INTERVIEW: Reading Between the Lines - Bernadette McDonald

Tales of climbing and mountaineering adventures have long been written, read and shared; stories of fleeting moments of fear, survival epics and questing on peaks unconquered. Our rich heritage of mountain literature has inspired climbers and writers of today to continue documenting experiences in the outdoors; the extractions from the quotidian that encourage us to reflect on life as we sharpen our political or philosophical beliefs and calibrate our moral compass.

Bernadette signing books at Vertebrate Publishing in Sheffield.
© John Coefield

With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating climbing stories are ones that go beyond gear and grades - ideas and commentary on wider society permeate mountain literature. In this series of interviews, we talk to prominent climbing writers about their reading habits between - or even during - routes and expeditions, focusing not only on the growing realm of mountain literature, but also on books of other genres that have informed their thinking and writing.

Canadian author and editor Bernadette McDonald is one of the most lauded climbing and mountaineering writers of our time, with a particular interest in biographical writing and mountain culture. Having published ten books and won numerous mountain literature awards - including the 2011 Boardman Tasker Award for Freedom Climbers - one might be surprised to hear that Bernadette never intended to become a writer. Bernadette has many strings to her bow as a talented musician with degrees in music and English and a passion for winemaking alongside her interest in outdoor activities. However, as a self-proclaimed 'prairie girl' from the plains of Saskatchewan, becoming a mountain literature enthusiast and mountain culture consultant was an unlikely career path.

'People interest me, particularly people who are complex, not what they seem, conflicted, even difficult. It's why my historical writing usually ends up being more focused on people than on events.'

Bernadette's latest book The Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka is a prime example of her talent for seeking out a story, researching it, getting to know the human subjects of her books and translating their life stories into much more than a flat recapitulation of their climbing C.V. Instead, Bernadette brings out the character and personality of the typically elusive Polish Himayalan mountaineering hero, Voytek Kurtyka. Weaving aspects of Voytek's family background, socio-political and cultural information together with personal writings and insight from contemporaries, Bernadette skilfully portrays his complex pursuit of the 'Art of Freedom', a central theme in Voytek's approach to both mountaineering objectives and to life in general.

Bernadette kindly took the time to answer some questions on her reading habits between festival events, writing, climbing and tending to her vineyards...

What was the first book that you ever read?

Hard to say. My first books were more "memorised" than read. My mother would read them to me so often that I felt I could read them myself, but it would have been impossible at such a young age.

Were you a voracious reader as a child?

Absolutely. We went to the library once a week and left with armloads of books – the maximum allowed. Dad and I often read the Encyclopedia Canadiana in the evenings. I know – strange choice. But we always found interesting things to read about, sitting around the stove on those long, frigid, Saskatchewan winter nights.

You discovered the mountains on a family trip to Banff at age 11. In what ways did they take hold of you to inspire your interest in mountain environments?

I had never felt so connected to a landscape as I did that first evening in the mountains. It might have simply been that particular moment – the stillness, the light feathery snow draped over the spruce forest, the outline of the peaks glistening high above – but it captivated me. It felt strangely familiar and I knew I had to figure out a way to make my life in the mountains. This, coming from a prairie farm girl, was a bit of a stretch.

Ski touring in Kootenay National Park.
© Martin Lesperance

You studied English and music at university and have mentioned that you never set out to be a writer. You were volunteering at the Banff Mountain Festival and eventually became director and founded its book festival. When and how did you marry your passion for mountains with writing?

My primary interest was always music. I studied it as a child and I took it very seriously: piano, voice, theory, history, choir, organ, harpsichord. In university I concentrated on performance, before finally focusing on contemporary music: Stockhausen and those other "wildly popular" composers. Then I became a little more practical and moved into analytical theory of music, which I also found really interesting and which I hoped would guarantee a way of actually making a living. My first experiences at The Banff Centre were as a musician and my first job at the Centre was in the music department. The festival volunteer work was just a relaxing and fun sideline.

When I eventually became the director, there was obviously a lot of writing to be done for all kind of reasons, but it always bothered me that so much attention was given to films and so little to books. That was the reason for starting the book festival, and it became a more thoughtful addition to the festival experience. But even then, my energy was focused on other people's work, not my own. In 2000, when we decided to create a big Summit celebrating 25 years of the festival, an actual book project emerged. Thanks to National Geographic Books division, we put together a collection of essays from some of the most interesting former guests of the festival, along with a history of the festival. I co-edited that book with the founder of the festival, John Amatt, and it was my first real foray into serious editing and writing. Things just progressed from there. I couldn't have predicted it.

