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Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers

Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers. Nicholas O’Connell. Foreword by Greg Child. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1993. 300 pages. $19.95.

Beyond Risk is a collection of seventeen interviews conducted by Nicholas O’Connell with “the world’s most innovative and accomplished climbers.” Climbers are an opinionated lot, but it seems unlikely that readers could have anything more than minor quibbles with O’Connell’s selection of subjects. The focus here is post World War II, though Cassin, somewhat pre-dates that. The organization of the book might be seen as somewhat circular, beginning with Messner and ending with Tomo Cesen, the Himalayan standard bearer and heir apparent at the time the interviews were conducted. O’Connell moves fluidly from Himalayan explorers like Hillary, Bonington, Scott, and Voytek Kurtyka to all manner of rock climbers: Robbins, Harding, Jean-Claude Droyer, Wolfgang Güllich, Lynn Hill, Peter Croft. It is also to O’Connell’s credit that fewer than half of the climbers here are native speakers of English. Thus, the collection is international in scope and extremely comprehensive in the larger historical picture it portrays. Like all good history, the picture is at the same time incredibly diverse and surprisingly unified.

Many of these climbers are writers themselves, well over half with books to their credit (Messner and Bonington being virtual publishing industries unto themselves). But even these familiar faces benefit from O’Connell’s careful questioning and editing. I’ve read numerous books by Bonington and even spoken briefly with him, but O’Connell manages to get out of him what he rarely achieves in his own prose. Throughout this book these people are able to say the things that might be seen as unbecoming or self-aggrandizing in another context.

It is the obligation, I think of any good book about climbing, to address either explicitly or implicitly the issue of why we climb. We are invariably disappointed when the issue is ignored. O’Connell recognizes this and he attempts to draw from these climbers their innermost motivations. In their responses, however, we hear a little too often the circular “life is climbing, climbing is life” rationale. Kurt Diemberger even says that it’s impossible to answer the question of why one climbs. “It is answered,” he says, “by what you are doing.” Having said that, he attempts an answer in spite of himself. In fact, there is a sense in which not just Diemberger’s, but, all these dialogues, represent an effort to solve this riddle.

O’Connell employs a variety of questions to elicit responses that cut across generations and nationalities and come at us like voices scripted from a collective unconscious: Robbins: Did you get a lot of pleasure out of it? “Right off, I loved the physical reward of the body moving up rock.”; Jean-Claude Droyer: “I liked the feeling. I liked moving on the rocks.”; Wolfgang Güllich: Why is it that you climb? “It feels good to move on rock.”

Perhaps the most precise answer comes from Jeff Lowe in answer to a question about fear: “I like the heightened concentration that comes from that slight tension between fear and control and just feathering that edge and making sure you’re on the safe side of it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its historical continuity. Cesen cites Bonatti, Buhl, and Cassin as strong influences; Croft cites Bonington as an early hero and Bonatti above all others; Jean-Claude Droyer the father of modem free climbing in France, also cites Bonatti. Bonatti himself cites Cassin as an influence but also expresses admiration for those who followed him, Messner and Scott. Likewise, Robbins notes that Croft, in addition to his mastery of climbing has “a character that is head and shoulders above a lot of petulance and nay-saying and faultfinding that even I’m involved in.”

O’Connell does a superb job of introducing each climber in a two or three page bio and his introduction to the book as a whole provides a concise and accurate history of modern climbing. Since the book’s completion Lynn Hill has freed the Nose, and Cesen’s ascent of the south face of Lhotse has become highly controversial. Of the many changes since then, none so affected me as the tragic death of Wolfgang Güllich in an auto accident. Güllich, to whom the book is dedicated, seems the freshest voice. One emerges from reading the interview wanting to meet him, then remembering he’s gone, glad to have his words preserved here so eloquently.

David Stevenson