This review of Kiss or Kill was written by Steve Swenson. He was one of my idols in the Seattle climbing scene when I began climbing in the early-80s. For a trip to attempt the west face of G IV way back when they sold t-shirts with the slogan "Too Loose at 26,000'", which became almost as cool and iconic as the "Dead Boys Mountaineering and Ammo Club - Peru 1980" t-shirts another pair had sold to raise money around the same time.
This book contains a collection of Mark’s writings that were published mostly in climbing magazines between 1985 and 2000. As he says in his introduction, this book contains the “Author’s cuts, not the homogenized fluff offered up by specialty climbing magazine editors who are often unwilling to offend subscribers and advertisers.”
When these articles were first published, Mark introduced a controversial new style for mountaineering literature that caught the staid climbing community off guard. His work captured considerable attention at the time because these dramatic stories about attempting difficult alpine routes were told with such an overpowering nihilism that readers were either inspired or revolted. Many climbers were accustomed to and enjoyed reading from existential authors who depicted characters whose actions were the source of their dread and anguish. But for many of these same climbers, reading Mark’s climbing stories told with a similar angst elicited a sense of cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t surprising that these writings earned him the nickname of “Dr. Doom”.
Traditional mountaineering literature often uses climbing metaphors to uplift the reader with stories of courage and daring in the face of adversity. But the stories in this book describe a much darker emotional reaction to the stresses of difficult and committing alpine climbing. It is hard to say if the incongruity between Mark’s and many other climber’s descriptions of their alpine experiences is a result of differences in personal perspective, or if many of us refuse to acknowledge the inherent contradictions and dangers in climbing.
Viewing many of these stories with a 21st Century perspective makes them seem tamer in the way that the 1980’s punk music that influenced Mark’s writing seems tame when compared to today’s new music. Mark made valid points about honesty - honesty with your emotions, honesty with what you achieved, and honesty with your level of commitment. Although those values remain constant today, time blunts the sharp edges of messages delivered in our youth. Mark claims that this book is a one-time deal; I would like to see more from him where the message is taken further by being inclusive and not elitist.