Book Reviews January 2012

Freedom Climbers
Bernadette McDonald
Rocky Mountain Books, 2011, 352 pages

Once again banff festival Director turned author, Bernadette McDonald, wowed the Banff Mountain Book Festival jury. Her latest book, Freedom Climbers, garnered the Don and Phyllis Munday award for Mountain Literature—Banff’s top award. McDonald received the award during the book festival ceremony on November 3, 2011. Scarcely two weeks later Freedom Climbers was tapped to receive the coveted Bordman-Tasker Award at the Kendall Mountain Festival on November 18.

With Freedom Climbers McDonald continues to reward readers with in-depth biographies of noted mountain folk. This time, unlike her previous works on individuals —Charlie Houston among others—she takes on a generation of climbers. Freedom Climbers chronicles the “golden age of Polish mountaineering,” the mid 1970s through the mid 1990s. During this era, Polish climbers summited eight of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, in winter, mostly by new routes.

Freedom Climbers is much more than a chronicle of the success and tragedy of the era. McDonald digs deep into the socio-political environment in which this climbing culture evolved during and after the breakdown of the Soviet system. In approaching the subject of Polish climbing success in the Himalayas, McDonald considers the impact of 60 years of violence, oppression and political upheaval on the tight-knit climbing community. In McDonald’s words, “Did the hard times forge their ambitions, or only toughen them, train them in stoicism?” Using in-depth stories of several noted Polish climbers, both male and female, McDonald probes for answers to these questions.

Stories of triumph and tragedy abound; seemingly every climbing success is paired with a fatal fall or a climber who fails to return from a summit bid. Humor also appears at the most unlikely moments. White-knuckle tales of the underground economy (that is, smuggling) the climbers developed to help finance their climbing lifestyles often end on a humerous note.

McDonald deserves the highest praise for shedding light on the remarkable stories of these Polish men and women; their story needed telling—and McDonald does it well, very well.

Stan Miller

Eat, Sleep, Ride: How I Braved Bears, Badlands, And Big Breakfasts In My Quest To Cycle The Tour Divide
Paul Howard
Greystone Books, 2011, 272 pages

Jon Snyder thought it would be interesting to get my take on Paul Howard’s book about the Tour Divide mountain bike race, Eat, Sleep, Ride. I have intimate knowledge of the event so it seemed natural that I could offer a thoughtful review of a Brit’s adventure trying to tackle the longest mountain bike race in the world while experiencing America up close and personal. This was a bad idea.

My failed attempt to break the singlespeed record in 2008 stays with me like a ghost and the witty but hapless travelogue portrayal of the event makes that ghost angry. The reasons for this are legion, but suffice it to say that if I spent time in a German POW camp I probably would like my story better than the Hogan’s Heroes version.

The book is light-hearted but snarky, and completely devoid of bike geekiness. There is no mention of the author’s bike set up, equipment choices or training regimen. He instead focuses on the well-written but unnecessarily critical portrayals of the “bumkins” he comes across during his trek down America’s mountainous spine. The lengthy reiteration of cafe patrons discussing politics and his description of the “pitiful wretch” at Wal-Mart whose handshake left him nauseated ruffled my bald eagle feathers.

Alas, the only real action in this tale comes from the last day of riding when fellow rider Brad Perry is knocked unconscious during a wreck that required some heroic action on the part of the author to get Perry to the hospital from a very inconvenient location in the desert of southern New Mexico.

It is easy to see how the Tour Divide makes a great backdrop for a story. There have already been at least three books and three documentaries, but this book tells a story I am just not interested in. It is a shame because the same year that this book takes place, there are so many good tales to tell—Jay and Tracy Petervary overcoming great obstacles to be the first tandem to complete the route; Chris Plesko setting a stunning new singlespeed record; or the vegan fixie rider Deanna Adams fighting against incredible adversity to finish but then getting disqualified for not doubling back to complete a short section of the route she missed after getting lost.

Like any sporting event, there are the fans and then there are the participants. This book is for the fans. For those that are compelled to compete, their own story will always be more captivating.

David Blaine

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