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In The Shandow of the Giants — Mountain Ascents Past and Present

In the Shadow of the Giants—Mountain Ascents Past and Present. Tom King. A. S. Barnes & Co., San Diego and New York, 1981. 262 pages, black and white photographs, sketch maps, glossary, bibliography. $11.95.

If you are a mountaineering history buff and have a romantic taste in prose, then In the Shadow of the Giants could be a welcome addition to your library. Tom King has made a commendable effort to compile and document a history of several peaks including: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Everest and Fuji. There are chapters on “La Haute Route,” the ski route from Chamonix to Zermatt and on the search for the highest summit in the continental United States, Mount Whitney. The author presents a picture of each peak or area in two ways. First he recaps the history. Second he invites the reader to share his personal climbing experiences on Mont Blanc, Fuji and the Matterhorn, his trek to the Everest Base Camp and his traverse of the Haute Route.

This book is best suited only to the confirmed armchair mountaineer. The experienced and seasoned climber is already familiar with much of its historical content and may want to be spared the elaborate and lush descriptions of the author’s guided climbs and treks. Here is a sample of Tom King on Fuji:

“Despite its impressive size, Fuji is blessed with an astonishingly ephemeral quality. In its magical, blinking mutations—fading from tawny bronze to a fiery streaking crimson or purple, and to intermediate shades and hues the eyes cannot grasp—it occasionally seems to be more of a mirage than a mountain. In one instant it is brilliantly garbed in the crisp, trim splash of the gaudy sun, its cascading lines set boldly forth in every concave nuance and detail. Then, at the turn of the head, a veil descends, the scene is transformed, and another dramatic interplay unfolds: a dimly seen configuration, striated with an apricot or hazel complexion, dour and moody, a phantom half lost, half seen, sturdy yet elusive.”

And so on. This type of language can only be caused by one of three things: drugs, a prolonged residence in Southern California, or a lawyer who has difficulty speaking in layman’s terms.

The better parts of the book contain many quotes, poems and passages from famous mountaineers and writers: Goethe, Ruskin, Whymper, Mallory and Muir. It says something that of the 150 black and white photographs included, those reprinted by permission of The Alpine Club, the Swiss National Tourist Office and the Japan National Tourist Organization are of better quality than the author’s. King has zero talent as a photographer.

The more charming parts of In the Shadow of the Giants concern little-known facts about some famous first ascents and stories about Clarence King, a geologist, explorer and forerunner of mountaineering in the Sierras. The author, quoting Henry Adams on King’s escapades in the mountains, writes, “In the works like that of Mr. King the wonder always is that a day passes without accident. If he is not dragging or riding a mule up or down a perpendicular precipice, he is shooting at bears, getting struck by lightning, or catching a rattlesnake by the tail. There is no end to the forms in which life or health is risked in these adventures.”

Aside from the lack of quality photographs and a surplus of adjectives, Tom King has added a respectable piece of work to the world of mountaineering literature.

Michael Brochu