Himalayan Climber: A Lifetime’s Quest to the World’s Greater Ranges. Doug Scott. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992. 192 pages. $35.00.
Scott is surely one of the most well-rounded climbers of our sport’s history. He has climbed the Salathé Wall on El Capitan and nervy routes on Everest, Shivling, and the Ogre. He has visited Chad, Iceland, and Tasmania. He has struggled on Kenya and Waddington and Denali—and on minor crags in Jordan, of all places. Equally at home on rock and ice, the man seemingly lives only for climbing. This is splendid and admirable when seen from a distant perspective, but viewed up close his one-track passion is also perhaps sad, even bordering on irresponsible. His family suffered from his never-ending quest; he was divorced recently, an event he says humbled him more than any mountain ever did.
Each time frequent-flyer Scott leaves England, his Pentax accompanies him, and this book shows his photographic talents to spectacular effect: Himalayan Climber is basically a coffee-table picture book. About 300 photos, virtually all in breathtaking color, grace this volume, though this profusion leads to one of the problems with the book: repetition. How many shots do we need of a figure struggling up an icy couloir?
But photographic repetition is nothing compared to the textual. Each of the twelve chapters opens with a block of text covering Scott’s climbs of a certain year, or in a certain area. This several-page section is followed by short accounts of the identical climbs, in the form of extended captions. I found it insulting to have to read the same stories twice, as if I were a child made to learn Tennyson by rote. Here’s an example from the main text of a Makalu attempt: “… [the wind] pinned us down in a swirling holocaust of snow for the whole of the next day. At this point Georges [Bettembourg] began to develop what proved to be a pulmonary embolism.” And from the extended caption, six pages later: “… the winds pinned us down in our tent next day during which Georges had stabs of pain around his liver—symptoms of pulmonary embolism.” This sort of duplication occurs throughout the book and could have been dealt with easily.
Another minor flaw is the difficulty in matching captions to photos. Some captions sleep subtly in the main text, where a parenthetical “right” or “left” indicates that you’ve just read a caption. Other captions, though more traditional, are often placed in such a way that you have to work hard to match them with their photos. Since seven photos sometimes appear on a double-page spread, your eyeballs get a real workout.
Lackluster writing also mars the book, but even though I usually rant and rave about this shortcoming, I was not bothered this time, for Himalayan Climber is one of the finest picture books about mountaineering I have ever seen. The photos are ravishing, full of life and color and action. You can feel the wind in some of them. Even the group portraits, potentially so boring, are worth studying closely when you have people like Messner and Rouse and Anthoine and Whillans and Haston and Kukuczka in them. That many of these lads are now dead serves as a poignant reminder that high-level climbers rarely attain old age.
Scott has been called “the great survivor.” I hope for his continued survival, partly for a selfish reason. Given his intelligence, his fascination with Eastern philosophies, his sterling record, and his basic humility, he should be able to write a spirited and thoughtful autobiography, something we see all too little of nowadays.
Leave the camera behind in the next book, Doug, and tell us what it’s really like to struggle with your mortality up at 7500 meters. We need to hear more about the Real Quest.