was David, braced to the ridge in the pied troisieme position, wearing the blue and yellow sallopetes that he’d scored for K2 the year before he died. He had clung there for thirteen years, so long that an ice feature had formed on his bowed head and folded shoulders. David had become part of Mt. Logan.
For much of the new millennium, I’ve climbed with Steve House. In 2001 we climbed Sans Blitz, a new WI7 line on the east face of Mt. Fay, with Rolando Garibotti; in 2002, together with Marko Prezelj, we attempted the south face of Nuptse. In April 2005, with Sean Easton, we put up a fine mixed line on the east end of Mt. Rundle above my home in Canmore. It has been magic to watch Steve evolve from a student of alpinism to a partner, then to eclipse me and become one of the best in the world. I am so proud of Steve and so interested to see how far he will develop the tradition that Twight, Backes and I handed to him. Lately some of the younger generation have labeled us “The Brotherhood,” and they are right, for what binds us is the bond of brothers, linked by the belief that action is virtue and by the commitment to climbing mountains via their most compelling lines, in small partnerships, with only the time-honored accoutrements of a rope, a rack and a pack.
“I figure I’ve got twelve years to see how far I can take my alpinism,”
Steve said to me after Nuptse.
“How did you come up with that number?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, grinning a shit-eater and looking down at his shoes.
“That was easy. I just took your age and subtracted mine from it.” How perfect is that?
It’s now the fall of 2005 and I’ve been alpine climbing for more than twenty-five years. I believe in alpinism deeply. It brought me out of the hopelessness of my childhood, and through it I have known moments of lightness and creation, of being on the other edge of death and fear; but I wish none of my partners had died for it, and I know I’m fortunate to be alive. We feel called to the mountains, but the origin of that calling remains mysterious. At times we get in so far that we lose our perspective and forget that all the joy and growing we find in the mountains may only be in us; and yet that impression of inseparable connection still radiates outward from them, pervading all my life with a sense of darkness, a sense of light.
Last fall I helped Catherine give birth to our daughter, Rosemary. Six months later I went climbing in the Waddington Range with Mark Wilford and James Blench. We climbed the southeast ridge of Mt. Asperity, bivouacing where the mountain, and our wits, allowed, then climbed the north face of Bravo Peak in one long day and postholed back to camp.
“Well, I think I’m about done,” Mark said. “You happy?”
“I’m happy. How about you, James?”
“I don’t have to climb anymore.”
We are all fathers of young children, and what I had noticed most was that every time I faced a decision about risk, I saw Catherine and Rosemary. I saw their faces. Every time. I saw their faces.
Coming home early felt good.
In 2006, Barry Blanchard wrote “The Calling” for Issue 15. In writing his new memoir, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, Blanchard used the Alpinist feature story as a springboard to continue exploring the climbs and partnerships that developed from his childhood musings growing up in Calgary.