Book review, “A Youth Wasted Climbing” by David Chaundy-Smart

So, having a lot more time to think and contemplate can be weird, as the season becomes more dependent on sunny days. Also being Canadian is generally a tough life due to the fact that our toast has less jam than the US of A, in terms of climbing versus square-kilometers. Proof: Saskatchewan and Manitoba (and some of Alberta) are perfectly, geometrically flat.

What’s to do exactly when waiting for the climbs to come back into the perfect weather windows that fall requires us to chase? When you have this weird transition from the rock to the snow/ice season? When it snows unexpectedly in August and September? You can read a book, my friend.

I decided to pick up A Youth Wasted Climbing due to a variety reasons:

  1. I’m Canadian
  2. I read Gripped somewhat religiously
  3. I have never understood how people get so strong in Ontario and Quebec
  4. I haven’t really ever read a memoir or autobiography of a climber

After putting down The Trad Climber’s Bible, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read about climbing anymore. Sure, Peter Croft and John Long make their adventures sound incredible and do a very good job of getting you psyched. But most chapters are pretty uni-dimensional and have too much focus on hard climbing and not dying. I was starting to feel like the only emotions that are present in climbing are fear and not-fear.

A Youth Wasted Climbing was refreshing in this way. It doesn’t talk about cruxing out so much or about how bad the foot chip was. It was even written in a way that, if you wanted to, you could read it without any prior knowledge of climbing. There are no confusing words or stupid lingo that we, as climbers, generally participate in. Well, there is a bit of lingo, but there is also a glossary and most words have a short blurb.

The book itself is a story about growing up and being totally obsessed. Chaundy-Smart, our protagonist, is really dedicated during his youth and shows it through stories of climbing absolute garbage climbs and pioneering hard, scary climbs at his local crags. He explores many emotional avenues that youth experience: acceptance, brotherhood, love, [other] drugs and adventure. Generally, the book is entertaining and fun all while not being a show of glory as Chaundy-Smart doesn’t brag about numbers or climbs (he barely includes grades unless they are relevant).

During the book, through the eyes of Chaundy-Smart, we start realizing how strange life truly is, and can be, when you are young. When Chaundy-Smart describes his climbing exploits, he usually tells the whole backstory, and more often than not, how awkward it was being young and wanting to climb during the 70’s and 80’s. Tales of mentors and heros of his are often followed by loss of friends and climbers.

I found the first half of the book the most interesting. What makes a real climber and what the first few steps that we all must walk, often too proud to ask others for advice, is a unique but similar path all seasoned veterans have followed. His stories of reading Advanced Rockcraft by Royal Robbins and then implementing it on river bank shale is frightening and mesmerizing. His near death pursuit of becoming what he sees in the early climbing media is wonderful and still applies to this day. We, as rock climbers, often leaf through magazines and scroll through blogs of our heroes, aspiring for (and fearing) the proverbial bar that has been set.

Eventually, the book becomes a bit more of a tick-list: the protagonist starts travelling to new, world-class areas, and we are led through short descriptions of his impressive list of ascents. Tales of Yamnuska, Yosemite, the Bugaboos and Squamish are all short and sweet, sending the reader into a fury of questions about how he could possibly be doing all this at the ages of 16-18. As a reader, I had almost wished for more depth. I couldn’t tell if the author had more vivid memories of the ascent into rock culture or if he didn’t want to talk too much about his many big wall and alpine conquests as they are now regarded as being accessible to those who truly want to give it their all.

In the final chapters of the book, the story becomes more and more emotional. We explore some more serious and necessary building-blocks of growing up: death, love and being lost in the adult world. I can’t say that I’ve experienced as much as the author has, but relating is easy when his situations have common ties with our own memories.

The end cliffs out in a way, offering little in the way of answers. In a way, the rest is history, and if you know who the author is you know he’s had a great career in climbing media. However, even though we know this, it feels almost like we’re unsure where to go now. Did we waste our own youth? Has Chaundy-Smart unearthed what being a youth should feel like? Is adventure for the young? When is it too late? As a teenager, I can safely say that I played it quite conservatively and did not aspire to scale cliffs or risk well being for nothing. Did I, then, waste my youth? When reading this book, I feel both like the answer may be yes and no.

All in all, I enjoyed this short and sweet story of young adventure. Mostly, because it shows that you only need a few essential traits to be a good rock climber: a drive to go to the mountains (often), intuition and confidence in your own climbing abilities, and a lot of luck. Otherwise, it seems that there is really nothing that separates any aspiring climber from finding himself on the edge of a rock face named The Nose or The Ultimate Everything.  

Read on,

-CC

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