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On Ice and Snow and Rock

On Ice and Snow and Rock, by Gaston Rébuffat. New York: Oxford Press, 1971, 192 pages, $15.00

What happens when a how-to book on mountaineering is combined with a coffee-table picture book? The result is the most striking single volume on technical climbing in the English language (translated from the original French). The use of large and frequent color plates makes Americans jealous. For all our high standard of living we cannot afford to print a book or magazine of this quality about mountaineering. Is it simple economics? Or a larger book market in Europe?

Quantitatively the book is unsurpassed in its field or price range. Qualitatively it contains many gems, but the totality of the shining display is somehow less than the brilliance of its components. Individual pictures shine. Perhaps only an experienced Rébuffat observer would notice that he has not changed his flashy black and white sweater in twenty years. Perhaps only a cynic would comment that many of the pictures capture, not a moment taken out of a typical Rébuffat climb, but a moment especially staged for the camera and you. Perhaps even the “real” photos are too perfect, too uncluttered with the foregrounds to which we are all accustomed to seeing in our friend’s basement slide shows. But after asking several veteran climbers their opinion of the book, I found that most of them shared the feeling that the book was somehow “unreal.” The text is quite accurate and mentions much of the latest U.S. equipment for technical rock and ice. Photos, such as one showing double-rope technique and a shoulder harness for climbing an overhang with direct aid, will not help beginning climbers. For me, the value of the book is in the individual, unstaged photographs and the intense moments of Rébuffat’s prose. Chouinard’s catalog and Robbins’ Basic Rockcraft will go a lot farther toward teaching the beginner, but this is a book to thumb through on stormy winter evenings. Not to read every word or digest every technique, but to appreciate the esthetics of ice and snow and rock. Already, Gaston Rébuffat’s profile is as familiar to mountaineers as is Colonel Sanders to the American public. Even with my small misgivings about the book I must end by saying that no mountaineering library should be without it.

Galen Rowell