If you did a double take when you read this headline then that’s OK: so did I. I can’t quite believe it, but today I’ve reached an important milestone.
When I started this blog in August 2010, it was a bit of a leap in the dark. I had no idea where it would go.
Back then, my website was a place to publish photographs and diaries from my travels. I wanted to write more, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write. And I was publishing into a void: apart from kind-hearted friends and family, I didn’t have an audience. I hoped that writing a travel blog would help with both these things.
I didn’t exactly burst on the scene. Nor did I spread like a virus (well, not like you-know-what, anyway). My very first post was a turgid ramble about a website that I’d set up for someone using WordPress. Yawn – I would never dream of publishing something like that now. Who gives a shit. Luckily, it was a one off. For the rest of 2010, I kept the blog ticking over with a series of expedition dispatches and trip reports. But I was still finding my feet – or more accurately, my voice.
With a background in web publishing that included search engine optimisation (zzzzzzzz), I knew that if you write something interesting and put it on the internet with links from elsewhere, then people will find it. It therefore seemed logical that if I published something at the same time every week, I would gradually build up an audience of regular readers – as long as it was entertaining.
Starting in January 2011, I published a blog post every week on Wednesday afternoons. I chose Wednesday because it seemed like a quiet time when people might be bored enough to read it. It’s no use posting on Thirsty Thursday, and by the weekend people would have other entertainments in mind.
But what to write about? My first posts were like Santa’s stockings. There was all sorts in there, but nothing that might tempt you to put them on. I wrote everything from equipment lists to listicles to book and TV reviews to walking reports, even environmental politics.
With posts like these, you can be forgiven for thinking I was the guy who put the ‘hazard’ into ‘haphazard’. Luckily, I did do one thing right. I’m not very good at bullshitting, so I knew from the start that I would have to be authentic. I wasn’t (and I’m still not) an expert or intrepid traveller. The blog wasn’t going to work if I tried to pretend I was.
Authenticity is something that even the pros struggle with. Only this week I decided to stop following the UK adventure travel mag Wanderlust after they tweeted that I should walk off my Christmas turkey by going for a walk somewhere that not even people who lived nearby were able to walk.
As many of us in the UK wake up to more severe restrictions this morning, I finally decided to stop following @wanderlustmag whose tweets throughout 2020 have been completely tone deaf to the realities of a global pandemic. https://t.co/gZAwcXhEk6
— Mark Horrell 🌋 (@markhorrell) December 26, 2020
Throughout 2020 Wanderlust have continued doing what they always do: churning out listicles of places their readers should visit, even though not a single one of their readers actually could. It would have been easy for Wanderlust to adapt their content to a global pandemic by simply asking their writers, all of whom were living in some degree of COVID-19 lockdown, to be themselves. They had failed the authenticity test, and as a consequence their content had become irrelevant.
For me, being authentic was a no-brainer. This decision enabled me to find my voice as a writer because I ended up doing something that no one else was doing. As a singleton with a thirst for travelling far afield, but with neither the time nor the inclination to roam around on my own in foreign countries, most of my holidays were group trips. With a crowded market of travel bloggers competing to show how intrepid they were, I spied a niche.
If everyone else is trying be intrepid, then why not just be trepid? Nobody was writing about travel from the perspective of a commercial client on a group trip. Most travel bloggers (or indeed travel writers of any sort) would be ashamed to admit to travelling in a group. The mere mention of travel companions or pre-arranged itineraries would bring about red cheeks.
But if my cheeks were rosy, it was only because my writing was so raw that the wind was scraping the skin off my face. Group travel had taken me to places I would never have ventured on my own, in some good company. It would be easy to write about, because I could just be me.
In that first year alone, I wrote about the Annapurna Circuit, trips to the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, Bhutan (twice) and the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. I wrote about the transition from trekking to mountaineering, and the best places to go for a mountainous Christmas. Unlike other travel bloggers who found their material by grabbing it off the internet, I wrote from personal experience.
As I gradually climbed higher mountains, my writing transitioned naturally from group adventure travel to commercial mountaineering. Then in 2012 I climbed Everest, and suddenly everything took on a different purpose.
As we know, the mainstream media love a good controversy. They were an easy target for my blog because they were clueless about mountaineering. Their articles could be easily debunked, parodied or ridiculed. This group didn’t just include general news outlets but specialist outdoor publications such as Outside magazine. One of the posts I was most proud of was my debunking of their frequently quoted fabrication that being a Sherpa on Everest is more dangerous than being a soldier on the front line in Iraq.
