If I’d Been a Career 8000-meter Peak Mountain Climber, I’d probably be Dead by Now

I started reading accounts of mountain ascents and attempted ascents when I was in junior high because my father, who climbed mountains in college as I did later, had most of the classic accounts. My target peak was K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, and considered more difficult than Everest. The fatality rate on that peak is about 25%.

In fact, like the successful American climber Ed Viesturs, I wanted to summit all fourteen of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. There have been many bad years on these mountains in the Himalayas and Karakoram ranges, so why go there?

I have no answer, really, because I never made it to any summits higher than Colorado’s 14,0000-foot peaks, some of which my father climbed years before.

I did have an opportunity to trek in to the Base Camp at Everest, but the money fell thought at the last minute.

You have to push yourself on these climbs and know when to trust your instincts when everything about the mountain is against you, especially above the so-called “Death Zone” at 26,000 feet, above which the atmosphere isn’t conducive to long-term survival.

Perhaps pushing oneself is the rationale behind climbing. It was for me because truth be told, one doesn’t have a lot of time for the view. It amazes me, though, how the dreams of a high school student can be just as vital now as they were then. Do you have dreams like that? Things you wanted to do and mourn not doing?


High-altitude dreams

K2 – second-highest mountain

When I was in middle school, I decided I wanted to climb mountains. I was influenced by the fact my father climbed mountains in Colorado while he was in college (something I would do later when I was in college). I was also influenced by the books in our house about early mountaineers’ attempts in the Himalayas (including Mt. Everest) and the Karakoram (including K2) mountain ranges. I never knew for sure whether my father had these books because climbing quests made exciting reading or because he often hoped to climb those peaks himself.

Then, in 1953, when newspapers told the story of the first successful climb of Mt. Everest by Edmund Hillary (New Zealand) and Tenzing Norgay (Nepal), I was sold on the idea that such climbs were possible. K2, which is more difficult, was successfully climbed by an Italian expedition a year later. The family applauded my 14,000-foot peak climbs in Colorado but thought my notions of climbing Everest and K2 were insane. “So what?” I asked.

One of the larger family arguments occurred when I wanted to sign up with a trekking tour group to hike to the Mt. Everest base camp. I admit it was a bit costly (it’s more expensive now!) In part, nobody believed that once I visited the base camp for several weeks I wouldn’t ultimately push for an actual climb later. I probably would have.

For non-climbers, the statistics don’t look good: 14.1% of those who attempt Mt. Everest die on the mountain; 22.9% of those who attempt K2 never come back. But I look on the bright side: more people came back than don’t. Plus, I always said, one isn’t going to die on the mountain unless his/her number is up. If your number’s up, you’ll die some other way–like falling off a stepladder while changing a lightbulb. The family and I didn’t come to a meeting of the minds about the dangers.

Among other things, they weren’t excited about the fact that most of those who die on 8000-meter peaks are still there, impossible to recover. That didn’t excite me either, but it never changed my high-altitude dreams. My family can rest easy now. People my age are no longer allowed to climb Mt. Everest. So now I grieve what might have been and allow the characters in my novels to see the top of the world, a vision that changes everyone who makes a round trip.


I include high-altitude dreams in my novels “Mountain Song” and “At Sea.”

Grand Teton National Park

The most famous photograph of Grand Teton National Park was taken by Ansel Adams in 1942 showing the Snake River in the foreground.

Many photographers take pictures of the Tetons from this side of the mountains.

These days they’re usually in color and often show The John Moulton Barn. I see this view almost weekly on Facebook. If I hadn’t seen various sections of the Snake River when I was young, I’d be tempted to ask: “Is there another side to these mountains and, if so, why don’t we ever see it?”

If I were a fan of conspiracy theories, I might ask for proof that these mountains are more than a giant mural or, perhaps, an exciting arête that’s no wider than a few hundred feet or so.

