Alpiniste, Est-ce Toi? by Alain de Chatellus. 174 pages, 15 illustrations. Paris and Grenoble: B. Arthaud, 1953. Collection Sempervivum. Price, 690 frs.
M. de Chatellus’ subject is that always fascinating one, the psychology of the mountaineer. More particularly, he is concerned with the motives and attitudes of that elite group of climbers who have recently been engaged in conquering the precipices of the Dolomites and the great north walls of the western Alps. His thesis is that for those who undertake such climbs the factor of risk—indeed, of extreme risk—is not only acceptable but constitutes a chief attraction. In developing this idea he makes some interesting distinctions. The English, he thinks, have been least affected by such motivation and consequently have been left behind in the competition for the great Alpine first ascents; the Germans and Italians, while taking most of the climbing honors, have carried matters to pathological excess; the Swiss and French have struck a mean which he approves.
One should not misconceive the tone of the book. M. de Chatellus writes modestly, as one who has not himself accomplished climbs of the sort in question, but who is reporting sympathetically on what he finds among his associates of the Groupe de Haute Montagne. He is a keen and sensitive observer, able to give many striking little pictures of climbers in situations grave and otherwise. The defects of the book stem from an insufficiency of the scientific attitude and method. More evidence would have been welcome in support of the main view, especially in respect to its possible nuances. One wishes, for instance, that M. de Chatellus had exploited his opportunities to cross-examine his friends of the great ascents with regard to their precise feelings and reactions in various situations of stress, and given us, anonymously if necessary, information on what they have been too reticent to confess in their own written accounts. And psychological analysis could have been carried much farther, under the guidance of a more critical standpoint. For instance again, to any reader of this book the question will inevitably occur: How then is mountaineering supposed to compare with war, the typical occasion of risk and danger? G. W. Young, who has had intense experience of both, feels that they are poles apart. M. de Chatellus represents the Germans as holding that the two are one. If the French school stands somewhere between, just wherein are war and mountaineering thought to resemble each other, and wherein to differ? A detailed answer to this question should be most illuminating. But M. de Chatellus gives war only a passing mention, on only a few occasions.
In spite of such inadequacies, the book is important and deserves a wide reading. It is effective, I think, in producing a realization that the type of climbing discussed is a characteristic and widespread modern phenomenon which is here to stay, and not just a bit of extremism on the part of a relatively irresponsible few. Sooner or later, in Britain and America, we too shall no doubt have to reckon with this tendency.
Robert L. M. Underhill