Monday, September 17, 2012

More Mountaineering Literature

This summer I managed to get through a pitifully small number of climbing books, my thoughts on which are presented here.
In general, Roberts was disappointing, Habeler was surprisingly good (one of the finest pieces of climbing literature I have read) and Terray was as expected - that is, a true classic.

Last Of His Kind - David Roberts
Bradford Washburn, known in mountaineering circles as one of the Harvard Five, was a pioneering climber and aerial photographer who achieved the first ascent of many Alaskan peaks in the 30s and 40s and whose photographs inspired many generations of American mountaineers after him. To David Roberts he was something of a personal mentor, and it is notable that this biography, not the first book Roberts has written on Washburn’s achievements, was only published after Washburn’s death. Although he attempts to avoid the vapid glorification of hero worship that commonly comes out of that sort of relationship, and he is critical of Washburn in several instances, Roberts is, overall, too close to the material, too personally involved, too attached to his subject, to give a satisfactory account. Although the narrative does pick up toward the end, Roberts frequently lapses into cliche analysis and even more frequently reuses his own statements so as to sound repetitive and shallow.
As a Harvard graduate and noted mountaineering writer, this is somewhat surprising. Although his knowledge of the material is solid, Roberts skills as a scholar, notably the cultural-historical and social-historical expertise necessary to understand a man who came of age in the 1930s, are lacking. What Roberts offers is a fascinating account, but more because of the latent material than his own contributions; he offers little cohesion or sense of unity and his characterization of Washburn edges between the two dimensional and the simplistic (an argument or thesis is, of course, lacking, but that is to be expected in a popular biography). It is possible that Roberts was simply too tentative, or perhaps nervous, to write a stronger account of his hero’s life, and what we are left with is a summary of Washburn’s published works, including descriptions of his photography, and a loose narrative cobbled together from his correspondence.

Five Miles High - Charles Houston, Robert Bates, Richard Burdsall, and William House
Essentially a glorified trip report, this classic of mountaineering literature tells the story of the first American expedition to K2. From the offset there is a lack of dramatic tension – the story is known so well, especially as compared with the epic second American expedition to K2, that the I found myself simply relaxing and enjoying the read – and it was quite enjoyable. The expedition’s journey through Kashmir and Baltistan is especially fascinating, as is their descriptions of now-vintage mountaineering technique, food and equipment. In the face of so many sensationalist novels, it is refreshing to read a story in which no summit is reached and no tragedy ensues.

Nanda Devi - Eric Shipton
In the early days of Himalayan mountaineering most of the range was completely unexplored and major expeditions often took as their goal not summits, but range traverses or mountains themselves. Shipton and Tilman’s expedition to Nanda Devi was one such expedition; together with three sherpas they were the first team to penetrate the Nanda Devi basin, the “inner sanctuary,” and step foot on a mountain that had only ever been seen from afar (several years later Tilman would return with an Anglo-American expedition that summited the peak, which would be the highest point reached by man until the ascent of Annapurna). Most of the narrative of the three month expedition describes arduous river crossings, dense bamboo forests, fantastically tumbled moraine, and general misery as they subsist on locally purchased flour and rice. Shipton’s writing has a mystical edge at times but its most fascinating turn is in his descriptions of his and Tilman’s Sherpa companions, whom he regards with the odd mix of admiration and condescension common to English explorers of his time.

The Lonely Victory - Peter Habeler
In 1978 Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner became the first climbers to summit Chomolungma without bottled oxygen, an achievement that was widely considered impossible at the time. Although the book recounts what is among the most important mountaineering achievements of the 20th century (on par with the first ascent of the Eiger Nordwand and Buhl’s summiting of Nanga Parbat solo), it is quick read. Habeler tells his own story and only occasionally veers into the story of the 1978 Austrian expedition of which he and Messner were a part. Although Habeler openly refuses to entertain any criticism of him, it is interesting to read about Messner from a point of view other than his own. This tendency is not limited to Messner, his long-time climbing partner, Habeler, seeming to have an unrealistically sunny view of human nature, often mentioning and then dismisses attacks on fellow climbers.
It should be noted that Habeler’s account, despite its apparently benign appearance, was deeply offensive to Messner and, in fact, ended their relationship. For this I can find two possible causes, the first is how Habeler portrays Messner’s relationship with the media, mostly his enthusiasm for press attension compared with Habeler’s own ambivalence. The second is how he describes helping Messner down the mountain after he became snow-blind, for a climber as independent as Messner this must have been deeply embarrassing and possibly even undermining of his achievement.

Conquistadors of the Useless - Lionel Terray
A classic of post-war continental climbing, Terray’s memoir is among the most complete and quintessential texts available. The first few chapters, Terray’ youth, do begin to drag but once he becomes involved in the French resistance movement and the Italian alpine front Terray’s writing picks up dramatically. Although he does not explicitly formulate a theory of alpinism, Terray’s many comments on ideology and style strongly reinforce the ideas about post-war continental climbing’ existentialist bent that I first noticed in Bonatti and Rebuffat.
Additionally, he postulates at length about the role played by alpine guides and the various strengths and weaknesses of the profession. As a climber and as a thinker he seems to be a man of great moderation, able to see both sides of many issues and willing to admit complexity over uniformity.
Some of his most poignant passages are in reference to his good friend and climbing partner, Louis Lachenal, who was maimed by frostbite during the descent from Annapurna and died while skiing several years later. Especially if one is familiar with the story of that climb, Terray’s frequent descriptions of Lachenal’s genius on rock and ice are painful to read.

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