Wednesday, March 21, 2012

An Introduction to Mountaineering Literature

In the past year I have read over thirty mountaineering books and I am only beginning my probably lifelong study of Alpinism. In an effort to both encourage others to read about climbing and review what I have read for my own clarity of thought, I have compiled this list. It is composed of what I feel are the best ten climbing books, with edited versions of the reports I wrote when I finished them; most of the other books I have read have been sorted into those worth reading and those generally not.

Top Ten

The Great Days
Walter Bonatti

Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest mountaineers of the mid-20th century (with many important ascents in the Alps and a major part in the Italian expedition that put Lacedelli and Compagnoni on the summit of K2), recounts a few of the major climbs of the second half of his career. Aside from Touching The Void, this is easily the best narrative mountaineering book I have read: lucid, detailed, philosophical, tied to the past and looking toward the future, well-mannered but not afraid to admit and address controversy. In one particularly poignant passage, prefacing his ascent of the Whymper Spur on the north face of Grandes Jorasses, he describes his childhood experiences during the second world war and lays bare the entire existential attitude and how it leads to mountaineering. Another memorable moment is his solo climb of the Petit Dru.

The Mountain Spirit
ed. Tobias and Drado

This is not, strictly speaking, a book about mountain climbing – it is a book about the relationship people have with the mountain environment. More than half of the articles are related in some way to mountaineering, but a surprising number of them focus on the wilderness in general. The standout articles are, in my opinion, Rawdon Goodier’s “In A Hard Intellectual Light…”, David Roberts’ Alaska and Person Style, Jeffrey Long’s Makalu and Michael Tobias’ A History of Imagination in Wilderness, but the best contribution was Bernard Amy’s A Poetics of Alpinism. Amy put forward what is, quite simply, the most innovative way of looking at Alpinism I have come across. I was rather disappointed to learn that he is French and his writing, with the exception of this essay, which was prepared for this collection, is untranslated.
Also included were some eastern texts I was unfamiliar with, mostly Taoist and Zen Buddhist, and unfortunately I do not feel I have the intellectual background to really understand or appreciate what they said.

Touching the Void
Joe Simpson

Touching the Void remains one of the most gut wrenching stories I have ever read. The film is also excellent – one of the few to really capture the spirit of climbing. The gist is that two British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, with years of experience on some of the hardest routes in the Alps, attempted to make the first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, a notorious difficult undertaking that had repelled four previous expeditions. While they successfully climbed the peak, Simpson fell a short distance on the descent and broke his leg, leaving them in the unfortunate predicament of having to lower Simpson down the mountain. Late the next night (they would have stopped at nightfall but had run out of fuel to melt snow) Yates accidently lowered Simpson off a cliff and had to cut the rope when he began to be pulled off his stance. Simpson fell into a crevasse at the base of the cliff and Yates, logically enough assuming he was dead, returned to their base camp. Simpson however, was not killed and over the course of the next three days crawled out of the crevasse, over the glacier, and across the moraine to their camp, where, likely moments from death, Yates found him.
Thus lies the controversy: upon returning to England, Yates faced intense criticism for his actions, although Simpson has always defended him. Both men continued to climb and have written several books. I have addressed the ethic issues of this event extensively in my essay, Ethical and Epistemological Issues in Roped Climbing, and so I will not reiterate my views on the matter here. From a literary perspective, Simpson’s writing is above average, he had little previous experience as a writer but his degree in literature gives his narrative an intensity and stylistic competence that few climbing writers can match.

The Naked Mountain
Reinhold Messner

Although now retired, Reinhold Messner is often considered the greatest mountaineer of the 20th century. His greatest achievement, according to many, was being the first man to summit all 14 8000 meter peaks, but it is my opinion that only a few of those climbs are really worthy of his reputation; his ascent of Nanga Parbat, which is the subject of this book, is certainly among them. Because of the group dynamic of his expedition, the story is much deeper than that of most of the climbers, rivaling Simpson’s for psychological intensity. Along with the legendary Herman Buhl, Messner is perhaps the essence of the German school of Alpinism: he climbs with such passion, such wholeness of spirit and simplistic honesty, it is difficult not to idolize him.

Thin Air
Greg Child

A mountaineering book without all that was beginning to annoy me about mountaineering books: their journalistic fascination with defeat and tragedy and their poorly written determination to pad their author’s stories with those of all that came before. With Messner’s The Naked Mountain, such descriptions were necessary to understand the leader of his own expedition, with many others, one thinks they simply do not have their own story to tell. Thin Air consists of three expeditions to Himilayan and Karakoram peaks one does not ordinarily read about: Shivling, Lopsang Spire (and Broad Peak), and Gasherbrum IV, all (except Broad Peak) are under 8000 meters, although his routes were more technical than the standard routes on any of the top fourteen. Child’s writing is very effective, with far more polish and expertise than other climber’s memoirs, and although his characteristic Australian wit rarely makes an appearance in this book, his experience as a column writer done him well.

Starlight and Storm
Gaston Rebuffat

Rebuffat was the first man to climb the six great north faces of the Alps and this book is the accounts of those climbs, but the reader would not know of the magnitude of that accomplishment except by reading the preface by David Roberts. This is the epitome of Rebuffat: he was one of the greatest mountaineers of his generation, a peer of Herman Buhl and Walter Bonatti, yet he writes of his climbing in the most casual, romantic, carefree manner. In many ways he is the polar opposite of both the post-war British climbers (Willans, Bonington, Haston, Patey) and the great continental soloists, Buhl and Bonatti. And this is to say nothing of his being probably the last great mountaineer to have a deep respect for the guide-client relationship. Overall, Starlight and Storm is perhaps the best introductory mountaineering text I have read, one gets a clear picture of the ethic of alpinism, including its elemental joy and underlying tensions, as well as a good overview of mountaineering in the Alps, both in terms of geography and technique.

