Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Losing My Religion

"Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then is this worship of the past?"

Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay "Self-Reliance"

I have always had a great regard for the past history of climbing, indeed as a boy I absorbed with great enthusiasm the stories of the heroes of climbing, both European and American. A great body of literature was produced in the period that climbing emerged as a sport, encompassing works as diverse as those of Edward Whymper and Paul Pritchard. Among the authors I admired was naturally Pat Ament, who, with remarkable subtlety and insight, could transport the reader into states of mind and being that no previous writers had really explored. The aesthetic experience of simply being in a place and a time that seemed in harmony with the world was a fount of inspiration that he returned to again and again, seeking, it seemed, some resolution to deeper questions.

At times, I am not ashamed to say, I have modeled my own style on his prose, hoping that I might convey the emotions I have felt while experiencing the natural world through climbing. Ament's writing served as the example of how it could be done, the true path toward an understanding of the world. Or at least it did until this week.

Readers might remember my brief review of his new movie, "Disciples of Gill" which he premiered in Boulder last week. I commended the work on many levels and made a plea for others to support this project. The sole comment that could be construed as "negative" was a suggestion that perhaps the thirty minutes of uninterrupted talking-head style interviews could be reconfigured to include some younger voices, reflecting the long-term legacy of Gill to bouldering.

In an optimistic frame of mind, I forwarded my comments to Pat, hopeful that he would recognize my awareness of the great potential this project had. Well my expectations were rudely crushed as he sent back two messages which have genuinely made me rethink what I had ever seen in him. By the way, I have been writing this blog and responding to critics of it and me for years so I am not thin-skinned. I can deal with criticism, in other words.

Here are a few selected passages:

"There are very clear reasons why I didn't include all the modern voices. That will come in the third film and some in the second. I knew some would feel left out and feel they needed to have a voice in things, being so "masterful" as they are. This film had a different purpose, though, and whether you can believe it, no new or modern climber has any better knowledge of "things" than the old timers."

(I should add that no mention was made of a second or third film at the showing. Nor did I make any comparison between old and new.)

"One person told me the film was a spiritual experience to watch. But you're the first to "cut it down to size." And of course that was predictable that a few would say the film need a modern voice. And then when I told people I will be making improvements, I found it interesting how everyone suddenly became critics and threw out their penny's worth from the peanut gallery."

(He did mention it was a work in progress, seeming therefore to invite comment, not merely adulation)

"You didn't seem to get any of the subtleties of the interviews. Well, those are just of(sic) few thoughts, but that you weren't touched and moved the way so many others were probably doesn't surprise me. You come across as though you need to put me down and put me in my place, in order to give yourself that intellectual credibility or something."

(As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I have repeatedly held up examples of Pat's work as important and innovative climbing writing. As for intellectual credibility, that has never been the point of this blog.)

"People with real credibility told me they were in tears at times and deeply moved. They got it. Frankly your comments made it clear to me you didn't get it. You may have been so engrossed in the pure competitive, rock climbing element you missed the real purpose of it. Or so it feels."

(Not the first time I have been told I just didn't get it, probably won't be the last. But the pure competitive rock-climber in me never will, apparently)

"I think you may do as much damage to yourself as to me, as already people disagree with you, and I think people may get the feeling you have some self-aggrandizing motive."

(I may be doing damage to myself but self-aggrandizing? By writing about a movie? The third one, by the way, in the last two or three weeks.)

I emailed him, naturally, and without trying to sound too pathetic or craven, attempted to explain myself, urged him to revisit my comments and reconsider his own. To no avail. Only silence.

I don't post this as a stinging rebuttal. Perhaps it might serve instead as a warning to others. Be careful about your heroes and be careful about your understanding of the past and the people who were there. History is not just another word for reality.

(In another post I will be exploring more deeply exactly this issue of the 60s and 70s and how they have persisted in climbing. For example, Pat Ament has traded consistently on this theme of "The Golden Age" of climbing. I would like to find some voices that present an alternative and then consider what my "generation" can take from it. Mythology and legend have their purposes but sometimes the truth can be more useful and even more beautiful.)


kevin Murphy said...

