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The Climbers—A History of Mountaineering

The Climbers—A History of Mountaineering. Chris Bonington. BBC Books and Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992. 288 pages, 40 color photographs, 102 black-and-white photographs, maps and diagrams. £16.95.

Chris Bonington is well acquainted with the history of mountaineering and he is an excellent writer. This is certainly the right combination to make this a very worth-while addition to climbing literature.

My attention was caught immediately by the first chapter, a description of Albert Frederick Mummery’s first ascent of the Grépon with the Swiss guides, Alexander Burgener and Benedict Venetz. That outstanding pioneer and developer of the art of climbing was indeed modern in the way he went about it and seems to tie the Victorian age perfectly to present-day climbing. Bonington strengthened that tie even more by repeating Mummery’s climb with two French guides, using tweed clothing, nailed boots and equipment of the earlier epoch, albeit substituting nylon rope for the much less safe manila hemp. From there on, Chris does include himself from time to time, as befits one who has been for thirty years on the cutting edge of modem mountaineering.

The beginnings of climbing in the Alps, with particular emphasis on the struggle to ascend Mont Blanc, and in the Himalaya follow. I was particularly interested in his descriptions of the climbing between the two World Wars, having been at an impressionable age when I avidly studied everything that came out in print in either German or English. There was not a single name unfamiliar to me. This was the era of the great North Faces, particulary of the Eiger and of the attempts on Everest and Nanga Parbat. Naturally I was also happy to read about our ascent of Nanda Devi and the American attempts on K2.

After World War II, Bonington’s task becomes much more complicated. As he states, “It starts as a clear tumbling stream that is easy to follow but, as we get closer to the present time, it spreads out into a wide delta as opaque as the mouth of the Ganges. It is less easy to pick the main stream, and inevitably I will have left out some ascents or climbers whom my readers feel should have been included.” The next hundred pages attempt to describe all that has happened in the mountain world in the last half century. It is well done within the limits of that space, but mountaineering has proliferated to an amazing extent. This possible defect is somewhat remedied by Audrey Salkeld’s useful Brief History of Mountaineering, which appears as a ten-page appendix. I feel very strongly that he erred in making no more than passing references to climbing in Alaska, the Peruvian Andes and Patagonia, where much fascinating mountaineering history has taken place.

The final chapter, Always a Little Further—As it is now and as it might be in the future, is an excellent summary of Bonington’s assessment of present-day mountain climbing. Although I am in hearty agreement with the points he makes, I am sure that there will be those who will take exception to his ideas. It is an excellent study on which to base constructive discussion.

I am pleased with the accuracy. There was bound to be an occasional slip. For instance, the Poles mentioned on page 155 climbed Nanda Devi East and not Dunagiri East. On page 203, it states that the Americans lowering stricken Art Gilkey on K2 were all roped together, belayed by Schoening and held by him after a slip. In actual fact, it was much more amazing. Schoening was holding Gilkey at the end of his rope. The others, slightly above, were on two separate ropes. Bell fell and crashed into the climbers on the second rope, knocking them off. Miraculously, all the ropes snagged and Schoening held all the five climbers on his ice-axe belay. But such very few minor errors do not detract from the high standard.

The volume is profusely illustrated both with black-and-white shots from the past as well as more recent ones and a large number of beautiful color photographs. This is a volume well worth owning.

H. Adams Carter