American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Big Book of Mountaineering

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  • Publication Year: 1981

The Big Book of Mountaineering, edited by Bruno Moravetz. Translated by Diana Stone Peters and Frederick G. Peters. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1981. 288 pages, 112 pages of full-color illustrations. Price $49.95.

Measuring fourteen by eleven inches and weighing many pounds, this book is indeed big in one sense; in terms of imagination and quality of writing, it is a good deal smaller. The twenty-nine essays by twenty-three authors are neither sufficiently absorbing in themselves nor edited and arranged with any compelling purpose. The result is a hodgepodge of only intermittent interest.

The chapter titles convey an unintended comic urgency—“Lyrics beneath the Summit Cross!” “There Are Still Thousands of Summits and Ridges to Climb!” “No One Has Yet Seen the Abominable Snowman!”— but little sense of relation. A very general piece about glaciers is followed by a speculative essay suggesting that Goethe might have been the first up Mont Blanc had he only arrived in Chamonix three months earlier than he actually did. Later we jump from a brief history of women climbers to a discussion of thin air. Often the incoherence invades the chapters themselves. In “Where the Sun God Once Dwelled” the late Nicolas Jaeger devotes two hurried pages to a history of the Andes which serves as awkward prelude to a highly laudatory but still hurried third- person account of his own 1977 expedition to Peru. Finally he notes that “there was no powdered coffee, condensed milk, or any vacuum- packed food to be found in Huaraz in 1977. It is advisable to bring the necessities from Europe.” For whom is this thoughtful if ephemeral advice intended? Surely not for the “general reader” at whom this diffuse volume appears directed.

Much of the subject matter and all the contributors are European. The presence of such writers as Messner, Heckmair and Hiebeler lends appeal to the book; but unfortunately the chapters have not been edited or translated with American readers, much less American climbers, in mind. Thus we have Yosemite’s “Upper” Cathedral Spire and a “cliff” named Shiprock in California. What one contributor finds “the most beautiful, the freshest, and the most exciting book ever to have been written by a climber” emerges twice-translated as Experiences on Trips through Mountains and Glaciers. It was much better as Edward Whymper originally had it: Scrambles Amongst the Alps. This Big Book needed a Strong Editorial Hand. It is punctuated by speculation (that Mummery’s death on Nanga Parbat was due to a fall); by error (the wrong year for Whymper’s second ascent of the Matterhorn); and especially by hyperbole: “it is undisputed” that Chris Bonington is “Great Britain’s leading mountain climber.” Mount Waddington is “the most difficult 4,000-meter peak in the world.” Lastly, please note: “Climbing is masochism.”

Since chapters have not been edited in light of each other, there is much overlap. The first ascents of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc are told a number of times each, yet rarely is any climb recounted with adequate detail or accuracy. A case in point is Heidede Carstensen’s “Chris Bonington—His Comrades, His Mountains!” It is hard to do justice to the topic in four pages, even pages the size of these, but Carstensen complicates the task needlessly. After beginning with the most recent climb, The Ogre, the account skids without transition to the much earlier Annapurna trip, then on to Everest. The Ogre description suffers by comparison with Doug Scott’s version in Mountain and Bonington’s own in the A.A.J., 1978. Carstensen describes Scott’s ill-fated summit rappel as “a routine operation that any experienced Alpinist could do in his sleep”—this for a difficult slanting descent at darkness after a long and trying climb at high altitudes. Bonington’s rocketing past the end of misaligned rappel ropes lower down is misrepresented thus: “A gale suddenly blew up as the group stood on a 300-meter (984-foot) high spur. Bonington fell off.” It is hard to have confidence in a book that includes such passages.

A good picture is worth more than a thousand of the words in The Big Book. Although some of the photographs are soft in focus or trivial in subject, a number are truly impressive: the colors true, features sharp, composition precise. A finely-etched and expansive view of the Gross- glockner north face is followed by an excellent if familiar Matterhorn and a lovely two pages for Yerupajá, Chico and Grande. The large format is a real advantage here. The question is whether one wants to spend $49.45 for the photographs.

Steven Jervis

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