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Heroic Climbs

Heroic Climbs, Chris Bonington, general editor. The Mountaineers, Seattle, Washington. 1994. 224 pages. $32.00.

Heroic Climbs is an anthology of forty narratives and photographs by climbers (“the foremost mountaineers of our times”), organized by mountain region: The Alps, Europe Beyond the Alps, North America, Southern Hemisphere, and High Asia. Heroic Climbs has a pedigree longer than Lord John Hunt’s titles; foreword by Hunt; Bonington as general editor supplies the clearly competent introduction and conclusion; Audrey Salkeld, as editor, contributes most of the regional histories, with support provided by the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society. Nine others are listed as editors and art directors of one sort or another. This is a large-format book with nicely designed and reproduced color (or should I say colour?) photographs. It also functions well as a general history, though does not seem to have been meant as a reference work. The U.S. title Heroic Climbs may be more catchy than the British edition’s Great Climbs, but the latter is a more accurate description. Without geography to structually hold the book together, the thing might very well explode under the weight of its own ambition, except for the way in which its well-chosen subtitle and theme, A Celebration of World Mountaineering, holds it all together.

The first section, The Alps, has a fine range of selections (though I doubt many French climbers would agree, Destivelle being their only representative). Lily Bristow’s journal entries from 1893 on the traverse of the Grépon provide the opening—a bit out of synch with the rest of the selections, the next nearest is John Hunt’s memory of the Meije in 1927. Rob Collister’s traverse of the Pelvoux, a modest excursion in this company, is a particularly well-observed account. Marc Twight receives the attention he deserves with his story of a modern alpine route on the Aiguille des Pèlerins. As much as there is to admire in his climbs, there’s hardly much celebration in his telling of them—he relies on Nietzsche as a touchstone when Kafka might be the more quotable to describe his moods.

The section title, Europe Beyond the Alps, seems an attempt to mask a decidedly Anglo-centric view: four of the six selections focus on Britain. Of those the liveliest is from Victor Saunders, whose short “Sheep Story” reminds us to laugh at ourselves every now and then. Dietrich Haase’s longish essay on the sandstone climbing of Saxon Switzerland presents a provocative account of a rigid crag-centered code of ethics. However, his description of climbing there: “no artificial chockstones may be used, no ring pitons for a first ascent, no aids like skyhooks or other temporary aid devices (wooden wedges, aid pitons or bolts, camming devices)” leaves one wondering just how exactly the climbing is accomplished.

Although the North America section is the shortest in the book with only four accounts, they are nicely varied in both region and voice. Brad Washburn’s story of the traverse of Lucania and Steele is memorable not just because it was a sensational climb that required great self-reliance and vision, but because of the evident joy Washburn experiences in the effort. Barry Blanchard’s account of the north face of North Twin contains the single-most intense and interesting paragraph in the whole book. In describing the crux, Blanchard finds five carefully observed metaphors to give us the idea (a stricter grammarian might complain the metaphors are mixed, but no matter; this is lively prose).

Of the six accounts in the Southern Hemisphere section, three are devoted to Antarctica. All three are well done, with Roger Mear’s solo climb of Mount Erebus being especially noteworthy. This apparent disproportion leaves room for one account each from the Cordillera Blanca and the Towers of Paine. Adrian Burgess’ account of the north face of Huascarán and Sean Smith’s of the east face of the central Tower of Paine are all right, but hardly seem representative of the rich histories of these areas. The chapter begins with John Earle’s reminiscence of exploring the Patagonian ice cap with Eric Shipton; his response to falling into a crevasse provides us with yet another classic understatement that so personifies his style.

Stephen Venables has written a fine comprehensive introduction to the High Asia section and indeed this section is the most comprehensive in number and scope: eleven accounts ranging from Charlie Houston on Nanda Devi and K2 to Kitty Calhoun Grissom on Makalu’s west pillar. Among the most memorable moments are the never-before-published stills from Houston’s movies on Nanda Devi. Tony Streather’s story of the tragedy on Haramosh provides the most anguished moments and Doug Scott’s clinging to Kangchenjunga in hurricane winds provides the most harrowing. A wider perspective is added by the inclusion of Valery Khrishchaty’s account of the first winter ascent of Pik Pobedy in the Tien Shan and Voytek Kurtyka’s history of Polish climbing blends the character and fate of a people with a national climbing philosophy. The views of Pertemba Sherpa and environmentalist Mike Thompson add a welcome and even broader perspective.

This ambitious book tries to please everyone on all grounds and comes very close. The glossary is a bit uneven, including “brachiate,” but leaving out “red-point,” giving one pause to wonder just whom the editors imagined their ideal reader to be. There’s a misplaced page in Kurtyka’s story: oddly, we don't notice when it's missing, only surprised at the floating page tacked on at the end. The photographs are not credited as they appear in the text, instead there’s a list of credits at the end, but it’s nearly useless as a reference because it’s listed alphabetically by photographer, not page number. Although Bristow’s account is not the only one to be printed here, it is the only one whose original source is cited. These are minor complaints, of course, but one can’t help but wonder if these aren’t the products of too many hands stirring the project.

Finally, this is an elegant production, with all the exemplary features of a coffee-table book but with a superior text and a notably low price—a great value. Although there’s enough new material here to please the well-read climber reader, its best reader might be the aspiring young “climber” who has barely stepped out of the gym. For that reader, and the rest of us, this is the celebration of world mountaineering it claims to be, the stuff of dreams.

David Stevenson