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Mountain Passages

Mountain Passages, by Jeremy Bernstein. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. 278 pages. Price $12.50.

In Mountain Passages, Jeremy Bernstein has collected eight of his articles —previously published in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Mountain Gazette—on climbing and mountain travels. Bernstein, a physicist by profession and an exceptionally talented science writer, has climbed for seventeen summers in the French Alps under the careful supervision of Chamonix guides, and his essays center, understandably, on the Mont Blanc range. He does range afield in a biographical sketch of Yvon Chouinard and in a lengthy account of a drive from France to Pakistan with his long-time climbing guide Claude Jaccoux and Jaccoux s wife Michele, but the focus of his attention is on the history of climbing in the French Alps and his own tours with Jaccoux and others.

His perspective is well defined by a comment early in the book. “In a real sense,” he writes, “ ‘climbing’ and ‘the Chamonix Valley’ are practically synonymous.”

Bernstein is at his best in these essays as a reporter. For example his account of the political maneuvering involved in a plan to build an automobile bypass around Chamonix is of interest to anyone familiar with that particular town, or with any mountain village faced with an increase in visitors and traffic. Bernstein also shows an admirable concern for the history and culture of the areas in which he travels, reflected in his willingness to quote extensively from Whymper on the Alps and in his discussions of Pakistan’s ancient and recent past. One might perhaps do better to go back to the originals and read Scrambles Amongst the Alps or Fosco Maraini’s Where the Four Worlds Meet, which Bernstein uses extensively in his final chapter, but if Mountain Passages increases the readership of either of these classics, it has served an admirable purpose.

When Bernstein turns to climbing, however, his essays reflect his lack of real climbing experience. This failing would be of no consequence if the book were a personal account of one man’s experience, but it is not. It is written as a general introduction to the mountain world, and Bernstein frequently assumes a didactic tone as he informs the reader about the history and practice of climbing. In this context, the book’s limited viewpoint becomes a major flaw, and the essays read at times like a dated and overcautious instructional primer, at times like a climbing thriller by an author who has not quite captured the language or tone of climbers. The reader, for example, is told that so much friction is generated by rappelling that gloves must be worn and is ominously warned that “it is very important to avoid being out in the Alps late in the afternoon. Mick Burke is introduced as “an English specialist on the Dru” (as if he had done postgraduate sudies on the subject) ; Hermann Buhl is identified as a German and not an Austrian; Maurice Herzog’s brother Gérard, hardly a name to be reckoned with, is described as “one of the best climbers in France.” The list could go on.

A more serious failing is the book’s parochialism. It is one thing to call the Chamonix Valley synonymous with climbing; it is another to assume, as Bernstein seems to, that the Chamonix guides are synonymous with climbing in Chamonix. These guides, for all their admirable qualities, represent only a small portion of the Chamonix climbing community and as a whole they do not stand in the forefront of Alpine climbing. They are efficient at getting their clients up and down standard routes in a minimum amount of time, but they are not infallible. Bernstein, for example, was stuck on an étrier in a storm for forty-five minutes because Jaccoux had run belay ropes to two different clients through the étrier's single carabiner. In his enthusiasm, Bernstein failed to recognize how elementary a mistake Jaccoux had made. More serious, Bernstein romanticizes climbers and the climbing fraternity, and, in his attempt to depict an international mountain elite presided over by professional guides and a few “very serious amateurs,” he glosses over some of the more bitter conflicts within the ranks of the guides and between guides and other climbers. One case in point is his description of the famous rescue in 1966 on the west face of the Dru engineered by Hemming and Desmais- on. Bernstein mentions the expulsion of Desmaison from the Company of Chamonix Guides as a result of his role in the rescue, but he ignores the jealousy of many of the guides and their reluctance to enter the field officially until it appeared that outsiders might successfully bring off the rescue. Hemming, incidentally, is described as having a face with “the beauty of the paintings of the Christian saints,” “a delightful smile, an air of inner strength, and great serenity.” An appropriate description, perhaps, for a member of the climbing elite, but not one that fits well with his American reputation, or his death.

In these essays, Bernstein focuses on one of the great centers of Alpinism, and he touches on important questions for climbers, including the degradation of the mountain environment, the increasing frequency of highly publicized and costly rescues, and the threat of regulation. Unfortunately, he does so without the sureness and authority that mark his writings in science.

Matthew Hale, Jr.