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The Blizzard of the Boardman Tasker

There’s a blizzard blowing. It comes around every year, during the short, sharp days of November when the Lake District town of Kendal becomes the centre of the mountaineering universe. The blizzard blows through a different group of people every year the authors caught in the icy blast of failure that comes with the announcement of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

Pete Thexton, whose story is a chapter in Brian Hall's new book, High Risk.

Entering a book competition is a risky business. However amazing you think your book is, the odds are you won’t win. You don’t know what the three judges’ criteria are. You don’t know their tastes: what they like, what they dislike, what edifices they lean against, what currents they flow with. While one judge might seek an entry’s relevance to the Award’s mountaineering roots, another might favour literary merit. It’s then up to the third judge, who might be looking for something else altogether, to cast the deciding vote. Usually, this results in one winner. But not this year.

As usual, the competition was tight, with submissions from previous winners, a couple of former BT Award judges, and several internationally renowned authors. For the fourth time in thirty years, the prize was awarded to two authors: Brian Hall for High Risk – Climbing to extinction; and former competition judge, Helen Mort, for Line Above the Sky – A story of mountains and motherhood. While sharing the prize doubles the odds of winning, most still don’t win. Instead, they feel the sting of the storm.

Of course, you can’t win it if you’re not in it. Neither can you climb a mountain if you don’t give it a go. But on a mountain you have more say over whether you succeed or fail than you do over winning a book competition. The weather might be fickle, the conditions instable, your fitness in question, but the decision whether to keep going or turn back is yours and yours alone. Just as it was for Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker when, in 1982, they climbed into their final blizzard.

This year, thirty-five authors felt the blizzard of Boardman Tasker Award failure. Most felt it when the shortlist was announced; the remaining four were flung headlong into it when the two winners were called up from their table of hopeful shortlisted authors. The losers would have smiled with gritted teeth into the blizzard, trying to be gracious, trying to hide their disappointment. They would have felt its icy blast. Unlike the one that did for Pete and Joe on the unclimbed NE Ridge of Everest, it’s not fatal. But believe me, it hurts.

I congratulate Brian Hall and Helen Mort on their shared Boardman Tasker win. Brian’s book, which includes the loss of his titular friends, Pete and Joe, couldn’t be more relevant. And Helen’s book, crafted by her poet’s precision nib, couldn’t be more literary. But mostly, I’d like to bring the thirty-five disappointed authors in from the cruel blast of the blizzard and huddle together in a warm tent on the side of a mountain that we might yet climb.


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