Living On The (L)edge

There is something scary, suspenseful and mesmerizing about mountain climbing. It has the power to grab the attention of people who wouldn’t even begin to consider participating in the sport. Climbing stories, fiction and non-fiction, have a compelling quality with all the suspense of a John LeCarre thriller. There’s Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna that tells the story of the first conquest of an 8000-meter peak by a team of French climbers and James Salter’s fictional Solo Faces that contrasts the purity of climbing with the tugs of ordinary life. Then, every spring the media breathlessly reports on climbers attempting the summit of Mt. Everest. Last year’s earthquake added yet another dangerous and catastrophic dimension to the appeal. Mountain climbing is not for everyone, but the stories are.

I was never a serious climber but last week I was drawn to a new mountaineering film about to open in local theaters. I immediately thought of my neighbor, Ron. He might enjoy it too. It was a shared interest. The film is called Meru and chronicles the 2011 ascent of that Indian peak by way of the the Shark’s Fin route, considered one of the hardest in the world. The film is in theaters now and will take your breath away.

My friend and neighbor, Ron Thomson, is an extraordinary guy. He’s 85 now. In 2006 he suffered a stroke that limited the strength and dexterity on his left side, and earlier this year he had shoulder surgery to address an old injury caused when he was caught in an avalanche, and while he was recovering from that his Achilles tendon snapped. But Ron is nothing if not tough. In 2005 just before his stroke, at age 75, he rode his bike from Seattle to Leavenworth over Stevens Pass, and later when the stroke compromised his balance he bought himself a three wheel recumbent bike so he could still take long rides along the Burke-Gilman and Sammamish trails. Until this spring he was the caregiver for his beautiful long time companion, Marie, but when her dementia dictated more intense supervision he moved her to a place where she had closer supervision. Today, in spite of his physical setbacks and losses he’s still positive. He’s quite a guy and I’m proud to have him as a neighbor.

Ron 3But, there is more to Ron’s story: In the 1950’s and 60’s a number of accomplished British rock climbers migrated to Canada in search of bigger mountains and new challenges. Ron Thomson was one of them. He grew up in Manchester but honed his climbing skills on the sandstone and slate walls of North Wales. In 1956 he found his way to Canada and the rock cliffs of the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary.

The British climbers were known for their aversion to self-promotion and their emphasis on style, preferring a minimal reliance on protection and an emphasis on skill. According to Chic Scott the author of Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering, Ron and his climbing partner, Brian Greenwood, set the standard of the day with their ascent of the Belfry on Yamnuska with Greenwood later commenting that Ron was a much better climber than he was but not as ambitious.


This face, on the right, is one of Belfry’s 5.10 pitches on Yamnuska. This one is named, Easy Street. I don’t quite get it but that’s what it’s called.

Yesterday, Ron, Marilynn and I went to see the climbing film. It chronicles the 2011 ascent of Mt. Meru by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. The Shark’s Fin route up the 20,700′ peak had never been successfully climbed. Anker tried it in 2003 but failed. Anker, Chin, and Ozturk tried again in 2008 but after 20 days on the mountain, including four stormy days on a ledge, they turned back 100’ short of the summit. The current film tells the story of their first attempt, their lives on and off the mountain, and their decision to return to Meru for one more try in 2011. The film is in theaters now and I guarantee it will take your breath away.

The elite climbing community is a small one. I’ve always been fascinated by their exploits. Through six degrees of separation I’m connected to this team by way of an old friend. In May 2001 Daniel Duane, the son of a close friend, profiled Conrad Anker, widely regarded as the world’s greatest living climber, in Outside Magazine. About the same time he wrote another article for Men’s Journal about Jimmy Chin. In that article he examined Jimmy’s climb of a difficult California peak, previously thought unclimbed. Dan’s research and an old picture revealed that his father and climber/photographer Galen Rowell had made the climb in 1988 and Dan ended up retitling the article My Father’s Mountain. It’s a touching father-son story made all the better by the author’s surprise discovery that his own father had accomplished a difficult first ascent. It’s a reminder that we often fail to see the character and accomplishments of those closest to us.

Marilynn and I shared a lovely afternoon with Ron. I think he enjoyed it as well. He has a book about the history of Canadian climbing that he wants to show us. I’ve seen references to his climbing accomplishments online so I’m anxious to see what the book has to say about him.

This is the card his daughter Hilary sent him on his 85th birthday (April Fools Day). The picture was taken in the 1950’s. He’s quite a guy.

Ron Handstand

As I write this I’m aware that today’s Surviving Seattle post is about different kinds of survival. Writing the blog helps me survive my aversion to the weather, and a restless spirit, but on the climb Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan are living on the (l)edge in a real life and death battle, while Ron is coping with age and a body that once enabled him to live close to the edge like the climbers in the film. Survival means different things to each of us.

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