The Armchair Mountaineer is a collection of fifty short pieces, whose editorial research—the crux of any such book—is exhaustive and caring. Reuther and Thom have evidently culled through everything in which the ascent of mountains is even mentioned, including a spattering of unlikely voices, nonclimbers who offer unique and amusing perspectives on the sport: a comic story by H. G. Wells, Peter Matthiessen’s search for the snow leopard, Joe McGinniss’ account of his “accidental” climb in the Brooks Range.
Although the experienced armchair climber might complain that he’s seen the bulk of this material before, taken as a whole, the book stands as an interesting historical survey. The editors have treated with about equal weight rock climbing, alpine climbing and expeditionary mountaineering. By juxtaposing articles from different periods, they demonstrate the evolution in attitudes towards the sport. It’s interesting in this light to read Mallory’s account of Everest alongside Habeler’s. The same concern for style, not mere success, evolved in rock climbing. Chouinard’s “Modem Yosemite Climbing,” originally published in the 1963 American Alpine Journal and reprinted here, was a seminal work in this regard. Self expression became a big theme. So did competition. So did the passion for getting up there quicker, prettier and cleaner than the next fellow.
To balance the ethics tickets, there’s Warren Harding’s account of his bolted climb up the Wall of the Early Morning Light. And much more about the old Valley scene: including Anton Nelson’s ascent of Lost Arrow, Roper and Steck’s of the Salathé, Galen Rowell’s tortuous rescue from the South Face of Half Dome, and Chris Jones’ short history of the Yosemite climbing counterculture.
Editors Reuther and Thom have elected not to include the fancy photographs found in most climbing books. Their absence seems more a function of concept than economy. The book is illustrated by Bob Carroll, but his few line drawings seem almost an afterthought, a device to break up the text.
As with any anthology, one can quibble with the editors’ choices, but overall this is a carefully edited, no-nonsense collection covering all bases, from the pioneer days to the present. The Armchair Mountaineer is really as good as a broad, general anthology can be.