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Mountain Journeys

Mountain Journeys. Edited by James P. Vermeulen. The Overlook Press, Woodstock, New York, 1989. 248 pages, $19.95.

James P. Vermeulen has compiled an anthology of mainstream first-person climbing stories. He has reasonably organized the selections into a kind of up-and-back structure: “Because It was There,” about the tug of mountains on the imagination; “Up, Down and Toward,” dealing with expedition planning and preparation; “Trials and Tragedies;” “Summits;” and, lastly, “Back into the World.”

A sampling of the writers he has chosen includes Galen Rowell, Gaston Rebuffat, Nicholas Clinch, Tom Patey, Elizabeth Knowlton, Art Davidson, Robert Bates, Robert Craig, Dave Roberts, Julie Tullis, Rick Ridgeway, Maurice Herzog, Tenzing Norgay. The more offbeat choices are John Muir and Joe McGinniss. Before each, the editor includes a brief, competent comment on the careers and writing of each climber.

In his preface Mr. Vermeulen writes, “Not surprisingly, the question most often asked about mountaineers is: Why?” The same question can be asked about anthologies. Why? What gap in the literature is plugged by anthologizing? Mr. Vermeulen goes on to say,"… The stories in this paper feast were harvested with an eye toward feeding everyone, for everyone’s feast.”

The trouble is that old-hand climbers who read already know these books in their entirety. To feed the experienced, the anthologist would need to have ferreted out more obscure writers or less familiar events. Terray? Tejada-Flores or John Long? Others we don’t even know? In sum Mountain Journeys is a smorgasbord that can only be expected to whet the beginner’s appetite.

In a 248-page book, including a forward, preface, and glossary, Mr. Vermeulen has included twenty-one excerpts which are too brief and tend to bleed into each other. Like ocean-voyaging literature, accounts of mountain ascents take on a general sameness. One alpine storm is pretty much like another, not in the actual experience, of course, but in the telling. Specifying, individualizing, is one of the challenges the first-person narrator faces. Most of these writers have succeeded in that their books are infused with their own personalities and a sense of immediacy. But take several great mountaineers and pull out of context their five-to-ten-page accounts of, say, tough alpine ascents, put them side by side, and something of that original character and immediacy is lost. Perhaps Mountain Journey’s purpose would have been better served by including half as many excerpts twice as long, a feast with fewer nibbles.

Dallas Murphy