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Native Air Looks at the Bond of Climbing—and the Void of Disaster

Upcoming novel explores a great climbing partnership, a calamity, and the effects of loss on two different people.

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Joe Holland, protagonist of the upcoming novel Native Air, is consumed by climbing and then rejects it. He has his reasons.

From the start he was conflicted. Joe tells us: “An only child, I was too frequently reminded … that others of my mother’s pregnancies had failed (both before I got here and after). Life in our circle was fragile and deeply contingent—the grace of God underlay everything. When I discovered climbing, in college, I found the exposure and mortal perils thrilling, but also profligate and unforgivable. Early on I’d make bargains. Just this, then no more. …”

Native Air (Green Writers Press, March 22), by Jonathan Howland of San Francisco, begins in the 1980s when two youths meet in a college in upstate New York—unnamed, but loosely modeled on Hamilton (the author did not go there, but attended the longtime climber stronghold Dartmouth)—and form a strong climbing team.

Joe comes to think of climbing as meditation or prayer, yet he states, “I never got far from wondering whether I’d fallen under some perversion of faith, some dark and disfiguring spirit whose most avid embodiment was, of course, Pete”—Pete Hunter, his talented and charismatic friend and partner.

The two spend a couple of summers out West, then climb together every season (working in the winters) over a decade, into their late 20s.

The novel explores the bond between two dedicated climbers, “yoked” together, as Howland says in a telephone interview, through all those years and experiences; and then what happens upon a climbing disaster. “It’s a lot about grief, about Joe surviving and in some other way dying himself, energetically or spiritually.”

In the second half of the novel, the deceased Pete’s adult son Will asks Joe, who has given up climbing and become a minister, to join him in completing a 12-pitch route they had forged on fictional Mount Moriah, the Sierra. Pete and Joe had been unable to do a section midway up the wall.

This is literary fiction of a high order, with a physical immediacy and specificity that never let up, and then a riveting next-generation denouement. The final top-out will destroy you.”—William Finnegan, author of Barbarian Days

While the author has invented some formations, such as the formidable Moriah, elsewhere throughout the book appear real routes and areas: Lightning Bolt Cracks on the North Sixshooter, the Utah desert; the Dike cliff near Mammoth; Tuolumne and other locations in the Sierra; Red Rocks; and real-life characters, such as John Bachar. Howland grew up in Goleta, California, and Los Angeles County, and the origins of the novel lie in his early experiences in Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and the High Sierra. He spent the years 1979 to 1987 in New Hampshire and Vermont, informing the book’s climbing scenes at Cannon Cliff and Cathedral Ledge.

Asked whether he based his characters on real people, Howland chuckles. “People say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of you in Joe,” he says. “But I’m not Joe. I’m further along.” He, too, though, grew up in the church—his father, grandfather and an uncle were Presbyterian ministers, and an aunt is a theologian—and he writes in an email that he shares his subject’s “tendency to position climbing as something philosophical” and even moral.

He also says in the email: “Pete and Joe went all in, in ways I resisted and avoided. In some ways their 10 years together reflects a re-conceived life, or fantasy, for me.”

 

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The character of Pete, Howland says, is a composite of four of his own friends and partners: two of whom have died, one climbing and one in a motorcycle accident. It was in the early months after the latter accident that Howland began taking notes that eventually extended into the novel. The four friends are named and thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Neither of the two main women climbers in the book has, Howland says, “an obvious antecedent.”

While the climbing action occurs on Moriah and other walls, the author says the dramatic tension in Native Air arises from two people handling the same vast loss, of Pete—“and the contingency between exposure and vitality, and this proximity to the void that is, strangely enough, the climber’s best friend.”

The author on the rock himself. (Photos: Chris McElheny, Howland Collection.)

 

Howland has been climbing—though with a 20-year layoff—since 1974. In the past two years, since leaving a teaching career, he has doubled his climbing to over 50 days a year.

Several years ago a climber-surfer friend of Howland’s sent the manuscript to William Finnegan, author of the Pulitzer-prizewinning surfing memoir Barbarian Days. It lay dormant for a time in Finnegan’s shed. Yet one day during the pandemic, Finnegan, who has an interest in climbing—he recently wrote a profile of Tommy Caldwell for the New Yorker, and himself climbs periodically—picked it back up and read it. He was so moved as to write this blurb for the cover lines: “This is literary fiction of a high order, with a physical immediacy and specificity that never let up, and then a riveting next-generation denouement. The final top-out will destroy you.”

While this story is fictional, “it also shares a lot with Barbarian Days,” Howland says, “as a kind of searching piece, a meaning-making journey.”

It’s also an exploration of a great partnership, calling to mind those of Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, Mark Hudon and Max Jones, Paul Piana and Todd Skinner, Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher, and all the others out there. In the novel, friends joke that Joe and Pete are married, and the two are often mistaken for twins.

