Mountaineering, edited by Sydney Spencer. Contributions by twenty-two authorities. The Lonsdale Library, vol. xviii. 386 pages, 130 illustrations, 9 maps and index. London. Seeley, Service & Co., 1934. Price 21s.
This is one of those rare books to whose excellence no real justice can be done within the scope of a brief review. It is a compendium of mountains and mountaineering by twenty-two of the world’s greatest experts and exponents of the craft in all its phases. It treats not only of the principles of mountaineering, but catalogues the chief mountains of the globe and tells what the mountaineer wants most to know about them. Indeed, a feature is made of practical information about what has to be done, how to do it and how to get there to do it. And all in a terse readable style that carries the stamp of authority.
Such even genius has been bestowed upon this work by the distinguished editor and authors and its scope is so encyclopedic, that one would discriminate in selecting any part for especial notice. A little more than one-half of the text is devoted to the mountain districts of the world. The mountains of Europe occupy the longest section, while those of North America come next. Both are most adequately and succinctly treated. After these, the Alps and Asia fill equal spaces, with Japan and Formosa, South America and Africa following. Briefer chapters on British Hills, New Zealand, and the Dolomites round out the remainder. There is also a convenient epitome of the Alpine Clubs and societies of the world. We note as a symptom of the timeliness of the book the presence of a section on mountaineering in the Arctic, where so much has been accomplished in the very recent past. “It has no individual features which distinguish it in special degree from the sport elsewhere” and “there is no obvious difference in the nature of the snow and ice compared with the same things in lower latitudes.”
The general survey of the craft to which the rest of the book is devoted opens with “Early Mountaineering.” which not only is a most admirable, practical survey of its history, but also an exposition of the trait by virtue of which a consciousness of the attraction of high peaks replaces an attitude of fear and repulsion. “J. D. Forbes (1810-1868) must rank as the first British mountaineer, not only for his actual achievements, but also because his influence was perhaps the greatest factor in the establishment of modern mountaineering…. He spoke clearly for adventure” and the adventure of conquest is “the incentive which brought the pioneers to mountaineering.” For the modern conception of mountaineering to arise three things were necessary : “The adventure of exploration as an end in itself had to be constantly realized…. the discovery that the mountains offered that adventure ; and these discoveries had to be made simultaneously by a sufficiently large number of men to allow a public opinion (later to become a tradition) to be formed about mountaineering—an esprit de corps.” The importance of this latter element, taken broadly to include historical and social factors, has seldom before been so cogently and properly stressed. Altogether, we have never come across a better analysis of the attractions of mountain climbing, so perplexing to the man in the street, than is included in this survey.
American climbers will naturally turn first to the chapter on North American mountains which are most capably handled. “Comparisons of difficulty have always been unsatisfactory and invariably fail in some respect. It is an exaggeration to say that climbs in the Alps require a more proficient technique than do those in the mountains of North America …. A standard of difficulty, whether high or low, will inevitably give pleasure to some and inflict pain upon others. Temperament and ability … determine for the individual the type of mountain on which he is happiest. American mountaineering has proceeded upon the conservative basis which characterized the first fifty years of climbing in the Alps ; when men were content to allow eye as well as muscle to decide whether progress up or down a given terrain would be a delight or a sorrow. Consequently, it is doubtful whether from the annals of North American mountaineering during the past half century, fifty serious accidents could be gathered together.”
These fragmentary jottings indicate but poorly the contents of this exceptionally fine book, but limitations of space prohibit more. It represents the distilled essence of the thinking and experience of a score of the most eminent mountaineers of the day. As such it must have a universal appeal to all climbers of peaks wherever situated.