The Gazette Bookpack Reviews


Editor's NoteThe following stories originally appear in the Spring 2018 issue of the ACC Gazette, where Lynn Martel reviews a variety of mountain culture novels. From climbing in the Himalaya, to horse-handling in the Rockies, these novels make great companions on rainy days and will be sure to get you excited to head out into the hills!

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Art of Freedom

Author: Bernadette McDonald

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When you settle in to read a biography about a man’s lifetime pursuit with his own personal art form, it’s a bonus when the author possesses the skill and talent to create her own work of art.

That is exactly what Bernadette McDonald has accomplished with her latest book, Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka.

The most enigmatic and complicated of climbers, Kurtyka has long been revered as one of the greatest alpinists of all time. Among the leaders of the Polish “golden age” of Himalayan climbing, he partnered with alpine legends such as Jerzy Kukuczka and Erhard Loretan on visionary ascents including the complete traverse of Broad Peak, fast and super-light “night naked” speed climbs of Cho Oyu and Shishapangma, and the never repeated alpine style ascent of the West Face of Gasherbrum IV.

Thanks to McDonald’s own arts background – she’s an accomplished pianist – armchair climbers and adventure athletes alike will appreciate and delight in this exquisitely written account of Kurtyka’s sensitive, intricate and driven personality, delicately woven in with the suspense, action and drama of dangerous climbs at the edge of the possible.

“It's easier to understand a person's complete commitment to creativity or ‘crea’ as Voytek calls it, if you have a bit of that yourself,” McDonald admitted.

Famously private and known for his refusal to accept awards or festival invitations, McDonald said she believed he agreed to let her write his biography for several reasons, beginning when she interviewed him for her book on the great Polish climbers of the 1970s thru mid-1990s, Freedom Climbers.

“I think he felt comfortable talking with me from the very first encounter,” she said. “He knew he would never [write his autobiography] and he liked some of my previous books. I think at some level, he trusted me to do a good job.”

Having people in the mountain community, however, upon learning about subject of her next book, comment that the project was “long overdue” or “much anticipated” did increase the pressure.

For her part, McDonald said in addition to Kurtyka’s prominent role in climbing history and his notoriously challenging personality, the conflicted nature of his character attracted her to the project. Writing the book over the course of two years was not without surprises, she added, one of which was the role the church played in his estrangement from his father.

“I had always thought this was as much about his father as it was about the church,” she said. “It turns out he really does detest the Roman Catholic Church, organized religion, the concept of heaven and hell, and everything remotely connected to Christianity. Not that he isn’t spiritual. Not at all. Just not within the confines of Christianity.”

Another surprise was the depth of his anger and dislike toward his former climbing partner, Jerzy Kukuczka.

“I knew that their break had been painful, but I had no idea just how painful it had been, and how vehement Voytek was about his assessment of Kukuczka’s development as a climber,” she said. “Voytek had never spoken publicly about this before, and in fact, had refused on several occasions to be interviewed by magazines, newspapers, filmmakers, because he knew he couldn’t say something positive, so he would rather not say anything at all. I still wonder what the reaction will be in Poland once the Polish edition is released this winter.”

Her biggest challenge working with him, however, was Kurtyka’s extreme perfectionism.

“He never read the manuscript before it was published, but we agreed that he could read the climbing sequences to ensure that they were truly accurate,” she said. “The hours spent discussing whether a certain moment was ‘frightening’, or ‘ominous’ or ‘simply concerning’, or ‘not worth mentioning’ was a challenge. Whether the snow was knee deep or thigh deep or the exact velocity of the wind…well…you get the picture. But the challenge was worth it.”

While she feels honoured that he agreed to let her write his biography, she said winning not one, but three prestigious awards within the space of two weeks – the Banff Mountain Book Festival Jon Whyte Award, the National Outdoor Book Award and the Boardman Tasker – was “a bit overwhelming.”


Author: Junko Tabei and Helen Rolfe


Known as the first woman to summit Everest – in May 1975, part of the first women-only Everest team – and to complete the Seven Summits, Junko Tabei is revered as a compassionate, humble, enthusiastic and devoted lover of nature. This collection of stories originally written by Tabei in her native Japanese were lovingly curated for English speaking readers by a team of women from Banff/Canmore – author Helen Rolfe, and translators Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved. From her childhood as a frail girl with no talent for sports to her historic Everest climb which was marred by tragedy, Tabei’s strength of character triumphs in the face of cultural biases, cancer, the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and a lifetime of climbs. The result is a fascinating, moving, inspiring and precious volume.


Author: Dale Portman


While climbers were among the first adventurers to experience the Canadian Rockies, skilled and self-sufficient park wardens share an equally compelling long and colourful history in the range. Better still, Dale Portman, who earned his horse handling and backcountry skills in the 1960s on the remote trails of Banff and Jasper – which he cleared deadfall from – and on the slopes of Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park as an avalanche control technician – is a seasoned and talented storyteller. Written in an off-the-cuff, gather-around-the-campfire for some entertaining, no-nonsense stories about people who knew how to stay alive and savour real solitude in deep, unconnected backcountry, this adventure packed book takes the reader on a ride to remember.