I said I would never post on this blog again. (One of your post pissed me off, oh well.) But I must admit I still check it out a couple times a week, and am always impressed by your literate skills, although I may not always agree with you, your post are always well thought out and concise. This post is know different. Sometimes your heros, or whatever you might want to call them, are not always what they seem. Its just apart of life. Keep up the good work. I saw part of the movie and totally agree w/ you. It was well done. But if he is trying to bring it to a bigger audience, he should really listen to some of your critics. By the way, wasn't CG like his prodigy, and there was not one mention of him, just wondering.


Peter Beal said...

Thanks Kevin. Great comment and I appreciate your thoughts.

Michael Kennedy said...

Peter, sorry to hear Pat was so "prickly" about your comments. I haven't seen the film yet but your original thoughts seemed both reasonable and respectful.

I am very interested in hearing your further thoughts on the "Golden Age" and what can be taken from that time (by any of us). Although, like you, I have great regard for climbing history, I'm pretty sure we are living through yet another "Golden Age" right now (or at least something that will be regarded as such by its protagonists 30 years from now).

Really enjoy your work here.

Justin said...

Not sure which is more disappointing, hearing about yet another "hero" letting down and admirer, or an yet another artist completely resistant to criticism.

I remember meeting TM Herbert for the first time, shortly after reading the classic collection 'Camp 4'. He was engaged in conversation with my two older friends (them 40 and 50, me 26). When I chimed in for a minute to ask him a question within the context of the conversation he looked at me as if he was going to puke. Ouch.

This is unfortunate Peter.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to read this entry in your blog, Peter.

I can completely understand how it feels to have somebody you held in high regard...simply 'not get it'.

One can almost hear the yells of the person as they fall off the tower upon which they were previously placed.

I guess one way to look at it that might help: you admired the stories he brought to you. Not him personally.

While the two may go hand-in-hand. Try and remember the stories and less the man?

Enjoy your blog.

Peter said...

Sad to hear, but perhaps a growing problem. With the media continually "pumping" up the players, young bucks are looking up to these "superstars" as heros. Then when they meet them one day, perhaps randomly at the crag, they see a different person: not the media savvy hero, but a regular person who might be having a bad day... Heros are better left for movies and comic books.

I love the Golden Age. Don't we have one every 10 years? I think the key is to not think of Golden Age(s) - at least in terms of where one fits in the climbing world - but to continually believe that this is the best time to be climbing; right now!

Peter Beal said...

Thanks everyone for commenting and please don't construe my piece as a blanket criticism of Pat or his work. As Peter noted, this could have been a bad day or who knows? It's none of my business and I am not judging him. But the deeper theme of looking at the past of climbing clearly, that is material for another post, well really a book. Thanks Michael for the suggestion to follow up on this topic. I hope to get to it very soon.

chuffer said...

Ouch. I too am a big fan of Pat's writing, having read Master of Rock, his Flagstaff Mountain guide and all five editions of High Over Boulder.

Pat has been an artist of one kind or another for all of his adult life.

Approaching your friends/peers with constructive commentary/criticism can be dicey stuff. Approaching legends and/or your heroes is a recipe for disaster ... in one way, shape or form.

Andy said...

Reading your initial review I was excited to hear of something that might be coming out that would be very good for a historical sense.

Hopefully it isn't too home-movie/amateur and something great that is lost because it is executed poorly.

One of the best movies I have ever seen is the movie "Steep". It is about the origins of Big Mountain skiing from the roots to the modern day. It feels like a documentary but watches like an action movie. I highly recommend it to anyone to see what the potential for "The Disciples of Gill" could be.

Fitzel Q said...

We don't know our heroes. Period. We hear them, we revel in their accomplishments, we delve into their exploits on rock(or on the field/court/et al). But, man o' man, we don't know 'em...

akorn said...

Fitzel Q is dead on. Though I think maybe Pat didn't read your blog carefully enough along with all the positive comments (mine included)?

Also, whats wrong with a little criticism?

jriggedy said...

thou shalt not worship false idols

Anonymous said...


