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Summits and Secrets

Summits and Secrets, by Kurt Diemberger. Translated from the German by Hugh Merrick. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1971. 344 pages, 78 photographs, 8 maps and sketches. £ 5.50 (about $15)

There cannot be many mountaineering autobiographies better than this one, combining vivid descriptions of great adventure with some tragedy and much gentle humor, spiced with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of one lifetime devoted to climbing. It is perhaps a premature autobiography, since by my reckoning Diemberger could have been only thirty-eight years of age by the time it was published. One may hope for a second volume twenty years hence.

Kurt Diemberger’s accomplishments include first ascents of two of the world’s fourteen 8000 meter peaks: in 1958, Broad Peak, with Herman Buhl; in 1960, Dhaulagiri, with several other Austrians. In the Hindu Kush he climbed two of the several summits of Tirich Mir, the highest mountain (25,290 feet) in that range. In the Alps, beginning as a boy, he seems to have done virtually everything of note, including the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses, and a unique direttissima on the Königswand (in the Ortles group, about halfway between Milan and Innsbruck; Diemberger refers to this as “the hardest of my first ascents”).

More impressive than any list of names and heights is Diemberger’s style of climbing. He himself does not make much of this (and there is not a word about climbing ethics), so it is only gradually that the Diemberger style becomes manifest. He prefers small and simple expeditions. The Dhaulagiri climb was an exception. But this and all his high Asian climbs seem to have been done without oxygen. Some of his high climbs were accomplished in parties of two! And in the Hindu Kush he used no high altitude porters.

Diemberger seems to have more pure love of the mountains for their own aesthetic values, and for the joy of being with good companions, than for the notoriety and honor of doing first ascents. This has led him to attempt improbable explorations and traverses—just for the sheer joy of it. In describing the Hindu Kush adventures, he devotes more space to the fun of a long drive, Europe to Asia, in an old car, and to the magnificent landforms to be seen in making a complete circuit of the Tirich Mir massif, than to the climbs. Again, in Greenland, where on a sudden impulse he led his party on a traverse of the Qioqe Peninsula, we are given appreciations of glaciers, fjords, and ice cliffs, not route descriptions. Everywhere, beginning with hunts for crystals and fossils as a boy in the Austrian Alps, Diemberger is concerned with form and shape and substance in the way that a classic, true mountaineer is concerned: more a lover than a conqueror. Such route descriptions as he does give are often frustratingly impressionistic.

“Artful” can be used to describe Diemberger’s writing; it is just that, rising at times to lyricism (here we must nod to the art of the translator, too). Like most art, Diemberger’s sometimes fails to communicate. He uses words as some painters use brush and pallet, dabbing here and there to create an impression of a thing, a mood, a transient thought, without regard for orderly sequence. Some readers may find his penchant for incomplete sentences, abrupt changes of mood, and narrative discontinuity maddening; I did—at first. The overall effect is a good one.

One chapter, the account of Diemberger’s ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, is alone worth the price of the book. But so is the story of a series of eight thunderstorms on the Aiguille Noire, on Mont Blanc: 30 hours of lightning, three of the party struck and burned, desperate bivouacs in snow and ice. And so too the chapters on Asia. Anyone who has toured or climbed in the Alps will certainly find the book rewarding. Finally, the many photographs are excellent but the captions are inadequate.

Grant Barnes