People have been visiting the Tetons as a 480-square mile National Park since 1929. According to the National Park Service, “Grand Teton National Park took decades to establish. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared additional land in the valley to be Jackson Hole National Monument. In 1949, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated the land he purchased to the government to be included in the national park. Finally, in 1950, Congress combined the original park, the national monument, and the Rockefeller lands to establish the present-day Grand Teton National Park. In 1972, Congress established the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects Yellowstone and Grand Teton, to honor Rockefeller’s philanthropy and commitment to the National Park System.”

Sad to say, I have never been to Jackson Hole or climbed these mountains. Out of youthful stupidity, I skipped an opportunity to attend a photography class led by Ansel Adams in the 1960s because I was in love with somebody who finally ran off and married somebody else.  If I had it to do over again, I would choose a more lasting experience. I might not be a professional photographer, but I would have met the master of western photography and (possibly) learned a few tips. Adams’ distinct style remains my favorite view of the out of doors.

And then perhaps my own camera would have proven to me that the Grand Tetons can be seen from both sides, like clouds.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Albert Bierstadt’s View of the World

When I see the natural world it looks like an Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) painting:

Rocky Mountain Landscape

While Bierstadt is long out of favor for purportedly being overly gaudy, romanticized work, I like the magical impressionism in it. The world I see looks like the world Bierstadt saw.

According to the Bierstadt website, he “was a German-American painter best known for his large landscapes of the American West. In obtaining the subject matter for these works, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.”

Colorado’s 14,065-foot Mt. Bierstadt, near Denver,  is named in his honor. I climbed many Colorado mountains nearby but unfortunately, school called me away to New York before I got to this one.

You can see a wondrous display of his complete works here.


Malcolm R. Campbell is a former mountain climber whose western novels include “Mountain Song,” “Sarabande,” and “The Sun Singer.”

Bryson City, NC: First trip back in 20 years

We go to the Blue Ridge Mountains a lot and have tended to stay in and around Asheville. So it was nice to get away from it all for the last five days and return to the Smoky Mountains. Did a little hiking and sightseeing and looked at the view from our rental cabin.

Our nephew Taylor Campbell who, as usual, is concentrating on his cell phone.

My brother Barry and his wife Mary drove up from Orlando with Taylor. Long drive. Makes me feel guilty (but only slightly) for our mere three-hour trip to to Bryson City from the Georgia mountains.

When we were relaxing inside, we got out one of our typical puzzles that show patches, signs, labels, and logos:

The national parks theme seemed appropriate since we did a little hiking in the Smoky Mountains around Deep Creek.

Now we have to recover from our vacation.



Review: ‘Should I Not Return’ by Jeffrey T. Babcock

“Denali, that Great Grail Castle in the Clouds continues to thrill and kill with each passing year. As of the fall of 2011, 133 climbers have perished on Denali, ever since Allen Carpe and Theodore Koven became the first to die on its icy slopes in 1932.” – Jeffrey T. Babcock in the dedication to “Should I Not Return”

When Jeffrey T. Babcock and his older brother Bill set out to climb the highest mountain in North America, Alaska’s 20,320-foot Denali (Mt. McKinley) in 1967, they knew before they reached “The Great One” that they would be tested in a dangerous world of rock, ice, snow and wind where every climber is at risk and may not return. They did stand on top of the continent on a cold and windy day that July, but en route to the summit, their Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) team stared into the eyes of tragedy from an unexpected combination of events.

The MCA team was several days behind the twelve-person Wilcox-Snyder Expedition. A class-6 storm suddenly raged over Denali, separating the members into those who were able to retreat and those who were stranded high up on the mountain in the bitter cold blizzard conditions. Injured and greatly worried about the other members of their group, the descending Wilcox-Snyder team members met the advancing MCA team, made radio contact with the National Park Service to report their status, and then made their way off Denali. Due to its position on the mountain, the MCA team became the primary rescue group. Jeffrey and Bill Babcock found two of the dead; the others were never found.

