In his 76 years of rough-and-tumble living, Halibut Cove writer Mike Gordon has come to be known as “Mountain Mike” for his alpine adventures. Another adjective might be “persistent” for his dogged perseverance. In no particular order, Gordon:
• Started and ran one of Alaska’s most iconic bars, Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage;
• Attempted the Seven Summits, including three tries at Mount Everest;
• Kicked cocaine and quit smoking;
• Finished his undergraduate degree at the University of San Francisco 48 years after he started college,
• Worked his way back into the good graces of the love of his life, Shelli;
• Ran marathons, and
• Wrote, rewrote and revised his memoir, “Learning the Ropes,” starting it in 1990 and publishing it in February of this year.
Now out in paperback and hardcover, “Learning the Ropes” pulls no ropes.
As author and actor Peter Coyote wrote in a cover blurb, “I loved this book. I laughed my ass off; and more than once he made me choke off a sob. I wish I’d written it, but I get vertigo standing on a chair.”
Don Rearden, author of “The Raven’s Gift,” also praises the book.
“This is a wild and crazy glimpse into old school Alaska, where fists, guns, cash and cocaine ruled,” he writes in a blurb. “Gordon’s tale is a powerful reminder of the importance of love and how we can turn to nature to save ourselves.”
From 2-4 p.m. next Saturday, May 18, Gordon signs his book at the Homer Bookstore — the authorized, “banned in China” and printed in the USA second edition.
All but a dozen copies of a first run of 6,000 got confiscated when censors at a Chinese printer objected to a section Gordon wrote about Tibet. Officials noticed some photos of Tibet associated with a chapter, “Mt. Everest, First Attempt, North Side, 1990.”
“If they read that chapter, they’re not going to like it,” Gordon said he thought when he heard the Chinese News and Publication Agency had asked about the photos.
In that chapter he writes about crossing into Tibet.
“We arrived at the border with Tibet around noon, processed through Nepalese immigration and customs with no problems, then pulled up to the ‘Friendship Bridge,’ aptly named since it is just wide enough for a Chinese tank to cross over if reassurance of the sincere mutual friendliness of the relationship is ever required,” he writes.
Chinese authorities told Gordon’s Hong Kong printing contact that his book couldn’t be printed in China unless the entire chapter — pages 84 to 101 — on the 1990 Mt. Everest attempt was pulled.
He got an American printer and published an uncensored version.
Gordon builds “Learning the Ropes” around his mountain climbing adventures, particularly his attempts at climbing the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on the seven continents.
“The mountains are the framework,” Shelli Gordon said in an interview with Mike Gordon last month at the Homer News. “Is it a climbing story? Not really. It’s a memoir.”
“Learning the Ropes” begins with a short piece about a precarious climb on Denali.
“I think that the coming down the mountain then with the flashback grabs people’s attention,” Mike Gordon said.
While the mountaineering pieces set the tone of his memoir, the book has several different narrative threads winding back and forth and ultimately connecting. In “Learning the Ropes,” Gordon tells of his life from growing up in Florida to moving to Alaska as a boy to starting a family and then several businesses.
As Alaska history, it covers Anchorage from late territorial days through early statehood, the pipeline era and the glory days of the oil boom. That history gets told from the filter of owning bars like The Birdhouse in Bird or starting and running Chilkoot Charlie’s.
“Learning the Ropes” could be subtitled, “Divorce, Drugs and Despair.” Gordon admits his flaws, but he also seeks and finds redemption. As he put it, quoting Coyote, “It’s hard work writing an honest memoir.”
At its heart, “Learning the Ropes” also is a love story, about how through infidelity Gordon lost his wife, Shelli, rediscovered his love for her, and then regained her trust. Spoiler: the couple remarries in the end.
Gordon got his start writing on his mountain ascents when he waited for weather to clear.
“Climbing gave him something to think about,” Shelli Gordon said. “I felt like it had something to do with the altitude.”
“I would lay in my tent and think of these stories and write them out,” Mike Gordon said. “…It seems to have a parallel with great thinkers, the type that sit in mountain huts.”
Some of those stories had to do with growing up in Anchorage, and Gordon put them up on the Chilkoot Charlie’s website. The author and journalist David Holthouse noticed them and suggested to Nick Coltman, the cofounder of the Anchorage Press, that he reprint them. The Press ran them as a series of columns, many now part of “Learning the Ropes.”
Gordon wrote “Learning the Ropes” as his master’s thesis at Alaska Pacific University. He’d started the book in 1990 and finished a first draft in 1998.
“People I gave it to weren’t necessarily impressed,” Gordon said of earlier versions.
He dug into the book full time while attending APU from 2012-15, taking the advice of his professor, Dave Onofrychuk, who told him to “write a book nobody else can write.”
Now done and finished, Gordon said of his book, “I’m really happy and really proud of how it’s turned out.”