Don't feel bad. You have joined a select group that have suffered the sting of one of Pat's blistering retorts. I've known him many years and choose to remain anonymous here just so I don't incur a missive of my own and spend the next week explaining myself to him.

Pat is a wonderful man and climber and worthy of much respect... most notably because he has a wonderful sense of language and a unique ability to express the somewhat intangible beauties of the climbing experience. Not to mention his many accomplishments on the rock itself.

That said, he also has a unique ability to find threat in the most innocuous of sentences, and can't seem to resist the temptation to lash out against those he perceives as slighting him. When you read his writing from now on you'll have a slightly different perspective on his world. It won't detract from your enjoyment of his works... it will just add a little chuckle here and there where it didn't exist before. I enjoyed your blog and thought the criticism was minor and constructive. Good luck to you, and here's to our heroes, humanity and all!

Peter Beal said...

Very well said! Thanks for your perspective on the situation.

Anonymous said...

i would most humbly suggest that that the oak is indeed NOT the completion of the acorn, but only the observed following of this crazy nut.

this nut needs nothing to complete itself, thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

"By the way, I have been writing this blog and responding to critics of it and me for years so I am not thin-skinned."

i will say that of the climber's blogs out there that i read on occasion, yours is one that i appreciate for its level of monologue (i was going to say "discourse", but unfortunately my experience with this attempt has been cut rather short).

which of course leads me to the reply regarding the above quote of yours: you do not seemingly respond well to those who disagree with you (witness the "comment moderation enabled" level of control).

i remember having a "discourse" with you regarding "anonymity", but unfortunately you refused to respond in an open fashion; i wonder if something similar is happening with pat ament?
you do seem like a nice fellow, so i don't want to pass judgement wantonly....

it'd be nice if you addressed this in one form or another?

Peter Beal said...

Dear Anonymous of December 11, 2009 10:30 PM,

"you do not seemingly respond well to those who disagree with you (witness the "comment moderation enabled" level of control)."

I am not perfect by any means. Granted. I therefore try not to jump all over those who disagree and I try very hard not to invent grounds of disagreement or dislike.

Comment moderation actually has very good justification. A previous comment, not published by me and from an anonymous source, made some very serious statements about Pat that I do not see as appropriate for this forum. Other writers cannot live without profanity. Those I edit down as I see fit.

Disagreement is not the issue. I have found that very few serious disagreements have arisen in the course of writing this blog that actually persisted or became rancorous.

The issue with anonymity arises,when, as in the case stated above, things are said about people including myself that are mean, slanderous, or patently false and/or arguments are proposed that have in both their structure and substance, little or no merit. The test for the commenter is simple to me. Do you believe in what you say enough to attach yourself to it? As I have written before, it's not about whether I know who you are, it's whether you know who you are. In other words, are you confident enough in what you say to act like me, who is willing to attach my name to what I say? I don't consider that an unreasonable proposal. If that happens then there is a debate among peers, not an anonymous shouting match.

I prefer discussing what I say with people who identify themselves, but if the arguments are substantial and well-put, I can deal with anonymity. It's a judgment call. When insults and vicious language come out, that's different.

The difference with the situation with Pat Ament is that we both know each other and that the tenor of his remarks indicated an animosity not merely toward my opinion of the film but toward much of the modern climbing scene as well. The Pat Ament that I knew through his writings and elsewhere turned out to be a very different character from that individual who wrote what I posted on my blog. As his remarks were directed toward the review on the blog, I felt my readers ought to know what the author thought of my review. In any event the dialogue was not an anonymous one and the issues ran much deeper that mere like or dislike of the movie.

Anonymous said...

What I've found curious about Pat is why he hasn't offered this film up to the multitudes of mountain film festivals. If it actually makes people cry upon watching it he might make out like a bandit with awards, some cash, and much easier funding for any future projects he might have in mind. As someone who makes "mountain films" I find it mind blowing he hasn't taken advantage of the festivals. My life is much easier now with with several major awards under my arm. Then again it's Pat we're talking about.