Tales of climbing and mountaineering adventures have long been written, read and shared, recounting fleeting moments of fear, survival epics and questing on peaks 'unconquered'. With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating climbing stories are often ones that go beyond gear, summits and grades; reflections on wider society and the natural environment permeate mountain literature.
In this series of interviews, prominent climbing writers share 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.
Based in Jeffersonville, Vermont, Katie Ives is Editor-in-Chief of the highly respected US magazine Alpinist. Since graduating with a MFA in Fiction from the University of Iowa, Katie has combined her passions for literature, mountains and mountaineering to become one of the most respected voices in mountain literature. In 2014, Austrian climbing magazine Climax lauded her 'Journalist of the Year.' In 2016, Katie received the H. Adams Carter Literary Award from the American Alpine Club, and was named in the Notables list for Best American Sports Writing. Under Katie's direction, Alpinist publishes diverse longform articles, poetry and essays on all aspects of mountain culture, and is one of a declining number of print outlets in the climbing media industry.
This year, Katie is on the judging panel for the Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature at Kendal Mountain Festival. Due to her keen eye for poetic prose and creative sentence structure, Katie is renowned for her meticulous editing and extensive knowledge of mountain literature. Katie will also be speaking in a session on the future of mountain writing in the Basecamp Tent on Saturday afternoon, answering the question 'Are people still reading Mountain Stories?' On Sunday, she will be participating in the Mountain Equipment Alpinism Session.
I think any good book is an adventure: it takes readers out of their familiar habits of thinking and living into a space that challenges them in some way.
What was the first book you ever read?
My mother taught me to read when I was three or four years old. I can still picture the flashcards she laid out on our kitchen table, piecing together sentences for me, and the labels she put on objects around the house to ensure that I was surrounded by words. We had an enormous library: everything from the faded encyclopaedias that my father collected to the cracked paperbacks that both my parents had accumulated since their school years. By the time I was eight, I'd begun to see the library as a wonderland, waiting to be explored—the pages of its volumes full of unexpected pathways and hidden realms, resembling the forests behind our house. I made no distinction between adult books and children's books. I simply liked to wander from world to world. I loved stories that included adventures most of all—whether those were from Homer's Odyssey, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior or C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. I no longer remember the very first book I read, but the one that had the most impact on my childhood was the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. By the time I was ten, I think I'd read the trilogy at least a dozen times. I was drawn to that idea of a fully created, imaginary realm. And I realised that I wanted to become a writer, myself, to form my own worlds and to invite readers into them.
Which came first: your passion for climbing, or for reading and writing?
The earliest dreams that I can remember were all about mountains. Long before I even knew what climbing was, I had a vivid dream about moving along a corniced ridge, entranced by whorls of snow, following the dim silhouette of a person in front of me. There were two other dreams that have stuck with me: in one, I was in heaven, but I decided to leave because I saw a line of snow-covered, blue-tinged mountains on the horizon, and I wanted to climb them; in another, I was living as a hermit on top of a granite peak, surrounded by countless grey rocks, fully immersed in a sense of wonder, love and awe. So, I guess a longing for mountains has nearly always existed in my mind, perhaps before any other passion did.
As a child, I scrambled on boulders and sea cliffs near our Massachusetts home during the summer. On icy winter days, I hiked with crampons in the White Mountains (Woban-aden-ok) of New Hampshire. But I didn't begin formally rock climbing until college. From the start, the experience reminded me of the kind of intensity that my childhood books had made me long for: the sense of trust and closeness with a partner; the heightened perception of tiny granite crystals, of glittering mica, of dry oak leaves, of reflected sunlight; the feeling of having lived an adventure of my own; the way that even regular existence seemed more radiant afterward.
Gradually, I realised that climbing was going to be inextricable from writing for me. I needed to return to cliffs and mountains to access that state of enchantment and flow—so that I could immerse myself in the rhythm of sentences the same way that I found a cadence in moving over ice or stone. To approach the level of attentiveness to the world that I wanted to express in my words, I had to experience it first through my hands, my body and my eyes.
Which was the first mountaineering or climbing book that you read? Which is your all-time favourite? (and why)
The first nonfiction climbing book that I remember reading was John Roskelley's Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition. If I recall correctly, I think I was between ten and thirteen years old. I'd picked up a worn paperback copy in a used bookstore in a small northern New England town during a hiking trip with my dad and my sister. I was drawn by the vivid quality of Roskelley's storytelling and fascinated by the discussions of alpine-style versus Himalayan-style mountaineering. But I was also unsettled by the debates about women's participation in expeditions. I worried, then, that the climbing world might not be an entirely welcoming place for someone like me. At the same time, I desperately longed to have mountain adventures of my own. My memories of the story became part of a general unease that I experienced during childhood—a sense that in order to attain the kind of existence I yearned for, I'd have to enter spaces where some people believed only men belonged.
