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The Merry-Go-Round of My Life: An Adventurer's Diary

The Merry-Go-Round of My Life: An Adventurer’s Diary. Richard Hechtel. Vantage Press, New York, 1991. 219 pages, 10 black-and-white photographs. Hard cover. $13.95.

Richard Hechtel’s climbing memoirs were first published in 1989 by Bruckmann Press in Munich, Germany, under the title: Lebenserinnerungen: Vom Klettergarten zu den Bergen der Welt. When Hechtel decided on an American edition, he translated his German manuscript into English at the same time adding and deleting material according to his perception of what an American reader might prefer.

In The Merry-Go-Round of My Life, we find that Hechtel was bom in Germany in 1913. At age twenty he becomes an active climber. By 1935 he is skilled enough to complete an early ascent of one of the great prizes of the day: the difficult south face of the Schüsselkarspitze. In 1937 he startles the mountaineering community by completing the first solo ascent of the Peuterey Ridge in 36 hours from Entrèves. The war years now intrude: there is a brief tour of duty in a fighter pilots school; then Hechtel becomes a research assistant at a wireless station in Bavaria. Finally, in 1941, he is sent to the German Aeronautical Institute in Berlin. Even during these trying years, he manages some climbs in the Wilde Kaiser and the Elbsandsteingebirge; then, as the air raids increase and Russian artillery units eventually reach the outskirts of Berlin in March of 1945, Hechtel convinces his superior at the Institute to ship Hechtel’s unit, all the equipment and some 25 workers, to a safer place in the Austrian Alps. And so, he is captured by Americans rather than Russians and has a brief vacation at a POW camp in Innsbruck before returning home in June of 1945.

These war years and events in his life leading up to his coming to the United States in 1958 are fascinating reading. Two important climbs are made in the early 1950s: the first one-day ascent of the northeast face of Piz Badile and the first ascent of the Integral Peuterey Ridge, starting with the daunting south ridge of the Aiguille Noire. On this latter climb, as the group approaches the summit of Mont Blanc in a fearsome blizzard, Hechtel asks: “How did we find our way to the summit of Mont Blanc and the Vallot Hut?” “I do not know,” he replies, “but I was sure of my way, not one second in doubt, never asking my compass or the map, like the migrant bird that finds its way with unfailing certainty.” This is a nice sentence, but unfortunately Hechtel’s writing in the bulk of the book is not nearly as evocative. (His first language, of course, is German.) But his prose is actually quite readable, once you become acclimated. It is modest and undistinguished, with few images, but very honest. And his humor (wry and only occasionally sophomoric) comes across very well.

The balance of the book, after he comes to America as a research scientist, covers various expeditions to South America, Africa, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalaya (he is a member of a 1964 expedition that makes the first ascent of Talung Peak (near Kangchenjunga) plus numerous smaller trips.

Unfortunately, The Merry-Go-Round of My Life (unlike its German counterpart) is a cheaply crafted book. The few photographs are substandard and the silly title somehow warns us of bizarre translations and word-usage that often intrude in the text, a text which occasionally seems to have escaped the editing (and fact-checking) process at Vantage Press. I have never read of clouds tearing across the sky referred to as “cloud-rags” (Wolkenfetzen), nor was I certain what had transpired when I read the sentence: “Within the following quarter of a century the Dachl north face had lost some of its nimbus.” (A literal translation of a perfectly normal German expression.) But all this is rather unimportant and we might even credit Hechtel for inventing some quaint neologisms. But I detest the habit of always showing the height of a peak in meters followed by the equivalent in feet, both in parentheses. Use either meters or feet, but not both. And why couldn’t anyone discover the following errors before going to print? Quito, Ecuador, is not 10,000 feet in elevation, but lies at 9350 feet; and Lionel Terray was not killed on an insignificant route in the “French Verdon,” but on a rather severe route in the Vercors near Grenosble.

At the end of the book, around 1986 at the age of 73, Hechtel is still climbing 5.10s and 11s at the local rocks, suffering perhaps (as he suggests) from an uncommon German ailment called Torschlusspanik, a panic occurring at the thought of spending the rest of one’s life in a rocking chair in Warren Harding’s Rock of Ages Home for Old Climbers.

Allen Steck