Straight Up, The Life and Death of John Harlin

Publication Year: 1969.

Straight Up. The Life and Death of John Harlin, by James Ramsey Ullman. New York: Doubleday & Co., 287 pages, 32 pages of photographs. Price: $5.95.

“… direttissima, glory on the wall for Big John Harlin, greatest of them all.” (Song).

"—for some he was a hero, for some an anti-hero, but for all he was squarely at stage center.” So writes Jim Ullman about one of the most prominent and most complex alpine climbers of the 20th century. In writing this biography, America’s favorite writer about the mountains takes on an extraordinarily difficult subject: a dreamer, not particularly lovable, a pilot, a would-be dress designer, one who liked to be talked about, and yet had within him the stuff to carry out impossible dreams.

John Harlin was the first American to climb the north face of the Eiger, but this was not enough for him. He wanted to be the first man to climb the north face of the Eiger DIRECT. The best part of Straight Up describes this great climb of his life, the Eiger Direct, the climb for which he had planned and practiced for years. The eyes of the mountaineering world focused on this climb as John, Layton Kor and some of the most skillful British and German climbers fought their way higher. They overcame smooth walls and verglas and seemed on the verge of success, when a rope John was using to prusik upward suddenly snapped and he was hurled thousands of feet to his death. His companions completed the climb in his honor.

The John Harlin who lost his life on the Eiger, leaving behind his devoted wife and children, had become the outstanding American climber in Europe, a man of superb physique, determination, idealism and a passion to remove nationalism from mountaineering. But, as James Ullman found, John was not a simple man. In his lifetime, John was a center of controversy.

It should be said that the first half of the book was probably not easy for the author, nor is it for the reader, but when we get on the Eiger with Konrad Kirch or on the Dru with Royal Robbins, any reader can share vicariously in the ascents. Best of all is the final dramatic climb, where competition turned into international fellowship. Harlin’s death not only gave his name to his great route, but hopefully it has helped to bury the age of alpine nationalism, a result, if true, that would give him great joy.

John Harlin was not a man for all seasons, but he lived his life for things he loved, especially climbing, and he proved that he had in him that touch of greatness.

Robert H. Bates