"My life is in the mountains"

Exclusive interview with the great Canadian author, speaker and consultant specialized in mountain culture

Fernanda Insua | Redacción Alpinismonline Domingo 29 de Octubre de 2017 - 12:22 954 | 0



Bernadette McDonald was born in Saskatchewan, Canada and grew up on a farm. But from her first experience in the mountains she knew that she would change the plains by the reliefs of the height. Her childhood and most of her education focused on music. She studied music history and was fully immersed in that world when her life took a complete turn.

Volunteering for the Banff Mountain Film Festival eventually led to a new career. For twenty years she worked at the Banff Center, directing the Banff Festivals and created a new division within the Center: Mountain Culture. During the last years of her work in this area she began to get involved in projects related to books, first as editor and later as author. This produced a new twist in her life and decided to devote herself full time to writing. Her main interest lies in the mountains, but not exclusively. As she has expressed it, she enjoys the writing process enormously and has so many ideas for books that she believes she will not live long enough to be able to translate them all...

Bernadette and Deb Smythe in Telluride Film Festival (Photo: Bernadette McDonald)

Her books have become classics of mountain literature, her biography about Tomaz Humar (Random House, Spring 2008) is particularly relevant as well as her last two titles translated into Spanish, "Freedom Climbers" (Rocky Mountain Books, 2015; "Escaladores de la libertad", Ed. Desnivel, 2016) and "Alpine Warriors" (Rocky Mountain Books, 2015; "Guerreros alpinos", Ed. Desnivel, 2016) set out to tell the story of great world climbers, the golden age of Polish Himalayan in the first case and the heroic history of Slovenian mountaineering in the second. Her latest book about Voytek Kurtyka´s life, "Art of Freedom" has recently been published in English (Rocky Mountains Books, 2017).

We had a very cordial interview with this great promoter of mountain culture, assiduous attending mountain festivals around the world and lecturer in universities and alpine clubs.

-¿What does the mountain mean to you?

My life is in the mountains. Although I was born on the prairies, the first time I was physically in the mountains, I knew it was my home. This is the landscape that I feel most comfortable in, that I am inspired by, where I have fun doing the things I love to do, and where people whose values are similar to mine, also live.

-¿How many mountain books have you written so far? ¿What has been the most emotional for you?

I have written six books and edited or written chapters in an additional five. The last book always feels like the most emotional, because it is the most current. But certainly, Freedom Climbers was also very emotional because of the great personalities and also the many tragedies that were part of that Polish community.

-Your latest book is about the life of Voytek Kurtyka. Evidently he is an extraordinary personage of the mountaineering world but somewhat hermit and difficult to interview. ¿How did the writing process work? ¿What feelings have this book finally left you?

Voytek is a very private individual and he has a lot of skepticism about the media. He tries hard to avoid it. I feel very fortunate that he trusted me enough to write his biography and I did not find him difficult to interview at all. He was very forthcoming about his climbs, about his personal life, about his community and most importantly, about his philosophy of life. He talked long and deeply about all of those topics. The process was basically one of interviewing, going through journals, translating things that he had written in Polish, looking at photos, interviewing many other people, and then the process of writing, which is very long, in my case. I usually write more than 12 drafts of a manuscript before I submit it to my publisher, and then there are still two or three more edits. It takes two years. The feeling about this book has always been that it was a huge responsibility to write Voytek Kurtyka´s biography. He is revered within the mountaineering community and he has been silent for so long that there were a lot of people waiting for this. I don´t believe he will write an autobiography so in many ways, this will stand as the "record" of his extraordinary life. So, on one level I am relieved that it is done. Also, a little exhausted. But also, a little sad, because a project like this dominates your life for a long time and it´s a very intense experience. When it´s done, there is a void.

-¿How do you choose the theme or character of your books?¿ Already thinking about the next one?

For the biographies that I have written, I have tried to choose characters who are complex, intelligent, maybe a little difficult, and in some way, inspirational. For the more general historical books on Polish and Slovenian mountaineering, I was very motivated to tell the stories of these climbers, initially, to an English-speaking audience, because their stories were not well known at all. I didn´t realize at the time that so many other countries would also be interested in translating the books into various languages, but I´m glad it is happening. Their stories deserve to be read in many languages because their lives were amazing, inspirational and important to the history of mountaineering.

-Your books are characterized by extensive documentation. ¿How is the process of data collection? ¿Do you enjoy it?

There is a lot of research involved in these books. First of all, I try to get my hands on all the books written in the home countries about the particular character or group of alpinists. I have them translated into English and then I have a body of work from which to start. Of course, the internet. And films. Then it´s a process of identifying the main characters and their family members and asking for interviews. I generally go back and forth to the country involved several times, doing interviews. I enjoy it a lot and find that one of the most difficult problems is to stop doing the research. At some point, you have to start writing.

Bonnie Hamilton and Bernadette in the Goloritze, Sardinia (Photo Bernadette McDonald)

-Your book Freedom Climbers has become a classic of mountain literature. Polish climbers have represented a golden age of climbing. ¿Do you think that there are currently climbers who are heirs to the way they make mountain?

Oh, that s a very tough question. In a way, I think times have changed too much since the Polish Golden Age. Climbing is much more of an international activity now, with climbing teams being composed of people from several countries at once. Just think of the Nanga Parbat winter expeditions last year. There are obviously some amazing alpinists who are currently doing really futuristic things in the mountains. Men and women from many countries.

-¿Have you ever thought about writing about women and mountains, those who practice mountaineering and those who stay home suffering for their husbands / mates who go to the mountains?

Yes, I have seen this phenomenon up close and understand the human suffering involved in being the spouse of an alpinist. I think Maria Coffey has done a good job of tackling this topic in her book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow, but that doesn´t mean that there shouldn´t be more written about the other side of alpinism. And not just the spouses: also, the children.

-You have been an active participant for many years and then director of the renowned Banff Mountain Festival. ¿What do you think today is the role of these kinds of social events in the world of contemporary mountaineering?

I think they are incredibly important because they are the place where the community meets. Other sports have many occasions to gather, but climbers practice their activity somewhat in isolation and mountain festivals provide places and reasons to come together, to celebrate, sometimes to mourn, and to share common values, ideas and plans.

-Of all the characters you have tackled in your books, ¿which one has impacted you the most and why?

Again, it may be because this is my most recent book, but I would have to say that it is Voytek. Of all the characters that I have tried to write about, he is without question the most complex, the most articulate about his feelings about the mountains, often conflicted, which is also interesting, and generally very inspirational.

-If you could interview a mountaineer of any time, ¿who would it be and why?

I would bring Wanda Rutkiewicz back from Kangchenjunga and sit down with her for days on end. I did interview her once, but very briefly. This would be different.

-Besides your own books, of course, ¿could you recommend us some other mountain book that inspired you?

There are lots of them. Andy Cave´s Learning to Breathe or James Salter´s Solo Faces. Salter´s craftsmanship is so fine. Simon McCartney´s The Bond, and some of David Roberts´ early writing goes so much deeper into emotions of fear and regret and searching for some sense of truth. And they´re very well written. I also really enjoy Jim Perrin´s biographical work. It is devilishly funny. Maria Coffey has written several incredibly personal books about climbing.

We appreciate Bernadette´s time and predisposition.

Photo credits: Bernadette McDonald.

For more information and reading of the extensive CV of Bernadette, please check her website:

Bernadette (Photo Bernadette McDonald)

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