During the 1990s and the early 2000s, as I started learning to climb and as I began reading more broadly, I came across mountaineering classics written by women. And the more I researched, the more I realised how many women's stories—as well as those of people of other marginalised groups and less-commonly heard perspectives—had been forgotten within the dominant cultures of mountaineering literature. I learned that role models existed for a wider range of climbers and writers than I'd initially thought, but their accounts were often harder to find, frequently absent from popular magazine articles, local libraries and widespread canonical lists.
Today, I have far too many favourite climbing books to name. As the novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, "Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world, our own…we have as many worlds available to us as there are original artists." Each climbing book gives another glimpse of a different world of the mountains, shaped by someone's unique vantage point.
I particularly enjoy books that explore mountain landscapes in unusual ways. To list only a few: I find myself returning, again and again, to Eric Shipton's memoirs because of his ability to describe mountain journeys as a "way of living…a way of identifying…with this enchanting world." Similarly, Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain depicts a kind of "slow" mountaineering, a quest "to know [the mountain's] essential nature," to find her "way in" by encountering each of its elements, not only its summit. Gaston Rébuffat's Starlight and Storm recalls the value of being on high peaks at night and of experiencing the blaze of stars in an undimmed alpine sky. Daphne du Maurier's surreal novella, Monte Verità, contains a message that resonates deeply with me: "Those who go to the mountain must give everything." And James Edward Mills' The Adventure Gap, as well as Corinne McKay's recent translation of Ang Tharkay's memoirs, represent more expansive and inclusive visions of climbing literature—part of a larger transformation of the genre that I hope will continue in the future.
You studied a MFA in Fiction at the University of Iowa, but which do you find yourself reading more of today, fiction or nonfiction?
Mainly nonfiction history books now. I've been at Alpinist since the autumn of 2004, and even after years of reading climbing books and journal articles as part of my job, I still have so much history left to learn—not only about significant ascents in different countries, but also about the political, economic, environmental and cultural backgrounds that influenced the course of those adventures. I think that the most interesting climbing stories are often those that re-create an entire world for readers—such as Bernadette McDonald's award-winning biographies of Polish and Slovenian alpinists. But to be able to capture that kind of vibrant, multilayered and accurate detail, you need to have spent the time steeping yourself in an era, a community and a place.
How do you prefer to read - printed books or e-books?
I never read e-books. I can't focus on a screen in the same way that I can focus on a page. Many of the books that I need for my work at Alpinist exist only as relatively rare volumes that have not been digitised. Also, when I'm working on editing, researching, writing or fact-checking for Alpinist, I'll often have seven or eight books open at once, spread out across my table. It's just easier to deal with print than with screens in that way.
How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I think any good book is an adventure: it takes readers out of their familiar habits of thinking and living into a space that challenges them in some way. So, I guess all the time.
To what extent does your reading and editing influence your own writing? Who has guided and inspired you in your editing and written work over the years?
I learn something new about writing from each story I read and each writer I work with—from new ways of resolving problems with a draft to new ideas about climbing, about nature, about existence. Each of these experiences helps me to get out of my ingrained routines, to realise the immense variety of possible voices and styles, to become more comfortable taking creative risks and experimenting with new approaches.
As an editor, you need to be able to analyse the various elements of a story—characterisation, plot, dialogue, theme, etc.—to figure out what's missing and to determine how to help a writer put the pieces together into a whole that appears seamless, natural, fully alive. That process offers a valuable form of practice that I can apply to my own writing as well.
I'm usually reading several books at once. For instance, while doing research to assist a writer working on a Mountain Profile, I'll work my way through dozens of books about the history of a particular peak, as rapidly as possible, often in a single weekend. But I also try to set aside time to read for pleasure every morning. A lot of my enjoyment in reading these days is connected to my fascination with editing. I'm lured by elegantly constructed sentences, and I'll read the same book over and over to try to understand how a particular author manages to create beauty out of various combinations of words. And then I'll think about different kinds of cadences I could try with my own sentences.
Do you write for pleasure or practice regularly?
I enjoy all the writing that I do—whether it's for Alpinist or for other magazines or for personal projects, such as the book I've been working on for years. It's all pleasure. I have a habit of trying to jot down a small poem after most of my climbs. It's a way to remind myself to be as attentive as possible to the beauty of the place: the way that lines of frost might sparkle across a cliff in the moonlight; how a star might flicker between the walls of an ice gully or how spindrift might swirl like sea foam down a blue ice flow. I don't want to become so focused on simply getting to the top that I forget the wonder of the experience. "Attention," as the poet Mary Oliver wrote in Upstream, "is the beginning of devotion."
