Letter to the Editor Alpinist

Barry Blanchard climbing

Keep Climbing

As I read Barry Blanchard’s article in Alpinist 67, “The Pugilist at Rest,” a flood of memories came back from the time he introduced me to climbing in the Canadian Rockies. It’s not easy to forget Barry. I met him during an introductory course on Mt. Athabasca with the Yamnuska Mountain School during the late 1990s. When he approached me, I immediately felt his projection of inner strength. The fear of climbing my first real mountain dissipated instantly. With his genuine smile and far-reaching gaze, he encouraged me to embrace the experience.

The next morning, we mustered in the predawn dark. A sneaky raven had stolen my bag of energy bars. Leaving the bag unattended seemed like a rookie mistake. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone, so I decided I’d have to climb my first mountain without food. Meanwhile, Barry’s presence calmed the nerves of everyone in our group as he led the way to the toe of the glacier, where we tied into our harnesses and did our safety checks. The snow and ice were still crunchy hard, and we moved quickly upward, stopping several times to cross deep crevasses. Now and then, Barry would smile, give us reassurance, and share a story or a piece of information, while he worked on instilling the joy of our endeavor and describing the sacredness of our surroundings. This wasn’t just a climb for Barry: it was a quest, a mountain mantra spelled out with hands, feet and breath in a wild place.

It felt nerve-racking to leap over the bergschrund at an upward angle: jumping across, I caught sight of the bluish void below. But Barry watched over his students like a cat, mindful of our every move, ready to spring into action. On the final ridge to the summit, I felt naked from the void on either side of me, and I imagined falling thousands of feet to my death. Hunger seemed to drain me to the core. I took a deep breath to control my dizziness, and I focused on getting my boots into Barry’s steps in the snow. Suddenly, I felt myself ram into Barry, who had stopped. “Hold it,” he said. “We’re on the summit. Dig in with your axe.”

I laughed inside and thought about the saying When you get to the top, keep climbing. Standing on the summit of Mt. Athabasca—after slogging to the glacier in the dark, crossing the crevasses and the bergschrund and then experiencing that sense of vulnerability on the ridge—I felt my heart beat wildly. Now, with my ice axe firmly planted into the snow, I was overwhelmed by grandeur of the Canadian Rockies: rock spires rose all around me, higher and more awe-inspiring than any human-made cathedrals. This feeling was what I had been searching for.

The way down became a lesson in endurance: the snow had turned mushy, and we sank up to our knees with each step. I cursed the raven for stealing my energy bars, and I fantasized about devouring a pizza as soon as I got back to Banff. In the campground, one member of our team produced a cooler, and beer began to flow. Barry congratulated us with a warm smile, a hug, and heartfelt congratulations. We all knew that we were a part of his climbing fellowship now, and I was hooked. I spent the next ten years seized by a sort of mountain madness as I traveled in search of sublime ranges. Eventually, I exhausted this obsession, and I moved on to new adventures in the deserts, rainforests, and oceans around the world.

Recently I read Barry’s book, The Calling, I felt reeled back into alpine landscapes. This narrative—followed by Sharon Woods book, Rising, and Geoff Powter’s essay collection, Inner Ranges, which both contained in-depth portrayals of Barry—reminded me of what a vital role he has played in the climbing community. The beauty of Barry is that he never becomes stagnant: he continues to pursue new routes and beautiful lines with joy. Yet besides being a climbing rock star, he still has the willingness to inspire, teach and praise his fellow climbers. Barry is a real buddy to all those who embrace mountain culture.

It is satisfying to see Barry Blanchard emerge as a fine writer and mountain statesman, with that rare ability to share gripping mountaineering experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Pugilist at Rest,” and at times I felt as if I were on the climb with Barry and Mark. It is refreshing for me to read Barry’s praise of his climbing partner throughout the article, to perceive his genuine friendship and admiration for Mark, and to glimpse how the St. Elias Range stirs Barry’s soul and resonates with his deep connection to his Métis heritage. When Barry visualizes Walter Bonatti, I can’t help making the comparison between the two.

There are certain talents so outstanding as to be beyond all dispute, certain gifts which must come straight from the gods.

This quotation from Fosco Maraini about Bonatti sums up how I feel about Barry. He has been blessed with rare gifts, beyond dispute, ones that have allowed him to play a key role in the select world of cutting-edge climbers. I feel blessed to know Barry Blanchard and to have been introduced to mountaineering by him. Through his guidance and wisdom, I came to see the mountain experience as a spiritual quest, where I could develop a relationship with the natural world. I can still see that satisfied look resonating from Barry’s eyes as he gazed out over the landscape below from the summit of Mt. Athabasca. We were both right where we were meant to be.

—Tor Torkildson Hovland, MN