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Alan Rouse: A Mountaineer's Life

Alan Rouse: A Mountaineer’s Life. Geoff Birtles, compiler. Unwin Hyman, London, 1987. 224 pages, 9 color and 14 black and white photographs. $28.95.

When viewed by the parochial American eye, most British climbing biographies chronicle remarkably similar tales. Even taking into account the variants in our common language (krabs, pegs, abseils, “A” levels, rucksacks and 5cs) which cast them as undeniably British, there is a striking uniformity in the substance of these works. A prototypical British hardman’s path to celebrity can be expected to include many of the following episodes:

A book in his school’s library, written by a leading French alpinist, first draws the main character’s attention to climbing.

What was initially a budding interest, quickly grows into a full-blown obsession as he tests his mettle on the local crags with a childhood friend.

The circle of climbing companions grows and studies suffer as he joins a local climbing club and is initiated into a world of drunken revelry at the pubs.

Overcoming severe hangovers (“It was a good climb with some hard bits, some okay bits, and good holds for puking from.”), he begins to outclimb most of his companions on bold crag routes and the frozen gullies of Ben Nevis.

An early climb in the French Alps turns into an epic when a pulled peg causes a fall and broken ankle, all of which is later described with classic understatement. (“My foot seemed to be growing out of my leg at a rather peculiar angle and a quick prod revealed a certain amount of pain, … ”).

Prior to turning his attention to the Himalaya, he serves an apprenticeship by establishing hard new routes in the Peruvian Andes and Patagonia.

Alan Rouse’s climbing career neatly fits this stereotype. In fact, the foregoing is actually a somewhat cavalier summary of his pre-Himalayan experience. Unfortunately, the final chapter in his career is also one that has become all too familiar: namely, his death at the age of 34 shortly after becoming the first Englishman to reach the summit of K2. When he died at K2’s high camp in 1986, after an extended storm, Rouse joined a long list of Britain’s top climbers whose lives have ended while still in their prime.

To honor his friend, Geoff Birtles solicited and compiled contributions from twenty-two of Rouse’s friends and climbing partners (in some cases there seems to be a distinction), which span his climbing career from the beginning on a local crag named The Breck to the last days on K2. The list of contributors includes such notables as Chris Bonington, Adrian Burgess, Rab Carrington, Greg Child, Jim Curran, Leo Dickinson and Doug Scott. In addition, Birtles has added a chapter from Rouse’s sister, Susan, describing his early home life and three of Rouse’s published works.

Together they comprise a fairly complete, chronological history of Rouse’s achievements, which Birtles has dedicated to Rouse’s daughter, Holly, who was born shortly after his death. Birtles made the dedication in the hope that when, “one day, she reads this she will know of her father that he was a fine man.” Rouse was an early and ardent proponent of alpine-style ascents in the Himalaya. Aside from the final drama on K2, most readers will find the accounts of his alpine-style climbs (Jannu, Kongur, Broad Peak and Nuptse) to be the most interesting sections of the work.

While doing a commendable job of covering the history of Rouse’s climbing career, few of the authors, with some notable exceptions such as Child and Curran, give much in the way of insight to his motivation and character. Whether it be from British reserve or for reasons unknown, little can be gleaned in these accounts about his personality other than that offered by a few descriptions such as, “a complex though highly likeable character” and “a nice fun-loving guy with a wild streak.” The vast majority of the chapters are straight-forward, factual accounts of Rouse climbing with the lads.

At several points provocative details are raised, but never explored. Mick Coffey, for instance, notes that Rouse was instrumental in introducing him to the infamous Aleister Crowley. Self-proclaimed as The Great Beast, Crowley, according to Coffey, then “influenced our social habits as we strove to shock and outrage the establishment (or so we thought).” Yet, having raised the issue, Coffey does not explain the extent of, or the reasons for, Rouse’s association with Crowley or even what their “social habits” were.

In his chapter on their attempt at Ogre II, Paul Nunn notes that Rouse felt “bitter and shocked” by his exclusion from the Everest Northeast Ridge expedition which ultimately took the lives of Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman. Nunn offers no explanation of the affair, and Bonington, who was a member of the expedition, never raises the subject.

Throughout the book there is an undertone that leaves the reader perplexed and wondering. This is perhaps best illustrated by the concluding paragraph of Doug Scott’s chapter on the climb of the North Face of Nuptse in 1979 with Rouse, Brian Hall and Georges Bettembourg:

Four years went by before I was to climb with A1 again in the Himalaya and in that relatively short space of time, three fairly traumatic blows had struck at Al’s self-esteem: on Everest the following winter, on Kongur in 1981 and another concerning Everest in 1982. By 1983, at K2 Base Camp, it was a different A1 to the one I had known on Nuptse.

What was it about these events that caused them to be blows to Rouse’s self-esteem? Who was involved? How was Rouse different in Scott’s eyes in 1983? For that matter, what did Scott think of him in 1979? Scott offers no clues.

Years from now when Holly Rouse reads her father’s biography, she will doubtlessly be impressed by his climbing achievements. Few of the questions she is sure to have about her father will be answered by this book, however.

Bob Rosebrough