Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Soul of the Heights"

This book review was published in the PI a few months ago but due to space constraints they had to cut it down to size (this is normal!).

So here is my piece without the cuts - just thought you might enjoy the read. I know I enjoyed writing it.

Soul of the Heights - 50 years of Going to the Mountains by Ed Cooper (Falcon Guides, 207 pages, $39.95)

Warning: reading this is like falling into a crevasse – it’s going to take time to climb out again. This is not your usual coffee table book– this is a coffee table book with muscle. Even the Foreword by Peter Potterfield and Jim Nelson will stir your soul. Cooper’s mountain images are so sharp that you can almost feel the granite and the crunch of snow under your crampons. I’ve always believed that mountains find us; not the other way around. Thus, anyone who is called to mountains - hiker, climber, photographer, naturalist or reader will find this book hard to put down.

Cooper is considered by many to have been the best North American alpine climber in the 1960s. He is known not only for first ascents but also expertise in photography. Some have climbed with him, including Fred Beckey (though Beckey might contend that Ed Cooper climbed with him).

Climbers are often competitive -- Cooper no exception; “the competition to put up new routes heated up. It was open season on anything by anybody”. In the 1950s-60s climbers vied for first ascents. On a solo climb Cooper wasn’t being paranoid when he thought that Fred might have followed him. Fred and other climbers often mysteriously appeared on the scene as if tuned into a new route by radar.

Coopers descriptions of climbers are evocative. He describes Charlie Bell as a “puzzle to all the climbers who encountered him” and “during a rest stop on one climb, he pulled out a book of Chinese poetry in Chinese and began to read it.” He also climbed with Eric Bjornstad who ran Pizza Haven in the 1960s, a hangout in the University District. Near penniless climbers who dropped in were often the recipients of a pizza made by “mistake”.

Cooper describes how trapped he felt by the necessity of a white-collar job. Jobs were temporary means of making enough money to support the climbing habit - “jobs” were a last resort. Climbing is what mattered and periods of not being in the mountains were merely endured. I recall a climber I knew, who would materialize out of nowhere, showing up with a backpack stuffed with climbing gear, paring his life down to bare essence of what was needed to survive between climbs, including a battery-operated phonograph. After reading Coopers accounts of the free-spirited climbing life you may even redefine your definition of “home”. Is it where you are or what you do?

Despite setbacks this book is about success, not only in climbing but photography. Cooper easily made the transition from large format cameras to the digital age. Hundreds of his black and white negatives from the 1950s-60s were lost but with his digital darkroom he could work with the images he did have from that era, (including prints made earlier from the lost negatives) and restored faded color images as well.

Cooper selected images for this book based on his criteria: “(1) They were historical in nature (2) They represented what I felt were some of my best mountain portraits” (3) They illustrated a point I was trying to make, such as a photographic technique or a physical change in the mountains over time.” Images that didn’t fit into a particular chapter are featured in “Mountain Portrait Portfolios”. The photos hint of the extreme physical effort it took to get to such places as the east face of Bugaboo Spire (the cover photo).

His first ascents include Mount Terror (North Buttress route), the Coleman Glacier Headwall, the Torment-Forbidden Traverse and more. Cooper and Jim Baldwin put in a new route on El Capitan (Dihedral Wall) – still one of the most challenging climbs in Yosemite. The climbs are described so vividly you can almost taste the moss that Cooper and Jim Baldwin sucked for moisture when they ran out of water on a climb of The Chief in British Columbia.

It occurred to Cooper that he might not get killed while climbing so he came up with a Master Plan. The plan was to make a living doing what he loved most namely climbing and photography. The long-term plan was to find a job he could bear, “work for 8 years, make a pile of money, retire, and spend the rest of my life searching out images of nature.” He got a job in a brokerage firm in New York but hated it, especially having to don shirt and tie, his “personal straitjacket”.

His outlook improved when he was transferred to San Francisco - not only were there mountains nearby he also met his future wife. The “straitjacket” came off as soon as he began to earn money from his photography. In 1969 he was commissioned by the Seattle Mountaineers to photograph the Alpine Lakes, a dream job and the beginning of many successes. The Coopers created a stock photographic library and a line of post cards featuring California’s wine country. In 1994 they were able to sell their business and spend time doing things important to them – photography, climbing and for Debby Cooper, establishing herself as a poet.

On photography Cooper cautions, “think about the possible obsolescence factors in what you acquire”. As to climbing Cooper offers simple wisdom: “never, ever take a shortcut unless you are absolutely sure it is safe, and never, ever underestimate a climb and the effect of changing weather on your situation.”

For those of us in vintage years this book may bring back memories not only of dreams that came true or those that didn’t but what it was like to be young in the 1960s, when you’d walk into a coffeehouse and see a scrawled message on a bulletin board reading something like “Boy wants ride to anywhere” and something inside you said “Yes!” Times change, the mountains change, photography techniques change but the siren call to the wilderness is never silent.

The book concludes with a section on Technical Data detailing the camera(s) and techniques Cooper used to create images. The book is temporarily out of stock. The publishing company is in process of a re-print but the high quality images require a specific printer and it may a while until new copies arrive. For more information – or

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