A Thank You Note to the Boardman Tasker Folks

David Roberts (c) Matt Hale_300dpi.jpg

Weeks after learning about the prize, I’m still vibrating gently with the buzz. I honestly didn’t expect the honor, given the uncertain state in which I composed the chapters that make up Limits of the Known. And in 2018 I still, I must confess, harbored an old preconception about the BT, that it was heavily weighted toward British writers. Of course I had not failed to notice that as early as 1993 Jeff Long had won the prize, or later that such North American cronies as Steve House and Bernadette McDonald had been likewise acclaimed. For that matter, who could ever quarrel with such masters as Steven Venables, Paul Pritchard, or Peter and Leni Gillman being laureled for their splendid books?

Why, for that matter, should the Boardman Tasker not emphasize the works of men and women who cut their climbing teeth on the crags and hills near Llanberis or Fort William? Mountaineering boasts an immensely rich literature, but by far the strongest contribution to it during the last two centuries (and counting) has come from British pens. My own apprenticeship in the craft was steeped in that tradition. My freshman year in college, the book I turned to each night when I couldn’t sleep wasn’t John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra or Belmore Browne’s The Conquest of Mount McKinley. It was a battered old green copy of Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s On High Hills. A few years later, my reading predilections were likewise Anglocentric. After all, wouldn’t I even now far rather read anything by Eric Shipton or Bill Tilman than the collected musings of J. Monroe Thorington or Francis Farquhar? (Not to mention—gadzooks—James Ramsey Ullman . . . .)

Since learning about my prize, I’ve reread Peter Boardman’s Sacred Summits. I was dazzled all over again by the nerve and skill of those three bold expeditions crammed almost back-to-back into a single year, and by the felicity and honesty of the writing. I’m pretty sure we’ll never know just what went wrong high on Everest in 1982. But it could so easily have gone wrong on Kangchenjunga in 1979. What a gutsy climb that was, in the face of such daunting objective dangers and unpredictable setbacks. It’s sobering to realize that by 1983, the only survivor of that landmark, under-appreciated ascent was the canny veteran Doug Scott, still with us, thank God, and writing well in his late seventies.

Peter and Joe knew full well just how dangerous mountaineering at the highest level was. But they also knew that it was “worth it” — whatever that shopworn formula means. The joy of those hard, uncertain days in the snow and wind still shines in their writing.

One of the completely unexpected delights of being honored with the BT is a handful of e-mail correspondences that have sprung up therefrom, including warm exchanges with Boardman’s widow, Hilary Rhodes, and Tasker’s sister, Terry Tasker. These budding friendships make me all the sorrier I didn’t manage to get myself to Kendal last month. I’ll try much harder next year, even without a book of my own to flog.

Meanwhile, may I express my thanks to what is clearly a special society: the folks who make the Boardman Tasker such an event each year, and such a fine thing to have been part of, even from the distance of five time zones and 3,000 miles. I couldn’t be more pleased or more grateful.

-- David Roberts