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The High Mountains of the Alps

The High Mountains of the Alps. Helmut Dumler and Willi Paul Burkhardt. Translated by Tim Carruthers and adapted by Ken Wilson. The Mountaineers, Seattle, Washington, 1993. 224 pages, 275 color photos, sketches, maps. $45.00.

In 1923, when modem mountaineering was unknown and mountaineers could still recall the names and accomplishments of their worthy predecessors, there appeared on bookshelves Austrian Karl Blodig’s volume, Die Viertausander des Alpen (The 4000-meter Peaks of the Alps). Blodig claimed to be the first person to have ascended all the Alpine 4000-meter peaks, a feat he achieved in 1911. Since that date topographers have somehow managed to add a hump here and there and to deflate by a few meters many otherwise worthy summits: but Blodig’s list can be considered as good as any. The book has stood the test of time. There were two reprints before the 1928 second edition. The author died in 1958 at the age of 97. He was surely one of the last survivors of those hardy men and women who participated in the Alps’ Golden Age of Mountaineering.

Blodig is long since gone, but his book and his ideas continue to tickle the appetite of large numbers of climbers. To this day people set out in his footsteps in search of all the 4000ers. Thanks in part to Blodig there are probably thousands of climbers today who have climbed them all.

The original list has now been expanded to 61—and by some enthusiasts to the startling number of 150. Whatever the merit of these additions, latter-day numerology called for revision of Blodig’s work, a task undertaken in 1968 by the Munich firm of Rudolf Rother after major changes were made by German writer Helmut Dumler. Dumler wrote a 1989 edition with splendid color photographs collected by the Swiss Willi Paul Burkhardt. Diadem Books of Great Britain acquired English language rights and Tom Carruthers made an English translation. These last two developments made it possible for Ken Wilson to summon up his editorial wizardry and produce what is almost certainly the most magnificent, up-to-date and informative volume ever devoted to the high Alps.

Because of the number of contributors, the reader may wonder whether the editors have not chosen too many cooks to spice up the stew. But fear not, for Ken Wilson, like a master chef, has taken the best of everything to create a tasteful blend and produce what is clearly a modern and much-needed redesign of the original.

The photographs alone guarantee the book’s value. By this reviewer’s count there are 275 in color and three in black-and-white. All of these are of the highest professional quality, taken under ideal conditions. This, of course, is a bit misleading, as those of us familiar with both Alaska and the Alps; for our memories also evoke pictures of torrential rain and blinding snowstorms.

However, the photos are the icing on the cake. The text is, if anything, more meritorious than the pictures. It is extremely well written and crammed with valuable information as well as frequent anecdotes and historical references. Contemporary observations, notably about modern ski-mountaineering, are found side by side with geographical notes and well-researched history. Sooner or later, of course, attention is focused on the Golden Age, that half century between about 1860 and 1910 when the last of the as yet unclimbed 4000ers were finally ascended. Apprehensive people began to wonder whether the ascent of the final great summits might not spell an end to mountaineering. “Where do we go from here?” they asked. How wrong they were; for as the old traditions died, new ones began to replace them.

Each mountain is treated separately, but not without reference to its geographical location. After a discussion of the “outlying” summits, such as Gran Paradiso, Bernina and Ecrins, the authors follow the sun from east to west, focusing first on the Bernese Alps, thence on the Pennines, and, finally, in a fitting climax, on the Mont Blanc region. Each area is furnished with a map. In addition there are fine drawings by Sebastian Schrank that outline original routes and, where desirable, others. There are brief guide-like summaries for each peak that contain vital information which can be obtained at a glance without reference to the main text, these provide data on such things as valley bases, location of huts, range of route difficulties, and so forth.

At $45, the price is a bargain. Where else will you find 275 magnificent color illustrations and a wealth of geographical, historical and guidebook material? If you want a copy, you better act fast before it is sold out into less worthy hands than yours, or before the publishers adjust the price upwards.

Andrew John Kauffman