The best books about adventure, belief, and finding meaning from the meaningless

Who am I?

Some thirty years ago, on a frozen waterfall near an old logging town in Montana, my life changed forever. A friend took me climbing. Almost instantly, upon leaving the ground, the mountains became my singular passion. I lived in run-down shacks and worked dead-end jobs, freeing myself to travel and to climb. Along the way I stumbled into an editorial job with the American Alpine Journal, where I worked for twelve years, deepening my knowledge of mountains, including the incomparable Cerro Torre. I know that climbing is overtly pointless. What we gain from it, however—what it demands and what we give in return—has immeasurable power.

I wrote...

The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre

By Kelly Cordes,

Book cover of The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre

What is my book about?

At the wind-scoured southern tip of Argentina, between the vast ice cap and the rolling estepas of Patagonia, rises an otherworldly tower of ice and rock called Cerro Torre. It draws the finest alpinists from around the globe, and its futuristic yet fatal first ascent claim in 1959 unfolded in ways that nobody could have imagined. A gasoline-powered air compressor, nationalistic pride, evidence versus belief, questions of who decides what’s right and wrong on a mountain—even in cases of life and death—and the challenges of change all culminate in 2012, with a global climbing controversy. The story of Cerro Torre is a wild and unlikely chronicle of hubris, heroism, and epic journeys, all played out on the most beautiful mountain on earth.

The books I picked & why

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Enduring Patagonia

By Gregory Crouch,

Book cover of Enduring Patagonia

Why this book?

I love how this book captures the spirit and obsession of climbing in Patagonia; the characters, the landscape, the majesty of the peaks, and our struggles to climb them. Crouch took me there years before I ever went. His devotion to climbing and his depth of experiences, from the harrowing to the mundane (in the endless boredom of waiting for good weather he declares himself “the Muhammad Ali of killing time”) shine in his writing. The book speaks to the obsessed, by the obsessed. It’s a cult classic among Patagonia alpine climbers for good reason.

Wind, Sand and Stars

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery,

Book cover of Wind, Sand and Stars

Why this book?

Saint-Exupery’s descriptions of what he sees and feels during enthralling activities amid stunning landscapes left me enchanted. The feelings he captures extend beyond the mere act of flying and into human relationships and our quest for meaning, written in beautiful, often philosophical prose. He approached flying as a metaphor for life and the human condition. Even if I will never fly, he made me care. 

Into the Wild

By Jon Krakauer,

Book cover of Into the Wild

Why this book?

Krakauer’s ability to weave historical facts and research with first-person insight made me feel the complexity of the young Christopher McCandless, a person perhaps not so different from us. Was he merely a fool? Or did he live brightly in staying true to his values? Krakauer’s reflections on his own youthful, idealistic journeys draw us in, making us view McCandless with far more complexity than someone we should easily dismiss. This book helped me consider the fine lines and the twists of fate that sometimes separate the passionate from the tragically obsessed.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari,

Book cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Why this book?

What sounded like an interesting book on history felt like a field guide to understanding humans, in all our truly senseless but seemingly normal behavior. I love how this book explains the way we got to where we are, for better and for worse, which may point to where we are going. I was captivated throughout, and the second chapter, “The Tree of Knowledge,” set the stage by simultaneously blowing my mind and explaining humankind through our unique capacity for imagination; our fictions. The stories we tell. The ideas and cultures and gods we create. They drive everything, from how we use money to how we approach mountains. We are strange, complex, and fascinating creatures.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

By William Finnegan,

Book cover of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Why this book?

I’m not alone in calling this one of the greatest climbing books ever written. Even though it’s about surfing. But that’s what makes Finnegan a master of the craft: He captures the essence of the pursuit, well beyond the pursuit itself. He writes as a lifer, as if he were born for this, a devoted participant who was in on discovering some of the greatest surf breaks on earth, at a time when the world seemed different. Except I know, by extrapolating from my love of climbing, that once you’re out there, the rest of the world falls away and you experience magic. 

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