What was the first mountaineering or climbing book that you read and which is your all-time favourite? (and why)

I'm not sure about the first but it might have been Herzog's Annapurna. I remember being terribly impressed with it at the time, and not nearly as keen on it when I reread it years later for research purposes. A mountain book that isn't exactly a climbing book, but which did make an impact early on, was Seven Years in Tibet. I still feel the magic from that story, even though I know way too much about the reality of the situation now to fully believe it. My all-time favourite might actually be fiction. I can never decide if Andy Cave's Learning to Breathe or James Salter's Solo Faces wins out. Salter's craftsmanship is so fine.

What is your all-time favourite non-climbing book, and why?

That would be very difficult to say. Actually, impossible. There are writers who I keep going back to: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Pico Iyer, Simone de Beauvoir, Terry Tempest Williams, Donna Tartt, Yann Martel, Alice Munro and Ursula Le Guin. I love Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It's so stripped down.

Fiction or non-fiction? Which do you find yourself reading more of?

It depends if I'm in the middle of writing a book or on a "gap" year. When I'm doing research, I am more or less buried in non-fiction, and loving it. But after a big project is completed, my first choice is always fiction.

You have mostly written biographies. What attracts you to writing about others?

People interest me, particularly people who are complex, not what they seem, conflicted, even difficult. It's why my historical writing usually ends up being more focused on people than on events. I remember an elderly Polish man approaching me at a book signing in Warsaw and chastising me for concentrating too much on the characters in Freedom Climbers, and not enough on the facts. I may not have agreed with his criticism, but his observation was correct. There are non-climbing characters that interest me immensely, but I seem to have settled into a genre. What to do?

Bernadette and Alan, after climbing the Goloritze in Sardinia, 209 kb
Bernadette and Alan, after climbing the Goloritze in Sardinia
© Bernadette McDonald

In your research for a biographical project, you must have an enormous reading list! Do you enjoy the research aspect? How do you choose where to begin?

I don't think I could continue doing this if I didn't enjoy the research. The challenge is when to stop. There are so many different sources of material now, but if I'm working on a project or personality from a foreign country, my first step is to gather everything written about the subject at hand. And by written, I mean published. On paper. In the original language.

Translation must play a big role in your work. Have you learned any foreign languages over your career?

Unfortunately, the foreign languages that I have learned haven't actually helped me much in my writing. My big foreign projects have been in Slavic languages and my brain and ear don't function well with Slavic sounds. I've tried, but the results have been truly pathetic. French and Spanish, a bit of German and Italian are much more comfortable for me to either speak or understand. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your perspective – English is increasingly becoming a language that people use regardless of their mother tongue. I feel horribly guilty about this, but have to admit that it makes my work somewhat easier. Still, I do use a lot of source material in its original language.

Biographies blend life stories with history. Do you read historical books widely? What attracts you to read and write about Polish and Eastern European mountaineering history in particular, with regard to Freedom Climbers and The Art of Freedom?

I enjoy reading history in a general sense, but my main motivation with Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors was to bring these stories to an English audience. I think it's only natural that we tend to know and care about stories close to home, about people whose names we can pronounce, more than those from farther afield. But once I started to learn about the Polish and Slovenian and Croatian alpinists, about their climbs and their families and incredibly difficult conditions, it seemed important to tell that story to a wider public. I know that some people question my motivation and my authority to do so, but it felt important to me and well worth the effort.

The book about Voytek Kurtyka, Art of Freedom, is a different thing altogether. This is a character who is all of those things that I find interesting: complex, elusive, intelligent, conflicted, cerebral, wickedly funny. In my opinion, his story had to be told, and I doubt he will ever do it. If for no other reason than to get his climbs on record, the book needed to be written, and he agrees that this is the record of his climbing career. But I think his story is much more compelling than that.

Do you think biography as a genre is still attractive to people, in a day and age where people can find so much information on the internet?

Perhaps climbing and mountaineering – despite being well chronicled in some areas – is different, though? To answer your first question, it is to me. I love to read both biographies and autobiographies. I love all the detail and the analysis and navel-gazing. Simone de Beauvoir was a master. As for climbing biographies, I'm not so sure about that. Because of the "heroic" nature of the activity, it's very easy to remain on the surface and never go deeply into what really matters. There are wonderful exceptions.

