The Storms of Denali Book Tour: The Ethics of Climbing and Parenthood

mccallMcCall Public Library was a great venue for my first reading in Idaho. The weather was sunny and warm outside, with jet skis zipping over Lake McCall, a sparkling sapphire of a lake in northern Idaho. With all the the sunny weather and recreation opportunities, would anyone show up for the reading?

I set up my slide projector on a computer table. Librarian Lida Clouser pulled down a screen for the slide show. She brought her husband and kids, who sat in the front row. One of her sons told her that he wanted to be either a writer or a climber when he grew up. Guess what, she said, the guy giving the talk tonight is both! The pressure was on.

Gradually people filed in, sitting down on the overstuffed chairs. Chatting with them, I discovered than one man had attempted Denali and many read climbing literature., so I knew they would love The Storms of Denali. By the time I started my reading, over 20 people were in attendance.

After the reading and slide show, I asked for questions. This is quickly becoming my favorite part of the book tour, as I get a sense on how people are responding to The Storms of Denali.

“Can you comment on the ethics of a husband and father going on a dangerous climb?” a woman in the front row asked.

“That was one of the questions I wanted to explore in the book,” I said, thinking of what I discuss in my writing classes through The Writer’s Workshop. “The narrator, John, is a husband and father, and he feels a lot of guilt about being gone and away from his family, but he still goes on the trip. His climbing partner Wyn doesn’t see any conflict with marriage and parenthood and difficult climbing routes. The two of them argue about this in the course of the book. In the end, I think readers will understand what I think about this issue, but in a novel you don’t want to make an obvious pronouncement; you want to embody it through the characters. You want readers to discover it as if on their own.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her. I looked over at the boy who was in the front row, holding my ice hammer. What did he think about the issue? The enthusiasm for climbing shone in his eyes. The summit seemed in his sights, no matter what the ethics or obstacles.

The Spirit of Place: Outdoor Writing Class in North Cascades

Jade-green Diablo Lake
Jade-green Diablo Lake in the foreground with Colonial and Pyramid peaks in the background.

I just returned from teaching my class, The Spirit of Place: Writing about the Outdoors. The writing class took place at the environmental learning center of the North Cascades Institute, located on Diablo Lake, a jade-green jewel right off Highway 20, set amid the summits of Colonial and Pyramid peaks and Sourdough Mountain. It was a glorious time to visit, with warm and sunny weather and views spreading out in all directions.

We made a lot of progress in the three-day writing class, starting with a story idea and finishing with a 1,000 word piece of outdoor writing. The students produced some excellent stories. It didn’t hurt that the first day included a short hike to a waterfall for inspiration and possible material for a story. On the way back, several students spotted a black bear running through the forest, provoking gasps, shrieks and furious writing in notebooks.

The hike provided fodder for some of the stories, with others drawn from previous experiences. Students then completed a draft and revised their leads and nut graphs, a task many of them didn’t believe was possible in so short a time.

Students at Waterfall
Mark Smaalders and other students at the waterfall, gathering material for their stories.

I love teaching writing classes in these circumstances. The surroundings provided lots of inspiration with few distractions (no cell phone reception), allowing students to make a lot of progress. Here’s what some of them had to say about the writing class:

When I read the 3-day outdoor writing class syllabus and saw the goals of writing 150 words on our story the first night, then 1,000 pages by the end of the 2nd day, I was definitely intimidated. What if I have writer’s block? What will I write about? I don’t have a writing background. And here it is the 3rd morning and I have a 1,200 word story! Your structure, examples and calm demeanor have been immensely helpful. I’m grateful and feel invigorated to go write.
Jack McLeod

Nick never overwhelmed me. Goals were challenging, to very attainable. He provided me just the right amount of structure and support that allow me to create a draft that was far more satisfying than my expectations. The feeling of accomplishment at 9:30 on the second day of the writing class, when I completed the first draft of my piece was extraordinary. Nick got me there with a smile.
Rick Severn, Spokane

Sitting in a room of fellow writers, teachers, readers, and nature lovers is always a great regenerator of the spirit. The food was great, beautiful and efficient facility, friendly staff, and the location??? Come see for yourself.
Tom Matlack, Lake Stevens/Granite Falls

Nick gently pushes you to challenge yourself. Just what I needed.
Candice Munson, Bellingham

A skillfully taught writing course in a wonderful setting—with good food
—Margaret Jahn, Bellingham

Nick is a very impressive natural outdoors man and accomplished writer. He also balances the excitement of capturing the outdoor experience with his love of international cuisine, travel and regional historic culture. As a teacher, he was very approachable and able to help me look at the importance of bringing humor and voice to descriptive nonfiction piece of writing. I would recommend this class to anyone who likes the challenge of writing.
Linda, Federal Way School District

Thanks for the tips on non-fiction writing. The hike to find a story was a great idea.
-Tanya, Woodinville

A dynamic group, blissful surroundings and spirited discussions with Nick provided just the impetus necessary to encourage us all to learn and write.
-Alison – West Richland

You’re a Renaissance man, Nick! A lot comes to the table with you besides your excellent teaching skill. Thanks for a well-designed writing program that fit the time allotted and challenged me. Also, thanks for sharing your work with your book, On Sacred Ground in the evening presentation. Sincere thanks!
Siri Bardarson-Whidbey Island