The alpinists were a more intriguing group to tackle. These are people, many of whom are highly respected and talented climbers, who believe that mountains, including Everest, should only be climbed in a certain way. I didn’t even know they existed until I found myself on the receiving end of their attacks. They knew a lot about mountaineering and they took their art (because to them, climbing is an art) very seriously.
Defending commercial mountaineering from the attacks of the alpinists was controversial. These were people who were universally admired. I admired them too – for their adventurous spirit and climbing ability. But I did not agree with their belief that everybody should do it their way, any more than I believe that everybody should wear a Christmas jumper to the office. Trolling the alpinists meant trolling a religion. I would be committing blasphemy. But that was OK. I had already sinned when I slid my jumar up those fixed ropes. I rolled my sleeves up, put the rubber gloves on and got stuck in.
A corollary of the cult of alpinism is that, apart from a dollop of laddish banter in books by the ‘booze, birds and fags’ British climbers of the 70s and 80s, there are very few humorous mountaineering books. I aimed to change that, and it helped my writing to stand out (though judging by some of the reviews, my penchant for chucking a few jokes into a passage about mountaineering history has come as a surprise to some readers).
Looking back, I can see that the heyday of this blog were the years from 2012 to 2015 when I tackled the controversies of Everest and commercial mountaineering from the perspective of a commercial client. These were my most widely shared posts and the ones where I added the most value by providing an alternative viewpoint from the horse’s mouth.
I don’t know what influence I ultimately had. There have been changes; the mainstream media is now more educated about the nuances of commercial mountaineering, but the ordinary client’s voice is still seldom heard. The person who has championed it the most and been the most influential is Alan Arnette. Hopefully I have added the occasional ripple to his tide.
While I plugged away at the blog, I was working on other forms of writing. I published the first of my travel diaries on Amazon in 2011, and released 20 over the next five years. They were entirely self-edited and thrown out there with all their flaws, but they sold effortlessly in numbers I would never have dreamed possible. They helped me to find many new readers. However, they needed more polishing and I have since withdrawn them to start again. I am gradually re-editing and re-publishing the best of them to a much higher standard.
My best works as a writer – the things that I have poured most heart and soul into – are my two travelogues Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest and Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo. Seven Steps became an immediate bestseller, and has remained on bestseller lists ever since. It’s been flying off the shelves this Christmas too. Though IMO it’s a better book, Feet and Wheels has not sold as well, but I guess this is because it’s about a mountain most people haven’t heard of.
Proud as I am of having written them, I’ve accepted they are not going to earn me enough to make a living as a writer.
In the early days, Amazon looked like a game-changer for writers, with its 70% royalties for ebooks and ability to match books to readers using algorithms powered by massive datasets. Since then, Amazon has gradually squeezed authors like the big publishing companies that preceded it. Now, in order to reach the same readers, I’d have to buy adverts on the platform and experiment with keywords. Many indie authors spend dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars poring over Amazon and Facebook ads. I don’t have the patience or the inclination for that.
Then there is the subscription model common to Amazon Prime, Audible and Spotify. This has provided consumers with access to unlimited content for just a small monthly fee. Most of that monthly fee goes to the owners of the platforms, not the creators of the content. Audible has even started withholding royalties from authors when audiobooks are returned. Everything points to authors (and musicians) earning less for their work, not more.
Luckily, I earn good money as a consultant, and flexible working has allowed me time off to travel and write. It’s income from our day jobs that has enabled Edita and me to buy a place in the Cotswolds with a nice bit of land beside the river. I’m fortunate to have found my work increasingly satisfying. Earlier this year – unbelievably – it brought me a Nobel prize. I may never win an award for writing, but how many mountaineering writers have won the Nobel Peace Prize? Perhaps I’m the only one.
As for the blog, now that I’ve completed my crusade to write one post a week for 10 years, I’ve reached a crossroads. The blog has served a useful purpose. It has taught me discipline as a writer – how to keep writing even when the writing brain isn’t working in top gear. It has shown me that there is no such thing as writer’s block – as long as you sit down to write, there are always new ideas and the words will eventually come, even if you have to edit them a few times afterwards.
The blog has helped me to find my voice, it has brought me readers and it’s been fun.
Don’t worry – I won’t be abandoning the blog. I will still keep posting, but I will be doing so less frequently to concentrate on other writing projects that have been neglected while the crusade to post every week remained. I can’t tell you what these projects are yet, because some of them are still just ideas and I don’t yet know where they will sail. But some day they will reach another shore. I hope you’ll remain aboard.