Enduring Patagonia
Gregory Crouch

Gregory Crouch is a upper-mid-level climber, with many expeditions to the Andes and Alaska and a few first ascents under his name. This book describes many of his exploits in Patagonia, the southmost region of the Andes, most notably his several climbs on and round the famous Torres (Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, and Cerro Stanhardt).
Crouch’s writing is vivid, grandiose and personal. Although he frequently lapses into flowery imagery and pretentious allusions he has moments of genius. In some ways, his climbing philosophy is unoriginal. Crouch’s “Alpinism” is not different in any appreciable way from Viesturs’ “summiting is optional, coming home is mandatory” philosophy, except that he emphasizes the light-and-fast style of the 2nd Wave British Climbers. This sort of askewing of siege tactics (coincidently, nearly always by dirt poor climbing bums would couldn’t afford an expedition even if they stooped to so banal an enterprise) has been articulated many, many times before, and has become a bit tiresome.
Reflecting on the book as a whole, I find myself confused as to what kind of person Gregory Crouch really is. A Westpoint graduate who went through ranger school and served as an army officer for several years, including seeing combat in Panama and Desert Storm, before quitting during the post-Gulf War downsizing. A trash-talking jokester who admits to using humor to manage the fear of extreme mountaineering. These do not mesh in my mind with the stylistic flourishes and brushes with mysticism that crop up in his writing. The last chapter of Enduring Patagonia is a fascinating theological take on the theory of mountain climbing - how can this brash, crass man be so articulate and well-read?

One Man’s Mountains
Tom Patey

Patey was a Scottish mountaineer, a climber of icy gullies and sea stacks and occasional venturer into the Alps and Himalayas. His writing is largely of the humorist variety, substituting dry wit for introspection and philosophizing. He showed enormous potential, both as a writer and as a mountaineer and his death in 1970 during at rappelling accident was the tragedy of the first rate. This book is the essence of the British school of mountaineering and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the complexities of the post-war Alpine climbing scene.

Climbing: Because It's There
ed. Stephen Schmid

As the first and only collection of explicitly philosophical climbing essays I have come across, I was extremely exited about this book – here was a real starting point for my work. The contributers are almost entirely professors of philosophy (and avid climbers) and their essays address, in some way, virtually every philosophical issue climbing faces. That being said, the collection is more than a little skewed toward crag climbing and many of the essays are written in a simplistic, pandering style, as if the reader was expected to have little knowledge of climbing and less of philosophy. Despite this, there were a few standout essays: Kevin Krein’s “Climbing and the Stoic Conception of Freedom,” Phillip Ebert and Simon Robertson’s “Mountaineering and the Value of Self-Sufficiency,” Eric Swan’s “Zen and the Art of Climbing,” and Debora Halbert’s “From Routefinding to Redpointing: Climbing Culture as a Gift Economy.” Although they rarely address the specific issues of mountaineering much of what they write is widely applicable, if only as an example of what I am trying to argue against.

Desert Solitaire
Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey, writing in the 1960s, was one of the men who defined the environmental movement. He lamented not only the bulldozing of the wilderness – clear-cutting, dam building, urban sprawl – but the binding of what little remained into industrial tourist money-making facilities (otherwise known as National Parks). Abbey was an excellent writer, an original thinker and a true man of the wilds, but I must question some of his choices. The exploitation of the south-west was inevitable, surrounded on four sides by civilization, by major cities and large populations, the national parks and their stay-on-the-trail, protect man from the environment and the environment from man mentality are the only way to protect those regions while admitting the laws of supply and demand. If Abbey truly believed what he claimed and wanted a life in the wilderness he should have gone elsewhere, Alaska or northern Canada remain largely wilderness, and will stay as such for the foreseeable future due to the natural difficulties of life in the subarctic zones.
It is sad what has happened to that part of the country, the flooding of Glen Canyon and the transformation of Arches by its massive popularity. I can only console myself with the knowledge that this too shall pass, the Glen Canyon Dam shall someday burst and the river will right itself again, and when war comes to the borderlands the tourists will flee and the canyons will be left to the hermits and cacti.

Also Worth Reading

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
Eiger Dreams - Jon Krakauer
The Crystal Horizon - Reinhold Messner
Annapurna - Maurice Herzog
Postcards From The Ledge - Greg Child
The Beckoning Silence - Joe Simpson
Dark Shadows Falling - Joe Simpson
This Game of Ghosts - Joe Simpson
Challenge of the North Cascades - Fred Beckey
Hold The Heights - Walt Unsworth
Mountaineer - Chris Bonington
In High Places - Dougal Haston
The Mountains of My Life - Walter Bonatti, trans. Robert Marshall
Scrambles Amongst The Alps - Edward Whymper
My First Summer In The Sierra - John Muir

Avoid Except for Research Purposes

K2: Life and Death On the World’s Deadliest Mountain - Ed Viesturs
A Most Hostile Mountain - Jonathan Waterman
Killing Dragons - Fergus Fleming
The Vertical Arena - Daniel Anker
The Challenge of Rainier - Dee Molenaar
High Achiever - Jim Curran

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