This Climbing Game: An Anthology of Mountain Humour. Walt Unsworth, compiler. Drawings by Ivan Cumberpatch. Viking, Harmondsworth, 1984. 220 pages. £9.95.
Drawing upon guidebooks, factual accounts, and fantasy, Walt Unsworth has assembled some fifty examples of “mountain humor”; they range from ten-page narratives to parody poems and one-or two-liners. Virtually all are twentieth-century, and British. American readers may find that the Atlantic crossing produces a loss of flavor. But the national bias lends some continuity to this decidedly mixed collection, and it provides recurring characters of international repute. One is an organizer of numberless Himalayan expeditions, who in one incarnation is known as Cassius Bonafide. Interviewed by Mac the Belly, Mr. Bonafide praises “great box office” climbs while decrying the commercialization of the sport. The acidulous presence of Don Whillans is more vivid still: a dour, cutting intelligence. I wish Unsworth had taken a bit from Whillans’ own book, Portrait of a Mountaineer.
Unsworth fairly shouts the modesty of his intentions: “The purpose is to amuse and entertain, nothing more.” (But that is a lot.) He nevertheless tries to undergird his selections with the argument that “It is because [climbing] is a serious business that its participants have a highly developed sense of humour, even in the most dangerous situations.” This sounds plausible. The trouble is that such humor loses its edge unless its context is rendered with the skill of a fine writer. Unsworth illustrates his point with a “typical story” of a mountaineer who, having been narrowly spared by an avalanche, quips, “Let’s get back to terra firma. More firmer and less terror.” A quick retort under the circumstances, whether original or not, but pretty cold, as well as highly familiar, on the printed page. The intensity of a hard climb or big expedition can lend a heightened but transitory flavor to even the most trivial remarks.
Climbers may be humorous “characters,” but they are rarely humorists. Some of the funniest climbing literature comes from outsiders like Evelyn Waugh and Mark Twain, whose classic “Ascent of the Riffelberg” appears in this book. In addition to his marvelous gift of wit, Twain had the advantage of seeing in nineteenth-century Alpinism the absurdities that its participants were too preoccupied to notice. Unsworth has regrettably abridged “Riffelberg” a good deal, thus depriving us of the barometer boiled in bean soup and the news that “the eternal snow line ceases somewhere above the ten-thousand-foot level and does not begin anymore.”
In one of Unsworth’s most interesting selections, J. M. Edwards demonstrates that, on occasion, climbers can indeed be amusing writers. His “A Great Effort” has the introspective comic energy, though not the overarching pessimism, of a Samuel Beckett monologue. Anyone who has ever hesitated to move up on his holds will understand Edwards: So standing still on my footholds and feeling firmer than I had done for some time, I got the tin of sardines out of my pocket, twisted the lid off in the usual way but carefully because of the position, and ate the fish one by one with my mouth. This took some time. Then drained the tin, put it back in my pocket and turned to the rocks once more. Now how will it go, I thought, every excuse is exhausted.
An inspired choice. But how could Unsworth have omitted Eric Newby? Everyone should read his A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. It is one of the funniest books I know, about climbing or anything else.
One could quarrel with many of Unsworth’s choices, but he set himself a hard task. Humor is the least transportable of commodities. You either find something funny or you don’t. I found about half this book funny: Not a bad percentage at all.