Ascent, edited by Allen Steck & Steve Roper. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco 1980. 272 pages, 8½ x 11, paperbound, illustrated. Price $14.95.
Readers accustomed to Ascent each year in the Sixties and every other year in the early Seventies, and not at all since 1976, will be particularly pleased with this volume. Those who have not followed Ascent's growth from magazine to book form will enjoy this volume’s range of style and subject matter that certainly stands up as a well-balanced anthology. But a remarkable transition from the earlier Ascent has been effected, much to the editors’ credit. In the Sixties, Steck and Roper, with Tejada- Flores and others, offered a balance of history, photography, creative writing and comprehensive information on selected climbing areas in a way that gave Ascent continuity from issue to issue. The same formula that produced an excellent annual periodical has now been applied to produce a very good book with a timeless selection of, by and large, good writing. I do not mean that some of the pieces in this volume won’t become dated, or that some of the pieces in earlier volumes aren’t as fresh today as when they were first published, but the overall effect here is of a strong permanent collection, not an ephemeral one.
The size, gloss and high-quality reproduction of striking photographs, might suggest this is a paperback coffee-table book. But Ascent is meant to be and should be read, though perhaps not all at once. The book is reminiscent of an English week-end book; being a collection of short pieces of varying length, for varying moods, requiring varying degrees of attentiveness.
David Roberts’ novella is the centerpiece of the book, and the most ambitious selection. This first work of fiction by a proven master of mountaineering non-fiction and criticism is very well written. Craftsmanship to a very, high standard is evident in every paragraph. Skill as a stylist is undeniably there. Although the writing of some of the other contributors is unusually good, Roberts’ writing is alone in its class.
In his “Man Meets Myth” story, Ron Matous has succeeded where many before him have failed. He demonstrates that the umpteenth ascent of the Eiger is, in many essential ways, very like the first ascent. Along the way, Matous gives us a delightful and familiar picture of a climber fencing with doubt, resolve, fate and the weather as he waits for his deadline to do the climb or leave town.
“The Great Match” and “The Ascent of the Riffelberg” are both classics. They belong here, though they will be known to some readers already. Those who have not read them yet may do so here in good company with the original illustrations.
Mike Graber’s history of climbing at Cathedral Spires, together with the photographs, is the most practical of the selections. I can’t imagine a trip to the Spires without reference to this piece, and many will go there on the strength of it.
Ed Webster’s photos of the Southwest and Graber and Kearney’s Alaska are beautiful, clear and alive. Many calendars and posters on the market today feature photographs not nearly as good, nor as well reproduced. Roberts’ criticism of expedition books is fine, though not as rigorous as some of his earlier pieces, such as his examination of the John Menlove Edwards’ writing in an earlier Ascent.
Homage is paid to Ascent's California roots in the style and subject matter of “Anti-Climbing at Pinnacles”, “In the Constellations of Roosters and Lunatics” and in “The Ribbon Option”, the latter’s Colorado dateline notwithstanding. These are all creditable pieces. On the other hand, “The Way of the White Serpent” is ambitious and serious, but I thought it was lost here.
Still, of faults there are really very few in this happy publishing event that will give so many climbers a link with the past.
Andrew C. Harvard