Let’s talk about literature. Interview with Bernadette McDonald

At Bilbao Mendi Film Festival

Bernadette McDonald is the author of the book Freedom Climbers, an impressive story of people whose dream was to climb the highest peaks and set records in the Himalayas. World Book Day is a good occasion to publish a conversation with a Canadian writer.    

By Elena Dmitrenko
Photos from Bernadette McDonald’s archive


Bernadette McDonald, A.O.E. was the founder of The Banff Centre for Mountain Culture and has authored eleven books on mountain culture and mountaineering. Her work has been published in fourteen countries and has received many awards, including the Banff Grand Prize, Boardman Tasker, the Kekoo Naoroji Award, and the American Alpine Club Award. She has received the Alberta Order of Excellence and the King Albert Award for her contributions to mountain culture. Her book, Freedom Climbers, received six international literature awards. Her most recent book, Art of Freedom, has won three international awards to date, including the Banff Award for Mountain Literature, Boardman Tasker Award, and National Outdoor Book Award. She is an honorary member of the Himalayan Club and the Polish Mountaineering Association and has been appointed a Fellow of the Explorers Club. When not writing, Bernadette climbs, hikes, skis, paddles, and grows grapes.

I must say that all of Bernadette’s books are about exceptional people. About those who look above the head of their generation and set the direction of mountaineering for years to come. And among the heroes of the book Freedom Climbers, published in Russian by Sport-Marafon Library several months ago, along with strong men there are incredible women, such as Wanda Rutkiewicz.

Bernadette, you spent a large part of your life studying Polish mountaineering. You spent a lot of time in Poland, communicating with local climbers, learning about their lives. Do you feel at home with them?

It’s starting to feel that way. Yes, I do. I come here several times a year now for you know, for doing research, obviously also to meet with my Polish publisher and also to promote the books that have been published in Poland. And every time that I’m here I’m meeting with the members of the mountain community, sometimes professionally, sometimes socially and yeah, it feels kind of like an extended family.

In the center of the Freedom Climbers is the story of Andrzej Zawada, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Jerzy Kukuchka, Wojciech Kurtyka, and Krzysztof Wielicki. And this is what interests me. There is a wide range of heroes. Why you put these exactly people in the center of the story? Exclusively because of their contribution to mountaineering? Or because of your sympathies too?

I was obviously committed to these characters for the book because of their mountaineering accomplishments. But many very accomplished climbers were not included, at least not in a major way. So yes, the decisions were partially made based on who I met during the process of researching the book, who resonated for me – not just as climbers but also as humans, and finally, those who had interesting and compelling things to say about Himalayan climbing.

With Lindsay Griffin, Voytek Kurtyka and Mick Fowler at Piolets d’Or in La Grave

Your latest book, Art of Freedom, is entirely about Wojciech Kurtyka. Was it to the taste of the Polish public?

The impression that I have is that there was фn expectation in the community that at some point this book would be written, but nobody knew when, because Wojciech is famous for being a reluctant participant in all of this kind of thing. And so I think they were a little bit surprised when it finally appeared. Luckily I had some credibility in this community because of “Freedom Climbers”. So I think it has been well received. It seems to be because it’s selling quite well, to be honest. Well, it’s one thing that comes.

I can’t remember who told me that
Voytek didn’t see the last version of the book before printing.

That’s correct. The reason we decided to do it that way, well, actually I insisted because I wanted it to be a biography, not an autobiography. And for it to be a biography, I needed to be independent. He needed to be hands off. But we agreed that he would review all of the climbing sequences, all of the climbing parts. Because what he said to me was, this book is going to be the record of my life as a climber. And I don’t want it to be wrong. I don’t want there to be mistakes about, you know, who did what, when, how hard it was, what elevation, how many hours. He said he wanted it to be absolutely correct. And I said, okay, that’s fine. So those are the sections of the book he read before it was published. But no, it’s true. The rest of it. It was a surprise for him.

Did he like it?

I think he did like most of it. Of course, he doesn’t agree with everything.

It would be strange if he agreed with everything.

That’d be crazy. No, I mean I have the utmost respect for him, but I also have my own independent opinion about certain things and I tried to express that.

Bernadette likes to spend her free time climbing

In how many languages have your books been translated? In particular, Freedom Climbers.

I think FC is in 11 languages. Art of Freedom is in 13 languages and Alpine Warriors is in 9. I think that’s accurate.

Which of your books is the most popular today?

It’s rather country-specific, or maybe more accurately, continent-specific. But overall, I think it’s a toss-up between Freedom Climbers and Art of Freedom.

A writer rarely puts off the pen for a long time. And I know you’re writing a new book now. How’s the work going? Are you already talking about it openly or are you still keeping the subject a secret?

My new book is almost ready. We are at the page proof stage – finally! It won’t be on the shelves until the autumn, simultaneously with a UK publisher and an American publisher. It hasn’t been announced yet by the publishers so I’m not at liberty to talk about it. Very soon, though.

Polish mountaineer Adam Bielecki signs the Russian edition of Freedom Climbers during his lecture at the Sport-Marafon Travellers Club in Moscow

Looking forward to it! As a writer and a member of the community, I think you see many books, many stories written by climbers. Do you read a lot?