What are you currently reading?
For Alpinist 68, the issue that just went to press, I edited a profile of the Japanese climber Kei Taniguchi, who died in 2015. The author of the article, Akihiro Oishi, mentioned to me that The Neverending Story by Michael Ende was one of Taniguchi's favourite childhood books. Despite all the fantasy novels I'd read as a child, I'd never read that one. Like many Americans of my generation, I simply saw the movie. Reading the book as an adult, in an attempt to gain a better understanding of Taniguchi, I was surprised by how much the story moved me. Partly because, like Oishi, I found myself imagining what aspects of the narrative might have appealed to Taniguchi. And partly because the book reflects so much on the complexity of the worlds we build in our minds.
In the book version of The Neverending Story, the protagonist Bastian re-creates the landscape of Fantastica with every conscious or unconscious longing that he feels. He soon learns, however, that human desires can have unexpected consequences. As a climber, of course, I was drawn to one of the imaginary places: the ice-pinnacled Mountain of Destiny that rises all the way into the heavens. Its lost summit can only be found again when no one remembers that it was ever climbed at all. But I also related to that feeling of endless wandering and erring, of never being certain whether your wishes and choices have brought you any closer to a meaningful destination.
Bastian is supposed to figure out what his true innermost desire is, and through that, who his real self is. By the end of the book, like many readers, perhaps, I'd guessed that the answer to his search would be the attainment of a kind of transcendent love: the only possible way to resolve the tangled mess of the hero's trajectory—and maybe that of some readers' lives as well. Love is a plot solution that seems so simple on the surface. And yet love also becomes so mysterious, indescribable and irreducible in its full meaning and its spiritual expression: in the awareness of the fathomless responsibility it would require toward ourselves, toward each other and the world. I'm re-reading the book, now, because I want to think more about this journey and about how Bastian arrives at its end.
You are committed to broadening the scope of Alpinist to include stories from underrepresented groups. Are you at the point where more people from these groups are contacting you, or are you seeking them out first? Are there trends in how these stories differ from stories conventionally published in mountain journals and magazines, in genre or in narrative, perhaps?
In recent years, we've had an increase in interest from women writers, writers of colour, Indigenous writers, LGBTQ+ writers—which is encouraging. We're still looking to find more writers from underrepresented groups. I spend a lot of time reading other magazines, websites, social media posts, searching for climbers who might have stories to share. I can't generalise about trends in the work of people who are all individuals from widely different backgrounds. As the anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa once wrote to me of mountain literature, "The story should be about the existence of multiple stories and about bringing them to light.... It should involve shifting our focus from one-way-of-being to recognising the multiple-ways-of-being."
In which direction do you think mountain literature is heading? What do you think people want to read about in climbing and mountaineering these days?
I think we're in the midst of a massive paradigm shift in climbing and mountaineering literature—there are a lot of new voices arising, people who are questioning old assumptions, who are looking beyond entrenched formulas and styles. There's also more willingness to experiment, perhaps, than there was in the past. "We are volcanoes," the fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked. "When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains." That's true not just of women writers, but of all less-frequently heard perspectives—each one of these emerging writers helps re-create the geography of possibility that readers imagine in both the wild and in society itself.
In addition, with the awareness of the modern climate crisis, there's a growing sense of a global environment at risk. The changes that climbers see in the mountains—the melting glaciers, the increased rockfall—are signs of greater hazards to human existence that have become impossible to ignore. There's still room for old-fashioned, classic accounts of what Footless Crow editor John Appleby once termed "subzero suffering and derring-do." Articles about major ascents will continue to be important as well. But I think, particularly among newer readers and emerging writers, there's also a desire for stories with complex characters who are trying to make sense of how to live a responsible and meaningful life in an increasingly precarious world.
Alpinist's relaunch in 2008 saw the continued publication of the print magazine, but also a website with news and some online features. In a world where print is under threat (Climb magazine folding here in the UK being the latest example) how do you ensure that people still see the value of print in outdoor media? If Alpinist were to go digital-only, what would be lost, in your opinion?
I'm not sure that the essential qualities of Alpinist would work on a digital-only basis. On a business level, with the decline of digital ad revenue throughout much of the publishing industry, if we were to become an online-only publication, we might have trouble generating enough income to support the in-depth reporting for which our magazine is known. Because of our belief in the value of independent journalism, we haven't wanted to rely on sponsored content or various forms of product placement to make up for that revenue loss. Our online stories are still free to read. Most of our current revenue comes from print sales and subscriptions—hence the high cover price.
