American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods

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  • Publication Year: 1978

In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Galen Rowell. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977. 326 pages, 165 black and white photos, 48 color plates and two maps. Price $18.50.

The pleasant anticipation aroused in me by the title and the magnificent photography was only partially satisfied by this book.

It is a combination of chapters on the history of mountaineering in the Karakoram Range of the western Himalaya interfused with an account of the 1975 American K2 Expedition’s attempt on the northwest ridge of that peak. It includes a lot of interesting detail about early exploration and climbing there, as well as of some of the spectacular achievements since the Karakoram was opened again to climbing in 1974. This part is well worth reading.

One wonders, however, whether the author if he had been climbing in the 30’s could make such an absurd statement as on page 203, “In pre-World War II America, the cardinal rule of mountaineering was to turn back before taking risks.” I think even as competent and aggressive a climber as Rowell, had he been climbing then, would have been influenced as we were by the psychological climate created by the German high altitude mountaineering disasters on Nanga Parbat and Kanchen- junga.

The story of the 1975 attempt on the northwest ridge is a mixture of frustrations involving transport, weather, illness, severe route finding and technical difficulties, as well as serious internal dissensions. The latter occupy a major part of the narrative and are presented in overwhelming detail. After a while I found them boring and welcomed the interspacing of the historical accounts and those of the more interesting concurrent expeditions.

The chief contribution of this book is probably its clarion warning to expedition organizers and would-be participants. Under the best of conditions, a major Himalayan or comparable effort involves prolonged and intimate exposure of the members to each other under trying conditions. Mountaineering competence of a high order is essential, but reasonable compatability, consideration for others, tolerance and a sense of humor are equally important. The larger the expedition the harder it is to meet these requirements.

Another contribution of the book is the appalling picture presented by the flooding of the Baltoro by unlimited numbers of expeditions with their armies of porters. The ecological balance in this area, as in the Arctic tundra, is very fragile. Can we justify the current intensive pursuit of our sport in the Karakoram when it results in long-term destruction of the environment?

The fine black-and-white pictures and the color plates help the reader to forget his unhappiness with the detailed personality problems of the 1975 expedition. Leif Patterson was prophetic when he wrote, “The thought haunts me that not the ridge of K2 but our own disunity will defeat us.” (That, sickness and an early departure from the mountain had much to do with it.) Greater understanding of the pitiful poverty of the Balti people and of the tremendous efforts of the Pakistani liaison officer in the expedition’s behalf would have been welcome in the book. Rowell seems to have a bias against authority in the form of expedition leaders or alpine clubs, and some of his conclusions are questionable. There are minor errors, such as George Bell’s picture being titled Art Gilkey, but Rowell writes vividly and the book, a major document in the history of K2, may some day well become a collector’s item.

William P. House

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