The death of seven members of the Wilcox-Snyder group in one day has been called North America’s worst mountaineering tragedy. It has also generated a fair amount of controversy as the actions of leaders Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder and the National Park Service have been scrutinized under multiple microscopes leading to multiple accusations of blame. Jeffrey T. Babcock, who went on to lead other climbing expeditions including another successful summiting of Denali, has spent a lifetime pondering whether or not the MCA team could have accomplished the impossible and saved any of the Wilcox-Snyder climbers. Now, most experts think not.  But nobody knew this during the summer of 1967.

Babcock has, to the extent it’s possible, come to terms with Denali in 1967 via his “non-fiction novel” Should I Not Return. While the novelization combines real life events from two climbs into protagonist Henry Locke’s coming-of-age climb of Denali on a team led by his brother Johnny, the book’s account of the tragedy and the rescue attempt is based on facts. The result is a compelling and accessible adventure story for a general audience as well as a riveting true-to-life account of a widely known mountaineering event for climbers familiar with techniques, routes and high-altitude weather conditions.

West Buttress of Denali – NPS Photo

Should I Not Return is richly illustrated with photographs from the MCA and other teams as well as sidebars containing historical information about earlier Denali ascents and the climbers involved. While the sidebars are nice time capsules for climbers and others interested in Alaska and its mountains, they can be skipped by those who prefer to stick with Henry and Johnny’s trial by wind and ice.

The emotional and practical need for young Henry—whom some of the other characters view as “Johnny’s baby brother”—to prove himself adds impact to the story. While Johnny and the other MCA team members know each other well, Henry is viewed as a neophyte easterner who will more than likely them back or put them at risk. The terror of the story is amplified because readers see events unfold through the eyes of the youngest team member rather than a veteran climber.

In addition to their geographical and historical value, the photographs serve the same purpose as the illustrations in adventure novels of an earlier era. For example, when Johnny falls through a snow bridge into a crevasse, an accompanying photograph of a Lower Ice Fall snow bridge on Muldrow Glacier demonstrates for non-climbing readers how precarious Johnny’s situation was. The inhospitable conditions Henry and the others face on that glacier is illustrated by a bleak photograph  (by the author) showing just how tiny a man is when he stands next to the sheer walls of Pioneer Ridge. While Babcock’s prose is strong enough to stand on its own, the pictures add greatly to the reading experience.

If Should I Not Return were the product of Jeffrey T. Babcock’s imagination, I would recommend it to everyone who loves compelling adventure stories. For mountaineers, the book adds immeasurably to the historical record of Denali from a very capable writer who was first on the scene of a controversial climbing tragedy.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Malcolm R.  Campbell is the author of four novels, including the 2011 contemporary fantasy adventure “Sarabande”

Remembering Favorite Moments in 2008

Both the Internet and the print media are filled with lists these days, the best fiction and nonfiction, the biggest tragedies, the most important events.

I could make my own list and then dwell upon it as though the existence of the list somehow validates something about my life.

I would include the fact that my nephew took his own life and that my novel completed in March has not yet found a willing publisher. I would include the fact that I saw my daughter and her husband and my 11-month-old granddaughter and that I’m stepping down as the chair of our local historic preservation commission in two more days. My wife and I had a great time with family in Memphis over Thanksgiving and with my wife’s folks on Christmas day.

Yet, I can see that even if I took these events and listed them with numbers or bullets, the presentation would completely miss the joy and the pain they brought me and other people.

So, as the year ends, I’d much rather leave a photograph or two, each of which is worth a thousand words, and say that the moments captured in pixels will always bring a smile to my face when I think of  both the innocent deer and the sweet voice of the water.

Deer along the roadway between Lake Louise and Banff
Deer along the roadway between Lake Louise and Banff
My wife Lesa and I along the Bow River
My wife Lesa and I along the Bow River

Best wishes for a happy new year as you think back on your favorite moments of 2008.