on his book
Click below for transcripts
"If I get too busy with work and whatever and don't get out climbing enough...I start to go a bit stir crazy. It's an essential part of my daily diet..."
"It's a lifestyle thing, it's not just going climbing but it's also being surrounded by all these climbers..."
"Climbing was ignored for a long, long time as some sort of a sport done by crackpots..."
"Lynn Hill...I'm a better mountaineer than she is but she's a way better rock climber. But it's not to say that I'm a total putz either..."
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Greg Child Takes You There
The MountainZone.com Interview
In his new book, Postcards from the Ledge, Greg Child has the uncanny ability to make you feel like you're there. In some ways, reading Child is almost better than going with him.
In his new book, Postcards from the Ledge, Greg Child writes about a climb on Combatant, a neighbor to Waddington in British Columbia's Coast Range. A week into the climb, high on the route, Child is enjoying himself so much he speculates about a climb with no end — a hard, graceful alpine route that goes on forever.
"Nothing in me wants the climb to end," he writes. "I feel content to keep going for another seven days, and maybe, another seven after that..."
It's this innate love of climbing, and Child's unique ability to relate it with humorous self-deprecation, that makes his books stand out among the current surge of mountaineering narratives. Combined with his irrefutable bona fides — K2 and Everest seem the least of his achievements when measured against his record of long, hard, mixed alpine routes on objectives such as the Trango Tower, Shipton Spire and various routes in Alaska. Child's skill as a writer may make his the defining voice of climbing for a generation.
Just back from a long new route in the northern reaches of Canada's Baffin Island, Child spoke to The Mountain Zone about his new book, his recent climb, and the current mind-boggling popularity of all things relating to climbing. He also talked about why he climbs.
"I love to climb, I always have," Child said. "It's a pretty simple thing. For all the complexities that exist in climbing, it's actually a very primal thing for those who do it. It's true that climbing meets some kind of basic need in me. All I know is that if I get too busy and can't go climbing, I start to go a bit stir crazy. It's an essential part of my daily diet, it's an important part of my make-up, probably because I've done it since I was 13 or 14 years old." Like many of Child's climbs, his most recent was a hard mixed route in a remote area with an all-star team.
"Baffin Island has a totally different character than most other places," Child said. "We were climbing above the Arctic Circle in this area where the Inuit people live. The Inuits in fact took us where we wanted to go on snowmachines. The wall has no real name, we ended up calling it Great Sail Peak. It was a pretty wild trip — a big route, about a 3800-foot vertical cliff, and we spent a good three weeks on it. It was actually an assignment for National Geographic (the story is due out in January '99, with a television program to follow). We had not only four climbers — Alex Lowe, myself, Mark Synnott and Jared Ogden, but we had Gordon Wiltsie taking photographs and John Catto shooting video, so we had a large group moving up the cliff. The photographers jumared, we led, but everybody was living in Porta Ledges as we moved up the face. It was wild."
The fact that the climb, which previously may have been known only to a handful of climbing aficionados, was deemed suitable content for television and a popular magazine underscores the increasing public hunger for information on mountaineering.
"Until recently, the average person just didn't have access to information about climbing," Child told The Mountain Zone. "I think climbing was ignored for a long time, it was seen as a sport performed only by crackpots. The popular media never paid attention to it, I think it was considered too ridiculous. And there were very few journalists or photographers who could hack the hardships of being there, so there was no way of knowing what was going on. But now there are climbing reporters and photographers, and there's the Web, and there are small, lightweight video cameras. All this technology happened a couple of years ago, and it all came together around the Everest disaster of '96.
"I spend a lot of time traveling around for The North Face giving slide shows about the various climbs I've done. I've noticed recently that everyone who comes has read Jon's (Krakauer) book (Into Thin Air) and now wants to know about the next thing in climbing. There are still misconceptions, such as the fact that all climbers have some sort of death wish or are risk-taking loonies, but it's amazing how well-educated people are becoming about climbing."
Child began climbing as a teenager in his native Australia, where he established a number of impressive rock routes before making a pilgrimage to Yosemite. It was there, more than 20 years ago, that Child first made a name for himself as a climber on big walls such as Aurora and Lost in America.
"Yosemite is a special place for me," Child said. "I admired those guys who made early climbs on El Cap and Half Dome. So as soon as I could afford it I bought a ticket to Yosemite, to go there to try those big walls myself. It was a life, or a lifestyle, that revolved around climbing. It was a pretty rich life there, an era that will never come again."
As for writing, Child concedes he has no formal training. It was by doing it that he became good at it, but he clearly started with a talent worth honing.
"I have a strong desire to relate stories," he said. "It's something that is as strong a desire in me as the act of going climbing. Since I go climbing a lot, I think about climbing a lot, so it makes sense that I would write about climbing. But I had no formal education. I just went through high school, never went to university, never took writing courses. I just started writing stories about what I had experienced. Some of the early ones were no doubt pretty lousy. But people seemed to like them."
Child now has four books to his credit: the outstanding Mixed Emotions, the earlier Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalaya, and Climbing, the Complete Reference.
"The stories in Postcards are not really about any special thing — they are about foibles, or notions about climbing that pop into your head. Some of them are almost like dreams. The stories in the book are about things that all climbers can relate to, they are the same experiences we all have had — they are not just mine. And most of those pieces are pretty short, just a couple thousand words," Child said.
Child covers a lot of ground in his new book, from bivouac-roids, to what it's like having his mom sit in the front row at his slide shows, to the "dirtbag scoundrels" he lived among in Yosemite. Highlights include a climb with Lynn Hill in Kyrgyzstan, a 24-hour non-stop marathon up a dramatic vertical crack. During the course of the climb, the good-natured Child marvels at the rock climbing skills of his The North Face climbing teammate.
"That story," laughs Child, "is all about the art of groveling. Lynn is a phenomenally good rock climber, much better than me, but I'm a better mountaineer and groveler. She's is an incredible climber, but it was going down where I could really shine, groveling down through the crap and dirt on my butt while she was very dainty about where she put her feet."
As much as any other in the book, the story points out Child's tongue-in-cheek style, and his marvelous ability to tell the tale of a demanding climb without having resorted to hard-man clichés. He is secure in his strengths as both a climber and a storyteller, and that gives him a perspective on writing that is unique in climbing, and often hilarious.
Postcards also includes two impressive journalistic examinations into climbs, or claims to climbs, that are in question. One is Tomo Cesen's claim to have soloed the south face of Lhotse. Almost reluctantly, Child gathers the evidence — purloined photos, changed stories that slowly mount up as to be overwhelming. Another is Lydia Bradey's claim to have made an oxygenless ascent of Everest, a claim that was, at the time, vehemently denied by Rob Hall. Through exhaustive research and tireless fact-checking, Child grinds through the claims and counter-claims of these two incidents with a doggedness that puts the lie to his casual approach to climbing stories.
"I thought these were two very important stories to write about," he said, "and I felt like I was in a better position than other journalists to do so. Things can get ugly when a simple climbing controversy leaves the arena of a localized dispute between climbers and enters the realm of public controversy. It can be incredibly destructive."
Postcards from the Ledge is a worthy successor to Child's previous book, Mixed Emotions. Another climber, Todd Skinner, has said that when you're reading one of Child's stories, he has an "uncanny ability to make you feel like you're along" on the climb. In some ways, reading Child is almost better than going with him. In his good-natured Aussie way, Child tells these stories so well that it's more fun to read about his adventures from a comfortable E-Z chair. The reader can leave the other part — getting dysentery in Hunza, or stuck on a ledge for a frigid bivouac, or rapelling off the end of his rope — to Child himself.— Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff