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The Love of Mountains Is Best

The Love of Mountains Is Best. Robert H. Bates. Peter Randall, 1994. 473 pages, 150 photos. $35.00.

On a high rock of the Swiss Alp, Niesen, an early Greek climber inscribed: “The love of mountains is best.” And so Bob Bates has entitled his unpretentious, gracious, and anecdote-rich memoir. This book could also carry a subtitle like: Meetings With Remarkable Men. One of them, Charlie Houston, writes in the foreword, “This is not a book; who touches this, touches a man.”

Bates—co-author of K2, the Savage Mountain, first Director of the Peace Corps in Nepal, and long-time teacher at Philips Exeter Academy—has devoted his life to mountains: “Fortunately for me,” he wrote, “I began climbing when none of the highest mountains had been climbed.…” Taking the conventional biography form, handsomely produced with numerous black and white, as well as color photographs, the book’s author revisits the mountains and first ascents that defined his life: Lucania, Steele, Denali, Ararat, Ulugh Muztagh, Russell, Wood, Augusta, Hubbard, and most memorably, K2—once in 1938, then again in 1953.

On their second attempt of the penultimate giant, Art Gilkey contracted thrombophlebitis. The entire team gave itself to lowering Gilkey down the mountain, at the probable price of their own lives, fighting against frostbite, high altitude, and storm. When George Bell slipped and the entire team began sliding off, only Pete Schoening’s famous ice-axe belay prevented a catastrophe. Then, while assessing their new injuries, Gilkey slid off the mountain (probably in an avalanche)—at once the team was saved. Bates wondered if Gilkey had deliberately slipped off to save everyone else. He wrote: “Our thoughts were with him [Gilkey] then and have been ever since, for a more gallant friend and companion never lived. He would have given his life for us, but chance or God had done it instead.”

The events that unfolded on K2 that year were a seminal event in Bates’ (and his companions’) careers as well as a defining pattern in the rest of his life, and hence the nucleus of this book.

On that K2 expedition, all of the members steadfastly refused a lot of money from a tobacco company, which they deemed contrary to their ideals. In 1941, passing up the first ascent of Mount Wood, the author escorted the frostnipped Foresta Wood to Base Camp while her husband summited. And in 1978, in Afghanistan, when one of the Land Rovers in Bates’ convoy mistakenly hit a boy who ran out into the highway, the expedition made prompt amends and ensured the boy was properly cared for in the hospital. (Recalling another American climbers’ truck crash of that era in Nepal: the climbers made no restitution to the dead Sherpa victim’s family.)

Clearly, Bates’ life is one of prolonged series of meetings with beloved mountains and remarkable men such as Brad Washburn, Ed Hillary, Ad Carter, Willi Unsoeld—and too many others to name. The only flaw of the writing is the author’s inability to issue judgement, skepticism, or critical thinking about any of his friends or acquaintances. (“If he can’t say something nice, he says nothing at all” writes Houston in the foreword). Bates writes a chapter about their post 1938 K2 overland journey, but omits the story about one of his teammates killing a man in India. Or what did the author—an excellent judge of character—really feel about Ronald Reagan while shaking his hand in the White House? These omissions are deliberate statements about a forgotten age of gentlemen mountaineers, when their restrained politically correct behavior ruled the hills.

Bates’ life is, after all, inspiration. His only illnesses from ages 8 to 84 have been a passing influenza and arthritis; he describes 40-footers into crevasses (on goldline with a monster pack mind you) tied into only a waistloop, elephants stepping two feet from his sleeping head, and remarkable meetings such as Heinrich Harrer thanking Eric Shipton for “getting him out of jail,” Shipton, not knowing Harrer, replied that he’d never gotten anyone out of jail. Read the book if you want to know Harrer’s reply.

The Love of Mountains Is Best—with its sweeping gesture of goodwill to all, and its utter selflessness—stands alone in modern mountaineering literature: for it is a book about rightness of mind and how to conduct oneself nobly in the mountains of the world.

Jon Waterman