Mountaineering History

Mountaineers: Great Tales of Bravery and Conquest. Ed Douglas et. al., 2011.

Ignore the vulgar sub-title and open the book. Hundreds of big glossy pages (12 inches by 10) with abundant photographs. There is also a good deal of text, but no “tales,” except of the most abbreviated kind. Instead one finds a sweeping if anecdotal history of not only mountaineering but mountains themselves, along with geological changes and evolving climbing gear, from pre-historic times until now. The emphasis is on pictures and layout, not on words.

Indeed, it is hard to know who wrote those words, which have all the personality of an encyclopedia. No authorial credit appears on the dust jacket or title page--you must really hunt for the attribution to Ed Douglas and associates. They give us brief but knowledgeable accounts of peaks and those who climbed them, or tried to. The biographies, while generally adulatory as well as accurate, can be properly critical: Oscar Eckenstein was “direct, argumentative, and quick-tempered”; Don Whillans drank too much and got fat; Paul Bauer was an especially distasteful Nazi.

Mountain descriptions--a page or two each--are well chosen, but readers will inevitably regret some omissions: in my case, Mount Kailash, the beautiful striated sacred summit in western Tibet.The photographs, familiar and not, are often beautiful, although some of the older ones lose sharpness in being blown up to size. The photos of Everest, Denali and many others that are provided with route lines are vivid. The pages are attractively laid out, with sidebars and boxes, and the production is excellent--sewn signatures, rare these days.

The primary audience for the book are beginning climbers, those interested in mountains, and people with big coffee tables. But more sophisticated readers, like members of the AAC, can profit from it as well. How many of us know about the glaciologist Franz Josef Hugi, who made the first ascent of the Finsteraahorn in 1828? Or the climbing monk Placidus À Spescha? Or John Ball, the Victorian guidebook pioneer? Or the extent of the mountain involvement of people famous for other achievements, like John Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner?

Mountaineers provides no full meals, but it is a big, tasty plate of hors d’oeuvres. Above all, it reminds (or informs) us that climbing has a rich long history. Every climbing gym should have a copy.

--from The American Alpine Journal, 2012; reprinted in The Himalayan Journal, 2012

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