Hold the Heights: The Foundation of Mountaineering. Walt Unsworth. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1993. 432 pages, 24 pages of black-and-white photos, 14 maps. $29.95.
This is an extraordinary book, a joy to read and a rich history of mountaineering from its beginning to the middle of this century. In addition to scores of classic accounts, Unsworth has collected many unusual and hard-to-find climbing stories such as Gertrude Bell’s dramatic letter reporting on her ascent of the Oberland face of the Finsteraarhorn in 1892. The full story of the first major rock climb, Mont Aiguille in 1492, is here. Also there are little-known details of the bitter conflict between Paccard and Balmat over the first ascent of Mont Blanc.
Unsworth planned to do a complete history but found it would be too huge and impractical in today’s publishing world. Instead, he concentrated on the foundations of mountaineering and placed most emphasis on the Alps where it began.
Most early mountaineers were British, so not surprisingly much of the book is about them. There are many stories about British crags and cliffs, many drawn from letters and defunct journals not easily available. Unsworth knew many of the major players and describes them, warts and all.
He describes the Golden Age of Alpine and of Himalayan climbing and the secondary waves that followed. His choices show how evolving technical skills changed the “impossible” climb to the “normal.” Today’s stars will be amused to learn that Queen Victoria was petitioned to forbid mountaineering after some climbers took risks which resulted in a few deaths. More recently, the legendary Colonel Strutt, editor of the Alpine Journal, railed vehemently against extreme climbing, whether death resulted or not. Climbing was a sport: large risks were not acceptable.
Climbing in America is scanted, and one might wish for more stories of the great climbs in our country a century ago. Unsworth ends his history with the first ascent of Everest in 1953, thus excluding some of the most remarkable climbs ever done. Space dictated this decision: one hopes he may be persuaded to write the next volume.
Unsworth also shows us that the best-known mountaineers could be petty, vindictive and arrogant—so what is new? They were often fiercely competitive even before the rise of nationalism earlier in our times.
Together with The Climber’s Fireside Book by Noyce and Irving’s The Mountain Way, Unsworth’s book makes a fascinating collection of the facts and imagery of mountaineering. Too many of us ignore the past and are surprised to find how often it mirrors the future. There are lessons here which may soothe the controversies of today.
Buy, borrow, or steal this wonderful book; it will entertain and teach all of us.
Charles S. Houston, M.D.