This 1951 novel about a slum-born female climber was considered racy for the era. You can find hard copies from $250 to $800 … or a Kindle edition.

See excerpt from Native Air below.


Other climber-writers who have penned fiction, going way back, include James Salter (Solo Faces), Elizabeth Coxhead (One Green Bottle, published in 1951 and ahead of its time with a rough-and-tumble female climbing protagonist; and you can find it online for a mere $250 to $800—or on Kindle for $6!); Anne Sauvy (Nadir and short-story collections), Lucy Rees and Al Harris (Take It to the Limit), Jeff Long (Angels of Light, The Ascent, and The Wall, and Long populates his other novels with climbers); Clinton McKinzie (a series of five addictive thrillers beginning with The Edge of Justice); Daniel Duane (Looking for Mo); and Chris Kalman (As Above, So Below and Dammed If You Don’t).

Amy McCulloch, of Ottowa and now London, has a thriller, Breathless (Anchor Books), coming out in May. She began writing it while climbing Manaslu in 2019. The novel is, per the publisher, the story of a journalist and novice climber, Cecily Wong, who “accompanies a record-breaking mountaineer on a journey to summit Manaslu that takes a dark turn when a series of deaths can no longer be written off as accidents.” McCullough has written eight books for children and young adults; this is her first for adults.

 

 


From Native Air, when a main character, Pete Hunter, goes missing in the wilderness:

 

I’d known Pete through dozens of close calls and too many epics and accidents—cold nights on exposed cliffs, mad dashes from (and to) summits in lightning storms, bloodied fingers and hands, plenty of falling rock. I watched him zipper his gear off an aid pitch on the headwall of El Cap, hurtling sixty feet past popping pins and copperheads before my belay caught him, and then whipping in a wild pendulum across the face at just the level of our stance so that when he flew by me, inches away, I could see the fright in his eyes, though when he swung back, several seconds later, he was cackling and howling, thrilled to be alive.

In Zion in ’85 I had been out on a lead far too long and finally attempting the baffling moves around a short roof when I dislodged a piece of the corner. Pete leaned to avoid the cantaloupe-sized rock, which flew safely to his side, but he took one of the smaller pieces above his ear. I was sixty feet above, still stretched out on insecure holds, and now less frightened for what I saw below—Pete slumped to the side, the blood trickling steadily over his neck and back and finally into space in a thin line that broke into droplets, as plume from a waterfall—than for my own tenuous position: his hands had relaxed and fallen away from the rope. He was knocked out. I was no longer on belay. With him unconscious, the six feet between my shoes and my last gear may as well have been the full sixty, and I was still several moves below a stance from which I might make another good placement. My left foot had been scissoring on small edges for the last little while, but instantly I was steady, frozen with fright. I slotted a brass nut into the shallow flare below my right finger jam, clipped this to the rope, and with breathless, out-of-body alacrity levered past and above this nut to the bigger holds above. The brass stopper popped out and sailed down the rope as I moved beyond it, but the crack shortly opened to a generous size, and in two minutes I’d built an anchor suitable for a hanging bivouac. From there I lowered to Pete.

I’ve thought about those few minutes many times in the years since: had I fallen while making the next three or four moves after he was hit, would the rope have cinched or tangled through Pete’s belay device and somehow arrested my flight? Would my last piece have held, placed as it was in this famously friable sandstone—and the piece below that, and then the other, and, if not, Pete’s belay anchor? In the best but least-plausible scenario, I’d have plummeted forty feet and the sudden jerk and whipping of the rope would have jarred Pete awake and he’d have had the wits to grab the rope from a lower loop so as not to be burned by the furiously unfurling belay line. More likely, I’m injured, or worse, we’re both hurtling down the seven-hundred-foot mahogany face, tethered to one another by the umbilical coil of our rope and trailing the clanging detritus of our shattered belay.

Descending toward Pete I could see the full mat of his bloodied head and the dark back of his soaked shirt. I slipped down to his side and took off my shirt to compress the wound. My climbing shoes slipped on the bloodied rock at the side of the hanging belay. With my fussing around him and the ringing of gear, Pete came to, and inside of two minutes he was not just fully alert, but smiling. He helped me with the cleaning and a quick inspection—a gash, right in the hard part of the skull above the ear.

“Back in the saddle, man,” he said. “Getting late.”

I must have looked horrified.

“I’ll take my leads as they come,” he assured me. I fell three times trying to repeat the moves by the roof, top-rope or no—which Pete followed smoothly, his head wrapped in a shirt. He led two of the next four pitches.


Native Air ($24.95) is to be published by Green Writers Press, a woman-owned global publisher (founded by Dede Cummings with the intention of promoting environmental awareness), of Brattleboro, Vermont, on April 21. Pre orders are available here.


See also:

“Climbers praised and a bishop condemned this novel about a female climber”: Seventy years ago, a woman climber-writer created a gritty, gifted, slum-born character.