Climbing a mountain of expectations: September’s annual assessment

by Raymond Parker on September 13, 2012

in Adventure, Autobiography, Climbing, Photography, Writing

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

~René Daumal

Don Serl among Mt. Baker seracs, Oct. 12, 1981

September is my favorite month—perfect for cycling and other outdoor adventures when it’s sunny and cool—but also, as I once lamented in a poem, a month of compromise: What projects to cut loose or put on hold? What relationships encourage, what hold me down?

As the annual clock enters its final quarter, a time of assessment arises: What did I accomplish, what did I fumble and fail to finish?

This blog has come under such scrutiny: is it worth the investment of time and resources? Does it command energy that might be better directed at core interests?

The obvious answer (from my inner arbitrator) is that this cyber space serves as both inspiration and showcase for my work, not to mention a valuable sounding-board through readers’ comments.

When I was confined to bed for a lengthy period, after “The Accident,” VeloWeb was literally my lifeline, an umbilical to sanity and community. It is less so these days, but I still value its place in my life. I hope you like it too. I hope it adds value to the cycling community and beyond.

I’ve moved incrementally on a couple of fronts since returning from my northern expedition. Speaking of my recent holiday, I now have a huge backlog of stills and video awaiting editing, besides the handful of images I posted here during the trip. Will I use winter wisely enough to turn them into something useful?

Thanks to my friends Stephen & Carol Hinde, there’s new content on the Reader’s Touring Bikes page, featuring their custom Dekerf bikes, beautiful adventure machines!

I’ve also added a new Garage post on a rusty subject: preserving steel bike frames. This is a small part of a larger project I’ve been clawing my way through for almost a year. Will I complete it before the snow flies?

Meanwhile, I try to tie up enough ends to rationalize a writing retreat, a sojourn that I hope will complete, or at least polish, the biggest unfinished project in my portfolio: a book I abandoned more than a decade ago.

Recently I heard through the climbing grapevine that old Mountain Equipment Co-op colleague and prolific mountaineer Don Serl had celebrated his 65th birthday. The 15th of last month also saw the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Canadian Everest Expedition, on which Serl was a team member.

I lost my mountain mojo in the mid-eighties, around the same time as I lost my job at the now-monolithic outdoor gear outlet. Serl lasted somewhat longer in the MEC mill, and continues his alpine exploits.

This news inspired more nostalgic assessments. Having developed my commercial photography career shooting MEC catalogues in the early eighties, with Serl’s support, I left Vancouver for Toronto in pursuit of the summit of commercial photo fame, only to find after two-years that there was too much adrenaline and too little air in the game for my liking.

I pursued prima donnas, who as Leonard Cohen put it “preferred handsomer men.” The last made it her ambition to remind me how far short I fell on the dance-floor, in the sack, and in the vertical world.

I was used to covering these inadequacies under the mantle of Mountain Man, but browbeaten by a ballerina, lost on crowded subways, I abandoned my station as purveyor of irresistible images of useless things. The high-flying advertising executive took a nose dive.

(Bruce Robinson’s hilarious film How to Get Ahead in Advertising, from George Harrison’s HandMade Films, eerily echoed my experience in the industry. I saw it, after my retreat from the studios of Toronto, as the screenplay for my own comedy of errors).

I washed up back on the West Coast, took a kayaking course, and reinvented myself as The Old Man of The Sea, a persona my former Vancouver climbing buddies regarded as strictly lightweight—a pastime “for old men.”

I descended into what John Lennon might have diagnosed, In His Own Write, as a “nervous breadvan,” others a simple case of self-pity. But it was the Salish Sea that rescued me. Perhaps I’ll examine that salty history in future posts (votes from kayakers?)

In the meantime, I still treasure those mountain memories. I was lucky enough to play in some of Canada’s grandest mountaineering amphitheaters, before they were “discovered.” I enjoyed a fairly short period during which my constitution was suited to the physical and mental demands of high mountain adventure. I’d hoped to finish during August a series of posts on the apex of my climbing career. During the next week or so, I will revisit my “Great Days.”

Randobarf September 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm

That’s interesting about Don Serl being on the ’82 Everest Expedition. How far the Mountain Equipment Co-Op has fallen from grace since 1982! I bought an MEC sweater last year that had a defectively spec’d Chinese zipper! I made fun of the new MEC touring bike on the internet! Ray, as you are an MEC insider I request an MEC exposé (with graphic photos). MEC members want to know.

The year after the 1982 Everest expedition Laurie Skreslet was on the lecture circuit. In 1983, by sheer chance, I found myself across the dinner table from Laurie Skreslet prior to one of his lectures in Toronto. It was the only time in my life I have ever been distracted from feeding. I have a morbid fascination with mountain climbing and I was stupefied in the presence of Skreslet. For some reason one of the dinner participants brought up the uncomfortable topic of the deaths of Ang Chuldim, Pasang Sona, Blair Griffiths and Dawa Dorje on the ’82 expedition. I was anxiously anticipating a horrific empty dinner silence at the ghastly waste of lives in the name of Canadian glory. However, as I was leaning forward, pupils dilated, dinner untouched, the topic was defused with a rational discussion of mountain climbing decision-making.

Raymond Parker September 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Yes, Don was among the six who abandoned, after the tragedy in the Khumbu Icefall. As you probably know, the original South Spur line was dropped in favour of a repeat of the voie normale, a route that these days looks like the traffic jam on Chilkoot Pass during the Gold Rush, with some hapless peak-baggers frozen in place. Thing is, the Everest aspirants have paid gold to endure the indignity.

Don came back from the Himalaya with a renewed conviction that the best climbing was to be had closer to home, in the uncrowded and unexplored reaches of the Coast Range, where he has become an authority over the intervening years.

I made the picture above, of him rappelling off a serac, during an ice-climbing practice day on the Coleman Glacier, not long before he went to Annapurna IV, a “shakedown” for Everest.

I’ll briefly mention Laurie Skreslet in my next climbing story.

You can find more scurrilous MEC exposés by following the tag at the end of this story. I have some pretty cool photos taken in the old stores, from the days we could get away with sleeping in bat tents, hung from the rafters.

Incidentally, the season premiere of CBC’s Fifth Estate tomorrow, Into The Death Zone, promises “new, exclusive revelations” about the death of Shriya Shah-Klorfine on Everest, last May.

ofoab September 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

Time flies, and as vintage status we get to ask the old man question, Does this path have heart? Don Jaun or Don Quixote, choose. Here in the loops the old Serl store is now a pizza place and a chinese restaurant. Thanks for the memories. Had a rumble-strip induced dream, Wiggo reading Beano, gotta like the Tour of Britain, fake “burns”on the fans.

Raymond Parker September 14, 2012 at 9:54 am

Either way, I might be titling at windmills.

I totally forgot Don was from “the loops.”

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