David Roberts sounds like he’s talking about mountaineering when he describes the highs and lows of his career as a writer.
“Writing isn’t fun, but it sure is gratifying when it works,” Roberts says. “It’s not like making a nice move climbing — that’s fun.”
Roberts, 69, is the author of 25 nonfiction books. His latest, Alone on the Ice, is an account of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1913 scientific expedition to Antarctica, a lesser-known adventurer of the era. Mawson’s scientific research has been overshadowed in history books by the Norwegian team that was the first to reach the South Pole and Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions.
Roberts has published many works on the history of the American Southwest, though he is mostly known for chronicling untold stories in mountaineering and his own accomplishments in the mountain ranges of Alaska. For 13 consecutive years in the early 1960s to 1970s, Roberts climbed many bold routes in Alaska, most of them first ascents, including the Wickersham Wall on Mount McKinley, which to this day has never been repeated. Mountaineering gave Roberts a compelling subject to write about and led him to become a published and successful writer.
“The highs [of writing] are internal,” he says. “Feeling that you’ve gotten to the truth of something that no one else has before. It’s not just about fame, but about feeling you’ve got something right and something that’s not easy to get right. The lows are all about rejection. You can never be so successful that you don’t still experience rejection.”
If it weren’t for his casual climbing attire (khaki pants or jeans, a flannel shirt or a fleece jacket thrown over a t-shirt) Roberts could easily be mistaken for a computer programmer or a math professor. His graying hair is kept short and he wears glasses. He is 5’10”, his figure is slight but fit, and he talks with the elegant language of an East Coast literati.
Roberts lived most of his childhood on Bluebell Avenue in Boulder, Colorado. Today he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife Sharon and writes from a home office. He has given up the torturous pursuits of Alaskan mountaineering for recreational climbing, hiking, and golf.
Although golfing and climbing are drastically different, each sport requires a similar patience and mindset, Roberts says with a chuckle. Most climbers don’t admit they like to play golf.
At age 36, Roberts left his career as an English professor to become a full-time writer; however, writing was not his #1 career choice. He first wanted to become a short stop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but when he realized he “wasn’t even the best short stop in the fourth grade,” Roberts decided he should be a mathematician, then later a composer. It wasn’t until his experiences in the mountains of Alaska that he felt inspired to write.
And just like writing, climbing has highs and lows — being the first to climb a difficult route, or having a success overshadowed by the death of a climbing partner.
The inspiration for Roberts’s first novel, Mountain of My Fear, was a climbing trip in the summer of 1965, undertaken with Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and Ed Bernd. The group of four climbed the west face of Mt. Huntington in Alaska.
“We wanted not just to accomplish a fine new route like our climb on the Wickersham Wall,” Roberts wrote in his memoir On the Ridge Between Life and Death. “We wanted to complete an ascent that would be unarguably the hardest thing done in Alaska.”
Roberts was 22 at the time; he was an undergraduate student at Harvard University and a member of the Harvard Mountaineering Club. The west face of Mt. Huntington was, in fact, the most difficult route accomplished at the time, though their success was overshadowed by the death of Ed Bernd on the descent: Bernd fell 4,000 feet to his death when gear failed.
“I still feel guilty about inviting Ed on the expedition,” Roberts said to a small group at a book signing in Mammoth Lakes, California, this past fall.
He solemnly recounted the visit to Bernd’s parents’ house after the accident. Roberts told them that Ed died happy. He thought, at the time, that climbing mountains was a glorious thing, and he told Ed’s parents it was worth the risk.
“At 22 you aren’t very introspective,” Roberts told the audience.
More than 15 years after the Huntington expedition, Roberts wrote “Moments of Doubt,” which was published in Outside magazine (December 1980). The article recounts three climbing accidents that left friends and climbing companions dead, and addresses the question every climber must at some point ask himself: “Is it worth it?”
After each of the deadly accidents Roberts almost quit climbing, but he felt if he quit it would only prove that climbing wasn’t worth it, that they had made a mistake, and it cost people their lives.
“Which,” he admits, “can be a kind of pigheaded, short-sighted rationale for doing something.”
“Moments of Doubt” was the first and one of very few unsolicited articles Outside has ever published. It was the beginning of a “no-holds-barred” style of outdoors writing, according to John Rasmus, the managing editor of Outside at the time.
“It was really unusual because it was a departure from mountaineering literature in that it really treated the mountaineering experience as a philosophical, existential meaning of life and risk,” Rasmus said. “It’s so personable, so honest and so intense.”
Since “Moments of Doubt” was first published, Rasmus and Roberts have had a long-standing editor-writer relationship, working together at Outside, National Geographic Adventurer, Men’s Journal, and now at The Active Times.
“What stood out for me about David is his honesty, his storytelling ability and strong point of view,” Rasmus says.
According to Rasmus, Roberts’ “relentless examination” of people and their motives in climbing, through thought-provoking narrative, inspired younger generations of mountaineering writers like Jon Krakauer, who was Roberts’ creative writing student at Hampshire College.
Like his protégé, Roberts is no stranger to controversy. His reporting on mountaineering pursuits hasn’t always been favorable to the subjects, however well researched and true. Roberts also experienced backlash from writing about the deaths of climbing partners. The stories exposed the grief-stricken pain that the families were experiencing, even decades later.
“A friend or two of Ed’s wrote me some really savage letters saying that I had completely taken advantage of the parents,” Roberts said. “It was an incredibly powerful thing to go and visit the parents, and it made a great story about grief, but in a way I was exposing their privacy.”
According to colleagues, Roberts is known for being outspoken, but his goal in writing, whatever the subject, is honesty. While other writers tell the “ivory tower version” of a story, David tells the real story, “warts and all,” according to Greg Child, author and renowned climber.
“David doesn’t go for the jugular, but he goes for the absolute truth,” Child says.
Roberts admits that it’s easy to take advantage of a subject. He isn’t speaking about his experience with Ed Bernd’s parents or writing about climbing deaths. He is referring to subjects that he has interviewed for general interest magazines. He’s good at getting subjects to tell him things they wish they hadn’t, and unless the subject says “off the record” Roberts publishes just about anything to show true character, to tell the honest story.
“Does that make me a monster because I’ve sort of seduced them into telling me stuff they don’t really want published?” Roberts asks. “There are writers that are too nice to take advantage of the weak moments, but I think a good journalist really should.”