The Age of Mountaineering, by James Ramsey Ullman. 352 pages, 24 photographs, 6 maps and sketches. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1954. Price, $6.00.
Banner in the Sky, by James Ramsey Ullman. 252 pages. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1954. Price, $2.75.
These two books greatly strengthen Mr. James Ramsey Ullman’s position as America’s best known and most popular writer on mountaineering. While many of our mountaineers have written occasional books about their own exploits and specialized works on the subject, Mr. Ullman is perhaps the only American author whose specialty is mountaineering, both in fiction and non-fiction.
The Age of Mountaineering is undoubtedly the most important of all Mr. Ullman’s books. In it he tells the story of man’s conquest of the world’s high places, from Paccard and Balmat on Mount Blanc in 1786 to Hillary and Tenzing on the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive history of mountaineering. Rather, it is a lively running account of the classic events that have made mountain climbing such an adventurous and fascinating pursuit and is frankly slanted more for the general reader than for the already converted mountaineer.
More significant than the accounts themselves is the underlying philosophy which permeates the entire book. “Mountaineering,” Mr. Ullman says, “is not merely a story of the conquest of mountains, but of the conquest of fear. It is not merely a record of stirring deeds, but of a great adventure of the human spirit.” That is Mr. Ullman’s basic theme and with it he nearly succeeds in answering the question: Why climb mountains?
The Age of Mountaineering is based upon High Conquest, published in 1941, with interpolations and additions carrying the story of mountaineering through the post-war years to the climbing of Mt. Everest. Some may feel that Mr. Ullman’s enthusiasm for the world’s greatest peaks and the more spectacular climbs has led him into a lack of balance in the history of mountaineering as a whole. For instance, he devotes 140 pages to the Himalayas and seventeen to Mt. McKinley alone, while dismissing the Canadian Rockies, Selkirks, Purcells, Cariboos, and Coast range in a scant four pages. The three snowcapped massifs of Africa are allotted twelve pages, only two less than all the ranges in the United States put together. And the oft-told Matterhorn disaster has a 21-page chapter to itself.
A few may wish that Mr. Ullman would move his bergschrunds from below his icefalls to their proper place and brush up a bit on terminal moraines. Westerners might hope that in the future he will give the correct altitude of Mt. Whitney, our highest peak. A raised eyebrow here and there will greet the statement that 29,141 feet is the “corrected altitude” for Everest, but no one will quarrel with the apocryphal story that a lowly computer in the Indian Trigonometrical Survey Office announced the discovery of the world’s highest mountain. Although untrue, it has become a legend.
These things are merely flyspecks on a vast canvas. In general, the reader has little time to note them as this nimble climber- writer takes him up and down his favorite mountains with a dash and verve for which we can forgive the author much.
Entirely different is Banner in the Sky, a boy’s book about a boy who yearned to climb a great impregnable peak called the Citadel. The story to some extent follows the actual first ascent of the Matterhorn. The date, 1865, is the same; the imagined town of Kurtal resembles Zermatt; the boy’s name, Rudi Matt, is derived from the great Swiss mountain, and Captain John Winter is easily recognizable as Edward Whymper.
In many ways the book is a more successful piece of mountaineering fiction than The White Tower. The peak is more convincing, the story is more appealing, and the motives of the characters are less involved. Mr. Ullman skillfully instills his narrative with the same breathless suspense that made The White Tower a best seller and, although Banner in the Sky is listed as a juvenile, grown-up climbers and non-climbers alike will find it one of the best books of mountaineering fiction yet written.
This book, too, follows Mr. Ullman’s strongly persuasive theme that the love of mountains is a way of life—perhaps the most rewarding and satisfactory way there is. This philosophy impregnates all his writing and might be called the essence of “Ull- manism,” if we may use that word. In closing The Age of Mountaineering he says: “The mountains way may well be a way of escape—from turmoil and doubt, from war and the threat of war, from the perplexities and sorrows of the artificial world we have built ourselves to live in. But in the truest and most profound sense it is an escape not from but to reality.”
Weldon F. Heald