Which climbing or mountaineering biography(ies!) or autobiographies have you enjoyed the most and why?

As I mentioned earlier, Andy Cave's Learning to Breathe, more recently Simon McCartney's The Bond, and some of David Roberts' early writing go so much deeper into emotions of fear and regret and searching for some sense of truth. They're also very well written. I also really enjoy Jim Perrin's biographical work. It is devilishly funny.

Voytek and Bernadette at the Piolets d'Or in La Grave, France., 188 kb
Voytek and Bernadette at the Piolets d'Or in La Grave, France.
© Piotr Drozdz

In the case of Voytek Kurtyka and Art of Freedom, you knew how elusive he had been in the past. Was this a big draw for you? How did you approach Voytek - as someone who has eschewed fame and attention for so long - about the project?

It's true that he is elusive, but I never had a problem communicating with Voytek, before or during the writing of the book. I think, at some level, I understand him. Not completely, of course, but at least enough to tackle this project. I actually approached him initially as a joke. The French publisher of Freedom Climbers wanted to use a youthful portrait of Voytek on the cover. I sent the cover to him for his permission, which he granted. It was a goofy, joyful portrait of a very young Voytek, and it prompted me to fiddle with the design and send it back to him with a new title: Voytek's Book of Lies. He was amused. More back and forth with increasingly outrageous titles until one day it dawned on me that I should ask a serious question about writing his biography. I thought I knew what the answer would be, but felt I should at least ask. I was wrong about the answer. He said yes.

'Writing a biography, particularly of a living climber, sometimes feels as difficult as climbing an 8,000er. And to write that biography of a climber as complex as Voytek felt like doing it night-naked style.' - Introduction, The Art of Freedom.

You describe the book in the introduction as a 'literary bivouac' on Voytek's path in pursuit of the art of freedom. How much freedom did you have as a biographer to interpret his memories, which – as you say – are selective, malleable and imperfect?

I had a lot of freedom, except with the actual descriptions of the climbing sequences. Voytek wanted to read them before the book was published because he wanted them to be absolutely accurate. I agreed, because he always said that this would be the record of his climbs and it needed to be true. But what is truth? We had many long discussions about the smallest details because his memory and other climbers' memories were often not the same. It's one of the most interesting things about this kind of project, but also one of the most frustrating. A moveable feast. But I had complete freedom to interpret him in all other aspects. He didn't always agree with me, but on the really important stuff, I think we are in accord.

Voytek's father had a successful literary career and it strikes me that Voytek wrote a lot of diaries and articles over the years and is clearly very expressive in his writing. How do you think an autobiography by Voytek would read, if he were pushed to write one?

I think he will write something more and it will be a philosophical essay of some sort. I don't think he is remotely interested in writing the details of his life but rather the meanderings of his mind, which are fascinating.

Who has inspired your writing from the world of mountain literature? Any favourite authors?

As mentioned above, I admire David Roberts a lot, not for one particular book, but for his consistent professionalism and some great introspective writing. James Salter stands out, even though he only wrote one book that could be called mountain literature. He is such a craftsman.

Who is your favourite non-climbing/mountaineering author?

I can't choose. It's not fair.

Bernadette climbing at Skaha Bluffs, British Columbia.
© Rupert Wedgewood

Do you devour books whole or dip in and out of a few? How's your attention span?!

I devour books unless it's research, in which case I dip. My attention span is pretty good and I attribute that to years and years of practising the piano for many hours a day.

How do you prefer to read - printed books or e-books?

I've actually never read an e-book, other than to edit it. I guess I represent an older generation, but there is something wonderful about the feel and smell of a book. I get really excited in libraries – almost agitated. I don't think I could feel that way about a gadget full of e-books.

In your roles within mountain culture at the Banff Centre and beyond, what trends (if any) have you noticed in mountain culture? Are there more women involved in mountain culture now, for example? In the age of free films on the internet, are people still interested in reading and writing about mountains and their people?

I think the meaning of mountain culture is evolving in ways that are heavily influenced by the internet and by young people. It is so much more accessible, and so it becomes more mainstream. I don't actually see this as a negative thing, because with a growing critical mass, there will surely be more people who probe more deeply into the "big questions" surrounding mountain culture, many of which are environmental. Women are definitely playing a much larger role in all kinds of ways: writing, films, research, speaking out. The female perspective.

