I read Chris Kalman’s 103-page climbing novella As Above, So Below, in less than two hours. I haven’t stopped thinking about it for the past two weeks.
Taut, gripping, as focused and precise as a free-climb of a 5.12 pitch, the book concerns the Argentine mountaineering expedition of Dave, a lifelong climber, and Aidan, his high pointing prodigy of a son. For Dave, the trip is a return to his youth. While for Aidan, it is his first great quest.
Back home, wife and mother Gail, who is also a climber, is seen in flashback. Her mix of wisdom and trepidation provides a third viewpoint to the drama, as well as a sobering sense of the actual risk. Together, the descriptions of the actual climb, details of the family logistics, and a wry, encompassing overview of climbing itself—as an at-the-gym workout, a sport, and a way of life—provide an entertaining mix of tension and insight.
Simply put, Kalman doesn’t waste a word. But that’s not the reason As Above, So Below, has been keeping me up at night. It’s the completely relatable tragedy at the heart of the story doing that. In bringing the reader so close to a narrative that could serve as a cautionary tale for any outdoor-minded family, he makes it feel like it could have happened to us. Here’s what he had to say about his work.
Why does the world need another climbing book?
I’ve asked myself that question many times. Without getting too philosophical, I guess we need another climbing book for the same reason we need any piece of art. The artist needs to get it out of him or herself, and people need to consume art to remember why eating and drinking and living are worth in the first place. You could ask why the world needs any books after the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Hesse, etc… and yet, authors like me keep plowing on, and readers keep on buying new stuff even when they haven’t read all the 32,598,723,590,235 various classics. Why, I have no idea!
What are your favorite climbing books?
Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman is a kids book I read when I was just a child, long before climbing came into my life. You could call it foreshadowing…I don’t remember thinking, “Oh my god, I have to climb mountains,” I just remember loving that book. Kelly Cordes’ The Tower, Bernadette McDonald’s recent bio of Voytek Kurtyka, The Art of Freedom, and John Long’s Rock Jocks, Wall Rats and Hang Dogs are all classics. John Long’s The Only Blasphemy is one of my favorite short stories in any genre—a real piece of writing perfection. They all inspire me by reminding me you can write beautifully about such a pointless endeavor.
Your characters feel very real, especially in how they talk. How did you create them?
Dave (the main character) is me. Well, he’s who I am afraid of becoming. “Who I wanted to warn myself against,” to borrow a phrase from David Stevenson. Aidan is the son I imagine I probably was. As gifted a climber as I might have been had I started young, but overconfident and naive. Gale was modeled off all the strong and powerful women I’ve been fortunate to know in my life. If I have regrets, it’s feeling like I didn’t develop Gale as deeply as I could have. But she was very foreign to me. She’s the only true outsider to my experience. She sees things I don’t see, feels thing I don’t feel. I’ve thought about writing a sequel from her perspective.
You offer insight into how the “middle classification” of climbing gyms and competitions differs from the wilder aspects of the traditional expedition. For a non-climber, how do these worlds work together?
Do they work together? For the non-climber, imagine a Venn diagram. Above one circle is the word sport. Above the other is the word adventure. Various forms of climbing go into various parts of the diagram. Back in the day, like early 1900s, all of climbing went into the adventure circle. As sport climbing, bouldering and gyms became a thing, more forms of climbing went into the sport circle. Now, I would argue, even many forms of ice and mixed climbing, big wall climbing, even alpinism—areas that until a decade ago were firmly entrenched in the adventure circle—are now sport.
The thing is, sport is more easily quantifiable. You can give it a grade or number to say how “gnarly” or “hard” it is. That makes for good sound bites. Which makes it easier to market, sell products, and make money. So the sportification of climbing is also the commodification of climbing. It used to be about adventure. Now it feels like more and more it’s about the almighty dollar. Does any of this matter? Not really. But for many of us, “climbing” and “sport” mix like oil and water. Sport is where you figure out how to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than everyone else. Climbing is about remembering how small and insignificant you are. The more humbling the experience, the better. So seeing it go the direction of pullups and energy gels kind of sours the whole thing. Climbing is who I am, it’s my identity. But suddenly, I don’t find myself identifying with the community I am supposed to be a part of. It’s disorienting.
There’s a tragedy at the heart of this book. Without giving away the ending, how does that inform what you’re trying to express about the sport?
I was intentionally creating an extended metaphor. Dave is the climbing industry, Aidan is the young climber seeking the industry’s approval. I don’t imagine many non-climbers (or even climbers) will get that, but that was the intention. If you are a young climber, particularly a young male climber, and want to become a pro, you have two choices: 1.) Be born insanely gifted, and be one of the best in the world. 2.) Or be less gifted, but do riskier, more dangerous climbs. For most of us, 2 is the only real option. It’s the path I tried to take before almost killing myself (and for what, free gear?), and it’s the path I’ve seen many other peers seek out either to their injury or demise.
I don’t think there’s an evil marketing exec out there plotting out the death of impressionable young men. But this phenomenon is real, and needs to be addressed. When Joe Climber goes out to try some harrowing peak, he knows there’s a chance he could die. That doesn’t mean he has a clue what that actually means… or what it actually feels like to the survivors. You don’t know until you survive the death of loved ones. Then you get an idea of what it means to risk your own life for something as asinine as climbing mountains. Traditionally, it hasn’t been the job of sponsors to iron this point home. But I think it should be. If you’re going to support a kid financially to climb risky things, you better be having frank conversations with that kid, and his parents. I guess that’s why I wrote this book, to try to send that message.
Having finished your novella, what do you think about climbing now?
Exactly the same thing I thought of it before. It’s fun. It’s a great diversion. It’s absolutely worth living the life of a climber. But that said, no climb is worth all the other climbs. Not for me. It’s not really my business whether it is for anyone else. But don’t just come to the kneejerk conclusion that it’s worth it to you because it happens to be worth it to some of your climbing heroes. You are not Alex Honnold, my friend. You are not Ueli Steck. Think deeply, and make your own decisions.
Since this is a gear site, what’s your favorite gear?
I’m supported (in a vague and casual way) by Metolius, but I truly love Metolius gear, especially their big wall climbing products, and the way they do business is way more my style than some of the bigger companies. As for clothing, Patagonia and Outdoor Research have my heart. The products are good, but I appreciate their larger missions. I’m a big fan of Clif Bar for similar reasons. Sierra Nevada beer gives a ton back to the community. I think we should hold the companies that make the products we use accountable to higher causes. My favorite gear is the gear made in a way I deem ethical, and ecologically responsible. Petzl does a great job with that. Sterling ropes I think manufactures in the US. Edelrid has a strong ecological component and makes ropes from recycled fibers. All of that is really cool to me.
Order As Above, So Below.