DULUTH, Minn. — Duluth’s David Pagel is climbing another mountain — this one of the literary kind.
For 40 years, Pagel has been climbing some of the world’s most notable peaks — from Denali to Yosemite’s El Capitan to the Matterhorn and the Eiger. For more than three decades, he has written numerous stories about his adventures for America’s leading climbing journals. Last year, he collected those stories into a compilation called “Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber.”
Recently, Pagel was thrilled to learn that his self-published “Cold Feet” was named one of five finalists for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature. The award honors people whose work has “made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature.”
“To make the short list is huge,” Pagel said in a recent interview. “I never in a million years dreamed that I’d be on that list.”
While Pagel, 55, takes his climbing seriously, he refuses to take himself too seriously, claiming all along that he is just a “middling” climber. Although he has made some of the world’s classic climbs, his stories don’t fall into the typical somehow-we-survived genre common to climbing literature.
“That’s the exact opposite of what Dave writes,” said longtime climbing friend Rick Kollath of Duluth. “He discovered this niche of the ‘everyman’ climber… Instead of saying, ‘I’m the great…conquering hero,’ he’s sort of this average Joe who manages somehow against all odds to succeed.”
Pagel, a self-described non-athlete in an athletic family, made his first big climb at Devils Tower in Wyoming in the mid-1980s and wrote about it for Climbing magazine.
“It was my first western trip,” Pagel remembers. “I couldn’t put it into words. I just sat down and wrote it with no ambition to be a writer. I sent it to Climbing magazine. Lo and behold, they bought it. Next trip, same thing.”
He had launched a writing career. He eventually became a senior contributing editor at Climbing magazine and later wrote for Rock and Ice, another leading U.S. climbing journal.
Last year, he decided to compile his climbing essays.
“I’d always dreamed of having my stories put together all in one place,” he said.
He self-published the book through CreateSpace at Amazon.com. Kollath, a graphic designer and illustrator, created the cover. Pagel sells the book through CreateSpace and Amazon. Sales have been brisk lately, especially in Great Britain, home of the Boardman Tasker Charitable Trust and its mountain literature award. The award is named for two British climbers and writers, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, who died on Mount Everest in 1982.
Pagel, raised in the Twin Cities, chose the University of Minnesota Duluth when he went to college. He already was a climber.
“I chose my college based on the best climbing in the Midwest,” he said.
Never straying far from rocks, he majored in geology. He has made a living in Duluth doing film and video production, and more recently writing biographies as a freelancer.
His writing about climbing is wise and funny and self-deprecating.
“Self-effacing to a fault, for 30 years David has chronicled his climbs and encounters with heroes, pondering the place of the Everyman in the pantheon of climbing gods and goddesses,” wrote Michael Kennedy, former editor of Climbing magazine, in the foreword to “Cold Feet.” “(Pagel) brings a disarming and pragmatic sensibility to each chapter…”
Problem-solving in gym class
Pagel discovered climbing in a high school gym class where the teacher had built a climbing wall. He was “terrible” at basketball and baseball, he said, but that first climb changed his life.
“It was more about problem-solving than strength or coordination,” he said.
He and his Midwestern buddies began climbing western peaks and eventually many of Europe’s iconic mountains. Were they in over their heads? Sometimes.
“We climbed El Cap in Yosemite because we didn’t know we shouldn’t be able to,” Kollath said.
When Pagel returned home to write his stories of those climbs, his readers lapped them up.
“The stories are invariably very funny,” said Kollath, himself an accomplished climber. “He’s very self-deprecating. You’re laughing about somebody climbing something that’s quite serious. But if you’re an everyday, average Joe climber, you’d think, ‘I could climb El Cap, too.’ “
Cameron M. Burns, in a review of “Cold Feet” for the American Alpine Journal, says: “(Pagel’s) experiences and thoughts are so fresh and raw and unmolested with B.S. that ‘Cold Feet’ is one of the best reads on the climbing horizon.”
In his introduction to “Cold Feet,” Pagel writes, “…my forte is the Everyman diarist, whose soul is fueled by exuberant mountain ambition even as the blood is draining from his extremities and the bomb bay doors of his lower intestine are swinging open.”
Kollath knows what Pagel has climbed, and by what routes.
“He has gotten up some really impressive stuff,” Kollath said. “You don’t get up that stuff if you don’t have a good skill level, if you’re not strong, if you’re not daring…”
Pagel will travel to the Kendal Mountain Festival in Great Britain in late November for the announcement of the Boardman Tasker literary prize. The prize carries with it a monetary award of $4,600 in U.S. dollars.
Get the book
To order David Pagel’s book “Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber,” go to createspace.com and search its store for the title. Or go to amazon.com and search for the title.