Wednesday, November 1, 2006

‘In the story’: Cape Elizabeth author Clint Willis explores himself in a biography of others

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Clint Willis grew up reading the stories of adventurers like Chris Bonington, a twentysomething English climber around whom collected a group of young mountaineers who would redefine their sport, and, for some, the definition of the possible.

Willis, a longtime rock climber who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, read their climbing journals, spending as much time between the pages as some of the writers spent on the sides of mountains.
And when he grew up, Willis, rooted in rock climbing, made the intellectual leap to mountaineering. He has never climbed a big peak, but that didn’t stop him from bringing armchair adventures to a wider audience, beginning with the November 1997 publication of Epic: Stories of Survival from the World’s Highest Peaks. It was the first of a series of anthologies of particularly strong writings by mountaineers pushing the limits of their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Following shortly with High: Stories of Survival from Everest and K2 and Climb: Stories of Survival from Rock, Snow and Ice, Willis created collections, as he noted in introductions to several of them, that were the kinds of anthologies he himself wanted to read. Those books and about 40 others published the stories that didn’t make the headlines — except maybe in passing — but were true-life, human stories of a person or a small group going well beyond what most of us think we can achieve, doing something incredible, and surviving.
With his newest book, The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation, Willis heads into new territory. But though it is not an anthology and he has written every word, the stories he tells are still very dependent on the writings of others. (Some were even included in his earlier collections.) The book, on local shelves now, has been named a finalist in the “mountain literature” category at the prestigious Banff Mountain Book Festival (with results to be announced Thursday).
Bonington and his friends attempted — and climbed — some of Europe’s most spectacular peaks — the Eiger, the Bonatti Pillar of Petit Dru, the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc — and made early or first ascents of Himalayan routes thought by many to be unclimbable. Their efforts were monumental, their suffering at times crippling, their survival seemingly impossible.
What’s more, they climbed these peaks with little or no support from the traditional climbing establishment, and largely without native porters or sustained “siege-style” assaults, like those common on Mount Everest even today.
These men were legends-in-the-making; among them were Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman, whose writing was nearly as powerful as their climbing, and Don Whillans, who invented the high-altitude shelter known as the Whillans Box on a series of climbs with Bonington. But it was their writing that earned Willis’s respect, almost more than their physical and mental exertions. “These guys are my heroes,” he says.
Willis writes as though he’s an expert mountaineer who knows firsthand the cold and pain and blood of a daring high-altitude climb. He isn’t. He writes as though he witnessed the events he describes. He didn’t. Yet his voice is authoritative because he’s steeped himself in the climbers’ first-person accounts and experienced the thrills and hardships of climbing vicariously for so long that he has internalized the sport’s emotional vocabulary.
He relied heavily on the people about whom he writes, who left detailed chronicles of their exploits as they laid the groundwork for light and fast movement up, down, and through the mountains — their lives quite literally hanging in the balance.
“Almost all of these guys have written about their expeditions,” Willis says, noting that many climbers keep journals of their efforts that include “blow-by-blow” recollections of the most minute details, so precise that — if a climber had three hands — he could, with the right skills, equipment, and daring, follow right along the route as if reading simple driving directions.
The book itself is almost cinematic in its alternation between big-picture “wide shots” of a climber’s position (physically, emotionally, situationally), and tight close-ups where the reader can see the grain of the rock as a climber’s fingers scrabble for purchase. In its transitions between great intensity and great detachment — the drama of a literal cliff-hanger turning into a distant image of a body falling through the sky — The Boys of Everest lacks a consistent tone, which can be jarring when it is not enthralling. And because of its scope, the book is sometimes necessarily choppy, moving back or forward in time between chapters as Willis maneuvers the characters (and their backstories) into position for the denouement: the 1982 assault on Mount Everest that decimated what remained of the team.
Willis has been inspired by these risk-it-all adventurers, not just in his life, but in his writing. He faced challenges similar to the people he wrote about: complete freedom to move anywhere he could conceive of, the cold crush of reality on his dreams, the loneliness of the endeavor, and the fact that he was not in control of what happened next. And he was able to explore his own youthful dreams and visions, much the way the subjects of his books did.
Where the climbers themselves disagree or are silent, Willis has used his imagination — always based on as much research and fact as he could find — to fill in some of the gaps, such as recreating the exact circumstances under which a disoriented, exhausted climber just walked off the edge of a mountain into freefall.
He admits this approach is unorthodox, but he takes advantage of resources many biographers lack: the living memories of the people Willis writes about, or their surviving friends and family, revisited repeatedly over the five years he spent writing the book.
In doing what he called taking “liberties,” he felt a deep sense of responsibility with the stories of his heroes: “all we have to give each other, is the reality of our lives,” he says, suggesting that even an accidental misportrayal would be nothing short of betrayal.
He likened his efforts to “being in the story,” and while researching and writing, found a deeper understanding of the men whose lives and feats had inspired the younger version of himself: “When you reimagine a story this way, you end up realizing that it actually happened,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion.