Fairly soon after starting a new teaching position in the fall of 2001, the department chair who had hired me was in the office writing a card to her husband. He was leaving to attempt a new climbing route on a mountain in India, and she very matter-of-factly observed that he might die in the attempt. I had never heard of the mountain, Kalanka. In fact, I knew almost nothing about climbing at all, and was taken aback by the prospect of such extreme danger and loss. The truth is that even though I grew up spending almost every weekend in the Colorado mountains, the climbing world was alien to me.
I learned a lot in the ensuing years. I read Jon Krakauer’s fairly mainstream Into Thin Air. I asked questions and listened to the stories. And along the way a friendship grew with that department chair and colleague, Pam Roberts, that I cherish. I also got to know her famous husband, Jack Roberts, and developed a profound admiration and respect for both of them and their insatiable curiosity about the world. So in January of 2012, when I got an e-mail from Pam – who was traveling in Cuba at the time- telling me that Jack had died from an ice-climbing fall in Telluride, I was devastated for my friend.
Not long after, Pam started telling me about a former climbing partner of Jack’s who had gotten in contact with her and was writing a book about their experiences together. That book has now been published to much acclaim in the climbing world. Simon McCartney’s The Bond: Two Epic Climbs in Alaska and a Lifetime’s Connection Between Climbers (Vertebrate Publishing, 2016) is an extraordinary volume. While it may seem like a “niche” book, written for a very specific audience, it transcends that and is a gripping combination of travel narrative and psychological study. Reading it was like immersing myself in a foreign culture, with terms like piton sending me off on internet searches. It also gave me a new insight into the thinking that spurs people to look at massive cliff faces in some of the remotest parts of the world and think “I wonder how I could get up that.”
Jack and Simon barely survived the two climbs they attempted together in Alaska, first of the north face of Mount Huntington in 1978 and then of the south-west face of Denali in 1980. In the hospital after the second climb, a doctor says to them “I don’t understand what drives guys like you to do what you do.” My thoughts exactly, though this book actually goes a long way towards explaining that. In the process, it also examines that extraordinary bond that develops in these life-or-death situations, and affirms the lengths to which humans will go in order to help each other in impossibly difficult situations.
At one point in the narrative, which includes primarily Simon’s voice but also that of Jack’s through his journals, Jack writes: “I’m not sure that I need climbs like this any more. When I get out I will probably work more on a good woman, a job and less-risky climbs.” He definitely found the “good woman” with Pam, who adored him and knew herself to be adored by him. Simon only met her after Jack’s death, when she was subsumed by grief. I feel fortunate to have been able to witness their strong, resilient, and devoted relationship, one that does come through as Simon gets to know Pam. This book stands as a testament to Jack and his passion, courage, decency, wry humor, and thoughtfulness, as well as to Pam’s love.
I must confess to a certain level of nervousness in tackling this review. The Bond is a fabulous book, well-written and compelling and unusual, and I want to do it – and the friends I see reflected in its pages – justice. It is a beautiful evocation of the human spirit, that spirit that compels us to challenge ourselves, explore our world, and push ourselves to our limits. I’m not a climber, but I found much to enjoy, admire, and respect in this volume. I hope you will, too.