This time, the book I will be talking about is Wild Winds, Adventures in the High Andes, written by Ed Darack. I came upon this book from a friend. She was finishing her service and was getting rid of some of her non-essential items. She saw the book and figured I might like it. So she gifted it to me.
Wild Winds is about a mountaineer and photographer (Darack) and his passion for photographing high-mountain ecosystems. He had always been obsessed with getting up high in order to photograph the mountains. This passion led him to create the goal of climbing and photographing some of the highest peaks in the Andes Mountain Range across South America.
Darack’s book is both a mountain climbing guide and memoir of his adventures summiting (or at least trying to) the highest peaks in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. He includes informative maps and beautiful photographs along with his easy and fun to read story telling.
Darack’s first goal was the the Bolivian mountain Sajama (6,542meters; 21,463. feet above sea level). He was unsuccessful in submitting this peak. Some time after that, he focused his attention on Ojos de Salado (6,893 meters; 22,614 feet), a stratovolcano that sits on the Argentinian and Chilean border. After that, he returned to Argentina to summit Aconcagua (6,962 meters; 22,841 feet), the highest mountain in all of South America. He did successfully climb this mountain after one hell of an adventure. Lastly, he unsuccessfully attempted Cerro Pissis (6,793 meters; 22,286.745 feet) in Argentina.
Darack’s book was fun to read and a good literary introduction in mountaineering. Some of his travels reminded me of mine own since I’ve been in South America. His reflections on the the Andean cities, street food, the importance of cold beer, bus rides and the power of altitude all evoked nostalgic memories within me. I admired his tenacity and confidence around traveling in South America. Darack spoke very little Spanish, and always took the most economic route when it came to travel, food and lodging. This meant that he interacted with mostly locals of the places he traveled and experienced more authentic people and places. This I think is crucial for travel.
Darack got himself involved in some pretty crazy stuff while he was adventuring around South America. All the peaks he did without supplemental oxygen and without the use of guides. This dude is incredibly strong, although he might say otherwise, has immense knowledge about high altitude environments, and is impressively good at being sick, uncomfortable, tired, cold and hypoxic.
One of my favorite stories he told was when he was was climbing Aconcagua. During his attempt of this peak he was feeling strong. The weather was also on his side, at least on the way up. He had approached the climb all the way to the advanced high-base camp. From there he would make a summit bid and come down. When the sun came out on his climb (he started at night), he went to his pack to put his sunglasses on. He was shocked to find that they weren’t there. They were in his tent. This might seem like a trivial thing, but at high altitudes and in snow/ ice, if you don’t have sunglasses, you can go snow blind. Essentially, the reflection of the sun on the white snow/ice burns the cornea of the eye, leaving the person temporarily blind. He thought he would be forced to turn around. But before going, he wanted to take some photos. Miraculously, in his camera gear, he found two spare filters for a camera he wasn’t using. With those filters and medical tape from his first-aid kit, he fashioned ‘sunglasses’ that protected his eyes and allowed him to continue climbing. The glasses did allow for peripheral vision, constantly needed readjusting, and would fog up, but they provided just enough protection for him to summit. Oh, and he smoked a cigarette when he got to the top.
There were a few things about this book I didn’t like. The first thing that comes to mind, because it was my first qualm with the text, was that in the introduction of the book, Darack spelled Colombia incorrectly. He spelled ‘Columbia’ like the clothing brand, not the country. This error persisted throughout the book. To me this was clumsy and a super easy fix. Unfortunately it wasn’t the only obvious editing error. I don’t know if maybe I had an early copy, or what, but there were numerous grammatical errors that should have been flushed out of the book. You just don’t see that in published books these days.
The second problem I had with the book was that in parts it was culturally insensitive. Now I get it, its a climbing book. Not every piece of travel non-fiction needs to include a full-blown holistic conversation about cultural differences and the amount of privilege embedded in travel and mountaineering. But, at least a reference to it is absolutely necessary. To let the readers know that the author acknowledges those things, thinks about them and grapples with them. In my opinion, travel shouldn’t just be a pleasure spree in a ‘new world’. There needs to be some level of cultural reflection and work done so that the traveler appreciates the experience more deeply. Perhaps this happened with Darack and he just chose not to include it in the book. That would be great. But I would have like to read about some of his thoughts on the topic.
Unless you’ve got a really specific interest in climbing these mountains, I’m not totally sure I would recommend this book. I sure don’t feel a call to climb the peaks Darack did. But what drew me to the book was wanting to learn more about adventure story telling and prose. For that I would recommend it. I enjoyed reading how Darack described and brought to life the natural world. How he transported the emotion and struggle and excitement from the highest peaks of South America to a well written (but poorly edited) book. In the future I see myself getting into this type of writing (I’ve already tried, please read my short story here), so it was nice to get a taste of another author’s writing. I would like to get more into this style of book so I can continue honing my skills. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.