Oh, I do actually. I read as much as I possibly can. I mean, I read the lot, I read a lot of fiction and I read all kinds of stuff. I don’t read poetry, but I read almost everything else. But I do read a lot of mountaineering books because for me it’s, it’s often research and I enjoy reading them, not just about the projects that I’m working on, but also other climbers, other communities. It’s all context for me. It’s all research.

And what books caught your attention last couple of years? What impressed you?

The last book that David Roberts wrote, «Limits of the Known»,  which is very well written, it’s about himself. So it’s introspective, it’s about him looking at his life as a climber, but from the perspective of someone who has cancer, so he’s, you know, he’s very sick and his life expectancy has changed dramatically. And it’s an interesting observation of life as an adventurer, life as a climber, but from someone who now is thankful for every single day that goes by. It won the Boardman Tasker for that year.

And I really enjoyed David Smart’s book about Paul Preuss. I loved the way he provided so much historical context to the climbing story, which in itself was also very interesting. As you know, I love the historical context of these climbing narratives, and David did it very well.

Growing grapes is another of Bernadette’s favorite activities

Today, only lazy people do not read lectures online or write podcasts. Do you manage to watch and listen to all this? If the answer is yes, who do you think is worth paying attention to?

You would think that I would have all the time in the world to watch the outdoor community communicate online. But this crisis has coincided with my maze of writing deadlines – not just the upcoming book – and I am consumed with that, along with getting exercise so I don’t become a complete marshmallow waiting for the backcountry to open up.

Then let’s forget about the moment. What books have helped you become what you are in the mountaineering world?

One of the first mountain books that I read was “Seven Years in Tibet” by Heinrich Harrer. It’s not a climbing book, but a real mountain adventure that took him to a place that was utterly fascinating to me. It affected me deeply, instilling a yearning for travel, for exposure to different cultures, and wilderness.

Many years later, I learned a lot more about the backstory, about the author, and about the political situation that created the need for their escape into Tibet, and I even got to know Harrer rather well in the process. It was disappointing to have some of those early preconceptions shattered by reality, but it was still a formative book for me.

Another book that I have always loved is a collection of writings by Eric Shipton. The Eric Shipton omnibus is a volume that I return to repeatedly. The explorations and adventures are naturally entertaining, but what I love is the way his writing is informed by his insatiable energy, his curiosity, and his wry sense of humor.

And a third book that helped me a lot is “Mountaineering: the Freedom of the Hills”. It’s an instructional book that has had many reprints over the years, but my husband and I have a well-thumbed first edition. Back in the 1970s, we pored over that book, learning knots, practicing belaying techniques, simulating falls, trying to fathom Z-pulley systems for crevasse rescue, and on and on. Later, my husband was well-trained for his work as a rescue specialist, but initially, that book was our bible. 

And I will ask you as a writer. What three books do you think any climber should read?

Oh boy…..you ask difficult questions. One book that has always impressed me is “Learning to Breathe” by Andy Cave. It’s a wonderful story about growing up in the deep underground of the UK mining culture and finding his soul up in the thin cold air of the high mountains. Beautifully written. Another fine book, but very difficult to find in languages other than Slovenian (and now Polish) is “Pot” by Nejc Zaplotnik. The title translates as “The Way”, and I can’t recommend it enough for its poetic writing, its expressions of pure joy in the mountains. The book inspired several generations of Slovenian alpinists, and I can easily see why. Another book that I love is a climbing novel called “Solo Faces” by James Salter. Salter is one of the finest writers I know, a minimalist, a craftsman, with every word in the right place at just the right time. I’ve read everything he’s written, but for a climber, “Solo Faces” is a must.

At the Ladek Mountain Festival in Poland. Photo: Małgorzata Telega

Okay, let’s talk about those who are not guided by others’ recommendations and want to choose books to read by themselves. Where to look?

You know, it depends I guess what language you’re looking for. But English language books, I would say a couple of good places. First is the Boardman Tasker website. Not just the shortlist but also the long list. It gives you a really good, you know, overview of climbing book that have just been published. Another good place to look is the Banff Mountain Film and Book festival competition list. They have a long list and also a shortlist. That’s a good place to look. Also in the United States, there’s something called the National Outdoor Book Awards. It’s called NOBA and they have quite a few different categories. So it’s not just mountaineering. There’s biography, there are books on the environment, lots of good stuff.

Where do more fans of your work live? In Europe? In the USA?

I would say probably there are the Spanish, well, obviously Polish edition, Spanish, Italian, German language. Yeah. The European market for the books that I write is bigger than the North American market. But now I’m starting also to sell in the Asian market. So Korean, Japanese.

At the Korea Awards


Are they interested in the lives of European climbers? Because you write mostly about European climbers.

Mostly Eastern European climbers!

Yes. Why are you interested in exactly their lives?

Well, one of the most important reasons is that Eastern European climbers have not been well known or well-documented in the English language, which means that, you know most Canadians, most North Americans don’t even know that much about Dennis Urubko. They don’t know that much about Krzysztof Wielicki. I know it’s hard to imagine being here because everybody knows about them. But that was one of my goals – to tell their stories, which are, I think, quite incredible and deserve to be known.


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