Does Climbing Big Mountains Prepare You for Fighting Cancer?
Writer David Roberts reflects on 50 years of adventures, mentoring Alex Honnold and Jon Krakauer, and facing mortality.
If you’ve ever read a book about mountaineering, there’s a good chance it was written by David Roberts. Widely recognized as the dean of American climbing literature, Roberts has penned 26 books, including classics like The Mountain of My Fear and a memoir entitled On the Ridge Between Life and Death. His latest work, Alone on the Wall, which he co-wrote with legendary free soloist Alex Honnold, recently spent time on the New York Times Best Sellers List. But a lot of people don’t realize that, like Honnold, Roberts himself was a pioneering climber. During the 1960s and 70s he undertook more than a dozen expeditions to remote corners of Alaska, where he made numerous first ascents, including the Wickersham Wall on Denali, the West Rib of Mount Huntington, Kichatna Spire, the East Face of Mount Dickey, and numerous peaks in the Revelation Range.
Shortly after he and Honnold completed Alone on the Wall, Roberts, 72, was diagnosed with stage-four throat cancer, causing him to miss the book’s publicity tour as he underwent treatment. From his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he candidly shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics, from cancer and mortality to the cathartic act of writing. Most tellingly, perhaps, he spoke of what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
You’ve been a mentor to people in the mountaineering community, including Jon Krakauer, Alex Honnold, and myself, among many others. Who were your mentors?
Brad Washburn was a chief mentor and the reason I turned exclusively toward Alaska with my climbing, as he had done. Brad invited some of us youngsters in the Harvard Mountaineering Club over to his house to look at his incredible collection of aerial photos of Alaskan peaks, which gave us the ideas for half of our expeditions. He was very imperious and intimidating at first. He would barely shake your hand, but he was so encouraging and generous in sharing his expertise. Some of the other older climbers were very conservative and warned us against doing any of these things. Brad always said, “Oh, you guys can do this.”
How did you become a writer?
In 1965, my senior year at Harvard, we made the first ascent of the Harvard Route on Mount Huntington, and one of our team members Ed Bernd was killed on the descent. I was so obsessed with this tragic triumph that I finally sat down and wrote The Mountain of My Fear. I wrote the whole book in only nine days—a chapter a day—during summer break in 1968. That crazy, obsessive, cathartic act of cranking out a book about the most traumatic and disturbing experience of my then young life was key to becoming a writer.
Are you saying you wouldn’t have written the book that launched your career if your friend hadn’t died on that climb?
Yeah, I think him dying made the book sellable. If we had just climbed the mountain, it would’ve just been a great climb, and I wouldn’t have wanted to write the book. A lot of it was guilt because Ed was the junior team member and probably wasn’t qualified for a major Alaskan project. It was his first trip of any kind, and he clearly was ambivalent, whereas Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and I were not. Just hours after we reached the summit, we were celebrating in the tent, and I said, “Man that’s the greatest day of climbing in my life.” And Ed said, “Me too, but I’m not sure I’d do it over again.” A few hours later I was standing next to Ed in the dark. As he leaned back to rappel, the whole thing came loose, and he fell 4,000 feet. We still don’t know what went wrong, but it wasn’t his fault. It still haunts me, having invited Ed on a project that was probably over his head.
While you were at Hampshire College, you taught Jon Krakauer, who went on to write the classic Mount Everest book Into Thin Air, which was recently made into a movie.
Jon was a student in my third year at Hampshire. He wrote an 80-page thesis that he now thinks of as horrendous, but I remember it as quite brilliant, sort of scattered but promising. He had no ambition to be a writer, but he was a serious climber. About 10 years after he graduated, he was working construction in Seattle to support his climbing habit, and hating it, so I tried to convince him to try writing. I spent 48 hours in Seattle just hammering away at the idea, but he was dead set against it. I finally wore him down, and he agreed to try it for six months. I remember I called him up after six months and I said, “How is it?” and he said, “It’s f---ing miserable.” I said, “C’mon it’s the greatest job in the world.” And he said, “I’m working my ass off and I’m making less than I would flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”
I remember you once telling me the story of being at an editorial meeting where Sebastian Junger came up with the idea for The Perfect Storm, his bestselling book about a commercial fishing boat lost at sea.
That was a few years later at Men’s Journal. It was a meeting for some of the magazine’s main contributors to talk about what we were working on. Sebastian was flat broke and had published almost nothing, but he was incredibly ambitious and brave. He told the group that he was trying to do a book about the 10 most dangerous jobs in the world and he was going to apprentice at all of them. I remember one of them was diving repair work on oil rigs in the North Sea. Somebody said to him: “Why don’t you pick one job and do it seriously?” And with that hint, he decided to focus on deep sea fishing on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
You’ve just published Alone on the Wall, which you co-wrote with Alex Honnold. What do you think about the risks he takes as a climber?
I think most of his friends are terrified he’s going to kill himself. If you watch any of the videos of his climbs, your palms sweat and your heart drops, and you think, all it takes is just one tiny misstep and he’s dead. Yet, it’s so admirable. It’s the purest form of climbing, and he does it like no one else has ever done it, and I believe when he says, “I don’t come close to falling.” Part of that is youthful rationalization, but if anyone has their s--- together in a situation like that, it’s Alex. He has some kind of inhuman control over emotion that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another climber.
I interviewed Alex recently. Since he confronts the possibility of death regularly in his sport, I asked him whether he believes in God. I’ll ask you the same thing.
My father was an astronomer so I grew up with a very scientific grasp of the universe and our insignificance. So to think that any kind of higher power could care about us is purely wishful thinking. The cancer has made these questions all the more urgent for me, and I certainly don’t believe in an afterlife or any existential purpose in life. So the one obvious conclusion is that this life is all the more precious because it’s the only one you’ve got.
Can you describe the experience of going through chemotherapy and radiation?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It’s weird—it doesn’t hit you right away. It’s painless, just tedious, but gradually you feel weaker and weaker. I even went rock climbing in the middle of it, but right now I can barely walk around the block. To gain back the ability to swallow you have to go through this rigorous training. I’ve got a feeding tube through my stomach that is my main source of food, but I have to wean myself off of that if I’m ever going to get back to normal. Plus, the whole time you’re terrified about whether you’re going to die.
Have you learned any lessons as a lifelong climber that are helping you to deal with the challenges of cancer?
Friends of mine said, “David, you’re going to get through this because you’re so tough.” I don’t think it translates at all. I think some couch potatoes survive cancer better than athletes. Will is almost useless against something like cancer. It’s a treadmill, not a concerted battle.
So what do you want to do when you get better?
Most all I want to travel. My first assignment for National Geographic was in Mali, trying to figure out the Tellem, who have vanished but were genius climbers. There are so many examples around the world of prehistoric civilizations that made climbing a huge part of their life. I think it would be a dream assignment for a couple of years, a combination of climbing and exploring the unknown, while trying to figure out the mysteries of lost civilizations.
Mark Synnott is a writer and professional climber based in New Hampshire. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.