Some of the new niche websites that have cropped up in recent years rely on volunteers or on part-time staff because that's all they can afford. Piecing together a 114-page issue of Alpinist four times a year is incredibly labour intensive—everything from research to editing, writing, fact-checking and photo selection—and without the ability to pay a full-time staff (even a small and not particularly well-paid staff like ours), that level of effort wouldn't be sustainable. I often spend more than 80 hours a week on Alpinist. There's no way I could work those kinds of hours and hold down a second job to pay the bills. I'd collapse.
According to reader surveys, the most popular part of Alpinist is generally the Mountain Profile: a climbing history of a particular peak or range that generally runs between 12,000 and 20,000 words. It's hard to imagine something of that nature posted on a website or a social media page. Beyond practical reasons, print has always been at the heart of our artistic vision. From the start, the editors of Alpinist have approached the magazine as a work of art—and there's something about the tangibility of that object that becomes important. A reader can set the magazine down on a coffee table, place it in a bookshelf, turn through the pages slowly and immerse themselves in this world that our writers, photographers, artists and staff have worked to create.
All this is not to say that Alpinist couldn't turn into an online-only publication in the future, if no other options remained, but it wouldn't be Alpinist anymore, it would be something else. It could be a website that might have high-quality writing, but would likely showcase much shorter and less deeply reported articles. I hope that we can always stay in print!
Which climbing or mountaineering biography have you enjoyed the most and why?
Bernadette McDonald's The Art of Freedom. I've long been fascinated by Voytek Kurtyka's minimalist style of climbing and by his philosophies on creativity and human relationships with the mountains. In her biography of him, McDonald unfolds more of Kurtyka's external and internal adventures, and she does so in a way that reads like creative nonfiction. Similar to its subject matter, her book merges climbing and art.
If you could invite two climbing/mountaineering authors to dinner...dead or alive, who would they be and why?
As part of my job at Alpinist, I've already been fortunate to share meals or coffee with many of my writing heroes, so if we're talking about people whom I haven't yet had a chance to meet, that rules out many of today's authors. I guess for this dinner, I'll pick Matsuo Bashō, the seventeenth-century poet, wanderer, and author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I love the way that he captures mountain landscapes in flashes of luminous experiences, right on the edge of what can be expressed. It would be interesting to share a table with him and Gwen Moffat (now ninety-five years old), whose accounts of her roaming climbing life during postwar Britain could make for some fascinating conversations.
Pick some books (however many are relevant) that give an overview of your life with a short sentence describing why each one was important at each stage.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien: the book that awakened my interest in writing as a child.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: I first read these famous autobiographical novels when I was in college. To me, they were like a revelation: the vibrancy of the colours, paintings, landscapes and music in his prose. Later, the narrator's quest for moments of heightened perception and for an escape from ordinary time evoked, for me, the most intense experiences of climbing.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit: I came across this book a few years ago, when I was becoming increasingly interested in stories that went beyond common ideas about exploration. "That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost," she writes in one passage. And later, she adds: "Mystery. That much is certain. It can be a kind of compass."
Trace by Lauret Sauvoy: This book opened up, for me, a sense of what vaster possibilities of present and future mountain literature could be. Although the book isn't specifically about climbing, I felt grateful to learn from the author's approach to topics that often appear in climbing writing (such as notions of the sublime) through varying perspectives of African American, European American and Native American heritages, and from her ability to weave together landscape and memory. Sauvoy's work seems to offer one model for how writers can respond to the complicated issues that humans face in the mountains and in the rest of the world during an era of environmental degradation, climate crisis and political uncertainty. She uses the term re-membering as a means of talking about how to piece together what has been broken: "To re-member is to know that traces now without name...still mark a very real presence. To re-member is to discover patterns in fragments…. For if the health of the land is in its capacity for self-renewal, then the health of the human family could, in part, be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances: as citizens of the land, of nations even within a nation, and of Earth. Democracy lies within ever widening communities.... Re-membering is an alternative to extinction."
Kendal Mountain Festival 2019
Kendal Mountain Festival (14th-17th November) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 19 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.
EVENT: BOARDMAN TASKER AWARD
Established in 1983 to commemorate the lives of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, the Boardman Tasker Charitable Trust celebrates their legacy by presenting the annual Award for Mountain Literature, presented to the author of an original work, which has made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature. Join us to find out who will be the 36th winner of the coveted Boardman Tasker Award...
- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE
EVENT: MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT ALPINISM SESSION, IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE ALPINE CLUB
How has media saturation affected alpinism, especially social media? Society in general is becoming more risk averse; is that true of climbing? What pressure does sponsorship add to brand athletes? Plus there's the question of carbon footprints; should this affect choices in a world of rapidly fading glaciation? Should we extend the ethics of alpinism to include sustainability? And what exactly are the challenges left? Our panel of well-known personalities will debate these issues, hoping to find a consensus along the way.
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