I just finished reading Barry Blanchard's memoirs, which I immensely enjoyed. For those of you who don't know who Barry is, he is a cutting edge Canadian alpinist who was most active in the 80's and 90's, and most known for establishing some of the proudest alpine lines in the Canadian Rockies, as well as pushing the envelope on high altitude objectives in the Himalaya. Barry began climbing when rock protection consisted of pitons and chocks, hip belays and home-made webbing harnesses. Free climbing rock beyond 5.8 was yet to be realized. He was born and raised around Calgary, in an impoverished and violent community, and discovered climbing at a young age. He harrowingly describes his first rock climbing experience.
'His right hand was frantically sweeping the rock overhead as he strived to find something to hold on to. There was nothing. He clanged through the rack and unclipped an orange knifeblade piton and stabbed it at a crack. The pin rebounded from his grip and clattered down the face, pinging into free fall and a whirring rotation before pinging into the head of my right clavicle. My breath exploded in a wave of white pain.'
This kind of narrative is constantly present, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Blanchard doesn't concern himself too much with trying to find a moral in his climbing, and limits his prose to incredibly descriptive stories of his life, which I have always appreciated. At times, however, Barry hits you over the head with description, and his use of simile is substantial to say the least. In most cases, his descriptions create beautiful imagery- pure poetry.
'The last long ribbons of sunlight touched the north face of Alberta: wedding-dress-white ice, abrupt and brutal black rock, and the glowing whit bridal veil of the summit glacier.'
I also learned some new techniques from 'The Calling' that I had never considered, the best example being the "flash-freeze climbing hold", in which you lick your fingertips and place them on an iced-over hold, turning crimps to jugs. Yeah, when you move past the hold, some skin will be left behind, but greatness such as Blanchard's pays no mind to these minor details. 'I hurt, therefore I am.'
The real shining moments Barry achieves in the passages of 'The Calling' are found in the relationships between he and his climbing partners. His partners are as much a part of the book as his own experiences, and he brings the reader to know them, love them, and occasionally grieve for them.
'A travel pack he had used earlier sat on his back and it had a suitcase handle on one side and a rectangular metal frame sewn inside to make it stand like baggage. The shoulder straps could be concealed by a zippered panel on the back.
"T.P., you're a ... lawyer, man," David said. "Buy yourself a proper alpine pack."
"Ya, you cheap b@%*," I added.
"I will just as soon as we get off of this route."
In some ways, I can identify with 'The Calling.' In other ways, not so much. As someone who has spent the last five years living the dirtbag lifestyle in an effort to gain as much mileage in the mountains as I can, I identify with some of his struggles, and found assurance in his perseverance. I would like to think that I am brave and strong enough to push myself to the limits some of his narrative describes, but fear that the desire to take quite as much risk as Blanchard may not be there. Still, there are plenty of passages that simply allude to his pure love of being high in the mountains, which I can whole-heartedly agree with.
Barry is one of those great figures in alpinism who inspire so many, and 'The Calling' is an important narrative for our sport. It is real, and raw, and wildly entertaining. Whether you can relate with some of his near-misses and triumphs, are dreaming of them, or would prefer to white-knuckle your armchair, 'The Calling' is not to be missed.
--Andy Stephen, AAI Instructor and Guide