American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Return to the Alps

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  • Publication Year: 1973

Return to the Alps, by Max Knight. Photographs by Gerhard Klammet. Edited, with a foreword and selections from Alpine literature, by David Brower. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1971. 160 pages, 54 photographs in full color, 1 map. $27.50

This is not a climbing book, although contained in it are accounts of standard, guided climbs. It is a large (10 × 14), sumptuously beautiful appreciation of the Alps, produced in the style of the Sierra Club Exhibit Format series. The photographs are truly stunning. Of the 54 color plates, 10 are spread across both pages; they depict whole massifs, some of the great mountain faces, lakes, bogs, streams and some microscenery: flowers, lichens, mushrooms. I have never seen a finer collection of Alpine photographs.

This is not just a picture book. The text satisfies. The author, born an Austrian but for many years now a Californian, returned in middle life for an excursion, and then returned again and again, leading Sierra Club trips, tramping from hut to hut in the carefree and packfree manner that is possible only in the Alps. Much of the text consists of descriptions of these trips, often in the company of his two sons; yet these are not the ordinary, panegyrical reminiscences one might expect. Cultured, urbane, steeped in the natural and social history of the Alps, Knight brings the mountains to life without rediscovering edelweiss or indulging in other clichés common to this kind of literature. One chapter is mainly a survey of areas still not cut up by roads, rails, cogs, cables or tourists, a most useful guide for those who prefer to do their walking or climbing as far as possible from asphalt and steel.

Another chapter, “Letter to a Father,” is by Max’s son Anthony. The tone changes dramatically: “You are pleased to escape the tourist traps and regret the passing of wildness in some of the valleys you knew. … But you took that cableway to Dachstein, and then what did you do? You sat down, picked up a piece of ice, and then looked through it as if it were a crystal ball to tell the past—your glacier trips in the past twenty- five years since I was born. But during that time, Dad, something else has happened. In your beloved Austria alone the number of cable cars and lifts exploded from forty-four in 1945 to two thousand in 1970! That means two thousand solitudes gone, and this frightens me and angers me. I want to save the next two thousand. …” What follows is an excellent, short summary of the multiple threats to what is left of the old rural, semi-wilderness Alps, and the litany sounds familiar: dams, roads, resorts, helicopters, power plants.

The book is marred somewhat by precious, pretentious “interludes,” consisting of quotations from odd sources, sometimes badly out of sync with little introductions provided by the editor and various others. Skip these and enjoy the rest.

Grant Barnes

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