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Mountaineering and Its Literature

Mountaineering and Its Literature. W.R. Neate: The Mountaineers, 1980. 165 pages. Price $9.95.

The purpose of the great majority of climbing books is self evident. We have guidebooks, biographies, expedition books and so forth, all with an obvious intent. If your intent is not obvious, it is best to explain what you are about in the introductory matter. Here, unhappily, the author has not explained, at least to this reader, just what he is attempting to do. A bibliography is one thing, but a “bibliography of selected works” in English is something else again. The catch lies in the selection. If only there was some indication of the selection process: are these “good reads,” historically important, the author’s favorites, or what? The Introduction gives no clue, but the omission of such standards as the Himalayan Journal and the Canadian Alpine Journal from the list of sources consulted was an ominous beginning.

The work is divided into three sections and a set of appendices: Subject Index, Mountain Index, and Author Index. The Subject Index is a sound idea: here are topics ranging from Accidents, Artists, Guides, Humor, and Mysticism, to Women Mountaineers. “The overall result [of the subject index],” the author states, “is a very condensed history of mountaineering and an appraisal of its literature.” The problem with this statement is that the bibliography is only concerned with published books in English. The result is that the condensed history tends to be driven by the books on the subject in question. For example, in reference to the Mont Blanc area in the post-war period, we read of “the Continental supremacy, typified by climbers like Magnone [489], and Rébuffat [639], but particularly Bonatti [88-9].” This surely overstates Rébuffat’s contribution, and omits entirely Desmaison (his book is not yet in English!) and others of the 1970’s who are not yet in print. The situation is perhaps worse where there are no recent books, or at least the author does not cite any. In Canada’s Interior Ranges the last event appears to have happened around 1916, and activity in the Cordillera Blanca seems to have stopped in 1957.

Perhaps due to the fact that only books are cited, or perhaps due to the author’s preference, the work overemphasizes earlier events. Almost two thirds of the fifty books that give the “real substance of mountaineering” are about events before the First World War. Africa’s Virunga Mountains, where the action took place around the turn of the century, gets nine lines; Yosemite gets five. And if Yosemite rates five, how come Montana (hardly our most noteworthy climbing area) gets nineteen lines? In spite of these shortcomings, the Subject Index does provide a starting point, provided the topics are fully covered in books. The fact is, however, that so much climbing information is in journals and magazines that any attempt to just look at books will be a frustrating exercise. It is simply turning a blind eye to the realities of the situation.

The Mountain Index is a good example of the above frustration: Peaks such as Alaska’s Foraker and Hunter have no apparent reference, and Hayes and many others do not even appear to have been climbed. Of all sections in the book the Mountain Index is the least useful; far better to get hold of a guide book. The Author Index is helpful in giving a one-line overview of some 950 books. The appendices again show a substantial lack of comprehension of North American climbing. The guide books listed for California, the Tetons and Canada have almost all been updated or superseded.

The difficulties of trying to compile such a book at a distance (the author is based in Britain) are obvious, and show themselves throughout. Nevertheless it is an interesting volume for browsing through, and it is to be hoped that the author will refine the work as it goes into subsequent editions.

Chris Jones