Is the relationship between your own climbing, walking, skiing and writing symbiotic - do the activities inspire your writing?

There is a close relationship because my understanding of the activities that I'm writing about is based on reality. I know what it feels like, at least to a certain extent. I'm just a recreational mountain person, so I'm not operating at the same level as many of my characters, but some of the best stories emerge when we are out climbing together, or on a trail.

Bernadette's passion for winemaking and grape growing complement her outdoor activities.
© Bernadette McDonald

If you could invite two climbers/mountaineers to dinner, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

I would definitely want to invite Wanda Rutkiewicz, but who else? So many of the others on the imaginary shortlist didn't get along well with her so that would be no fun at all. Maybe Wanda, together with someone young and thoughtful. Marc-André Leclerc. And I would love one more, please…Nejc Zaplotnik. The philosopher poet, the boldness and hopefulness of youth, and Wanda, the one and only Wanda. I think we would start with some Prosecco, move to a luscious Viognier, then a few bottles of robust Syrah. Oh, and some food of course. Gosh, Voytek loves Syrah, so he really must be there as well. He and Nejc would so enjoy each other's company. But would he and Wanda argue? Oh well, who cares. It would be highly entertaining and with enough Syrah, I'm sure everyone would have a ton of fun.

Which climbing story or biographical account do you think should be translated to a film, that hasn't yet been?

Voytek and Robert Schauer's climb of Gasherbrum IV could be an incredibly dramatic film, with the right actors and a sensitive director.

To what extent does your day-to-day reading influence your own writing? (non-climbing literature specifically)

I try to choose my reading with some care because I think it does influence my writing. But that's true with everything. If I eat crap food, my body will tell the tale. If I listen to crap music, I couldn't possibly play with any sensitivity. The same is true with words. Osmosis.

Which book on your shelf would surprise or shock us the most?

The Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual. I am hopeless. Why is it there? Somebody please take it away. I don't want to be practical.

Bernadette tying vines in her lower vineyard.
© Alan McDonald

Desert island books - pick 8 (or however many are significant) books that give an overview of your life with a short sentence describing why each one was important at each stage. Which one would you take to a desert island?

I'd probably have a bit of time on my hands, so would be tempted to take big fat books. Then again, if I had that much time, I might be tempted to do some writing. With that in mind…

  1. A good dictionary. It's a big fat book and endlessly interesting. Also, helpful if I was to write.
  2. The Mandarins - time for a second read.
  3. Donna Tartt's next book - I don't know what that will be but I'm sure it will be a great work and her books are so nice and long.
  4. Le Guin's The Wave in the Mind - I keep dipping into this book to learn, be inspired, laugh.
  5. Alice Munro's complete collection of short stories. Yum.
  6. Günter Grass' Danzig Trilogy - I know that's actually three, but I've recently become acquainted with his stomping ground in an area of Poland that makes me curious about his relationship with that landscape.
  7. The World Atlas of Wine - Fascinating and beautiful and so much to learn.

Ok, you can take a luxury item too...what would that be?

A source of music. Anything that would give me unlimited access to music. Either that or an accordion. I've always wanted to learn to play the accordion and a desert stay might be just the time to do it.

What are you currently reading?

I'm rereading something for research purposes – Mirella Tenderini's biography of Gary Hemming.

What's next on your reading list?

I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read any Kazuo Ishiguro so I must. Any advice on where to start?

Read a humorous essay on UKC by Voytek Kurtyka about his life.

Kendal Mountain Festival, 139 kb
Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.

We are delighted to be joined by award-winning writer Bernadette McDonald at the Festival, expect to be captivated by her exploration of the life of elusive Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka. Bernadette will be discussing her book The Art of Freedom at an event on Saturday 18th November 15:30 - 17:00.


Forums (5 comments)

A great interview - many thanks to both participants. Absolutely. The Hunters, based upon Salter’s experiences as a combat pilot in Korea, is also superb. Interesting… given that Solo Faces is a roman...
Thanks very much for this. Yes, if it wasn't for her, all those high achieving eastern mountaineers would have been lost to me. Being unable to pronounce their names and much to my detriment, I'd previously skip the...

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