Patagonia athlete Barry Blanchard describes a life of risk in The Calling
By Matt Niswonger
Every generation a group of climbers comes along that redefines what’s possible in the mountains. For example, the golden age of Yosemite climbing from about 1958 to 1970 ushered in the modern big wall era. Today climbers around the world agree that Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and others established California as the center of the climbing world in the 1960s.
The question is, if Yosemite in the 1960s was a golden age for a generation of climbers, where and when did the next golden age occur?
There is a growing consensus that the Canadian Rockies were the setting for the next revolution, and climbers like Jeff Lowe, Chris Jones, Barry Blanchard, Mark Twight and Dave Cheesmond were the Robbins, Pratts, and Chouinards of their era.
While no such claims are made in The Calling, Blanchard’s new memoir set for release in October, the book is a poignant look into a period of history that saw the next level of mountaineering come to fruition.
Blanchard, a self-described “half-breed” of mixed descent, seized upon climbing as a teenager wanting to rise above the rampant alcoholism and poverty of his childhood in Calgary, Alberta. Inside the noble struggle of ascending dangerous mountain faces, Blanchard found a way to redeem a gritty, somewhat depressing childhood.
What’s remarkable is how far into the realm of hardcore alpinism Blanchard pushed, eventually joining a select group of devotees who were pursuing the technical cutting edge of what anyone in the climbing world was doing at that time.
If you start with Yosemite big wall techniques and then add remote locations, ice climbing, avalanches and frostbite, that’s a good description of the routes Blanchard and his contemporaries were tackling in the Canadian Rockies.
With riveting descriptions of touch-and-go survival situations in some of the deadliest conditions imaginable, Blanchard chronicles his transformation from poor kid on the wrong side of the tracks to one of the most respected alpine climbers in the world.
He describes early climbs attempted with nothing to guide him but written trail descriptions and the bravado of youth. He slowly acquired the skills, equipment, and partners necessary to attempt increasingly difficult climbs, farther and farther afield: throughout the Canadian Rockies, into Alaska and the Alps and on to Everest, Peru, and the mountains of Pakistan.
What makes The Calling powerful is the fact that Blanchard does not varnish the story of where his chosen path takes him. As a result, the narrative is at times heartbreaking. The closeness that Blanchard discovers with certain climbing partners becomes painfully obvious as they are killed in accidents.
In the end alpinism is indeed a noble path for Barry Blanchard, but mainly because he never loses sight of the fact that our truest nature is revealed in life and death situations. Peeling back the layers of his heart, he finds in himself and his partners heroic qualities that run deeper with every successive foray into the icy wilderness of Canada.
Even if you don’t agree that Blanchard routes like Infinite Patience on Mt. Robson and the North Pillar of North Twin withstood the test of time like The Nose and Salathe route on El Cap, The Calling is an excellent read.
These days Blanchard is writing more and climbing less. He serves as the associate director of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, one of the largest guiding services in Canada. Recently I caught up with Blanchard and he was kind enough to answer some questions via email.
What is your proudest climb?
Don’t know that I have a proudest, but one of my prouder was the North Pillar of North Twin in 1985. I got to do the climb with my dear friend, David Cheesmond, and after I sprained my ring finger on the second day of the climb David took the lion’s load of the leading and he climbed with genius and I got to witness that. I also saw more of his kind way of being in the world, complete with his ribald humour and canny ability to find the route forward. I lived the seven days of our climb intensely and loved David’s partnership. That love grew when David was lost on Mt Logan two years later. North Twin was our last major climb.
Do you still push yourself in the mountains, or do you avoid too much danger?
I haven’t been pushing my alpinism for the last several years and I’m not physically capable of what I was when I was 35. Yet alpinism is largely about pushing yourself so the pushes in my future will look different than my past. I’m not interested in lethal risks at this point, and really wasn’t in the past, yet I pushed hard enough to get trapped in that deadly space. I just can’t see myself getting caught like that anymore. As a father I see the faces of my children every time I make a decision about risk, and on an ambitious climb I may be making dozens and dozens of those decisions every day. I see their faces with each and every one.
You felt called to be an alpinist. What was the best thing about answering that call?
I’ve seen the men that I climb with become heroes and perform heroically—beyond all definition of themselves in the lowlands.
You’ve lost a few friends to the mountains. Who do you miss the most?
David Cheesmond and Alex Lowe.
Alpinism was a way for you to pull yourself out of poverty. Why is that?
I was raised poor, and I don’t think that I’ve actually pulled myself that far up the financial ladder. More so alpinism has been the art that has kept me going up, as overtly obvious as that sounds. I’ve accomplished, and established myself, through climbing. Climbed out of the lowly place I was born too, if you will. Some of the grace of alpinism is that while I was young and climbing to achieve pride the mountain lifted my spirit too. Alpinism has been good for my soul.
Was there ever a time when you saw climbing as an unhealthy addiction?
I’ve seldom thought of alpinism as an addiction, rather that the risks were too great, especially after the death of my friend and mentor, David Cheesmond. I quit climbing while I weighed what I got out of alpinism against what it had cost David. I made the decision to continue and that is a very personal decision and, as such, is mine. I don’t know how much of my decision can be passed to another.
The Calling is unflinchingly honest. Was it hard to write?
I find writing hard period, yet I think that I’m getting better at it. Writing honestly is hard but it may be the only writing that I can do that is worth sharing. As I remember Bruce Springsteen saying, “I hope that you get a little something for yourself.”
Any advice for the next generation?
The mountains are magnificent and beautiful and they can create the best within you. They are also deadly. Take time and learn them as best you can. Baby steps, baby steps.
What does being a Patagonia athlete mean to you?
It’s been a marvelous twenty-one year ride. I’ve got to thrash some of the best alpine clothing threadbare, then help with rebuilding it in a better way. Presenting clinics and slideshows at climber’s events around North America has been such a rewarding segue into climbing culture at the grassroots level. It has been amazing to witness Malinda and Yvon Chouinard’s commitment to using Patagonia as a vehicle for social change in favor of the environment—their unwavering reason for being in business. When I tell surfers that I once had Gerry Lopez pushing my board to help me catch waves in Ventura, they react like I’ve been touched by Christ himself. I’ve been blessed.
What’s next for Barry Blanchard?
Many are surprised to hear that I don’t have any plans for big mountains right now, and that’s a bit of an anomaly for me. I’m trying to spend time with my daughters while they’re young (7 and 9), yet I know certain mountains will call to me in the future. Professionally I’d like to spend more time writing.
The Calling is a story of the culture of climbing in the days of punk rock, spurred on by the rhythm of adrenaline and the arrogance of youth. It is also a portrait of the power of the mountains to lift us—physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually—and the depths of relationships based on total trust in the person at the other end of a rope.