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Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo

Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo. Robert Anderson. Clarkson-Potter, New York, 1995. Color photography, 160 pages. $65.00.

Robert Anderson’s book, Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo, has much in common with his quest to do the same. Both are ambitious, big projects. Anderson sets out to be the first to solo-climb to the highest point on every continent. His book is a large photographic essay of his quest that also attempts to describe both the climbing adventures and the people and cultures he encounters along the way. Ultimately, he falls short in both endeavors.

There is no doubting Anderson’s qualifications as a climber. He is a solid mountaineer from Colorado, currently based in New Zealand. He has climbed big walls in Yosemite, on the Diamond of Long’s Peak, hard ice routes in New Zealand, and pushed high on Everest in an attempt to climb the complete West Ridge in 1985. He returned to lead his own team on an ascent of a new route on the east face of Everest in 1988, where one of his teammates reached the top. Anderson himself reached the South Summit before turning back. His frostbitten feet attest to how close to the edge Anderson has pushed himself.

Having climbed to the highest point on each of the seven continents, I eagerly awaited Anderson’s book as a means of vicariously reliving the adventures. At first glance, the book looks great. The large format coffee-table-style production is first rate. The photographs are of high quality with beautiful printing. Moreover, the jacket promises us detailed description of his experiences with the people he encounters along he way, and his discoveries about their cultures and their methods of survival in the harsh climates they inhabit. It goes on to say he leads us through incredibly difficult terrain and climactic conditions, giving us insight into the super-human strength it takes to take on the challenge of the seven summits.

Anderson’s introduction sets the mood for a great book that will bring the reader along psychologically, via both illustrations and text, as Anderson goes on his solo journey. My only qualm at this stage is his choice of 7,000-foot Mount Koscuisko in Australia, rather than 16,000-foot Carstenz Pyramid in Irian Jaya, as the highest point on the Continental Shelf. Most geographers, as well as climbers, see the New Guinea mountain as the highest on the Continental Shelf. Moreover, it is the only one of the seven summits that requires technical climbing to reach the top. And it arises from an equatorial rainforest in an area inhabited by the still Stone Age Dani tribe. The adventure of merely reaching the Carstenz Pyramid would have been as exciting as a solo climb of its rock walls.

The book is arranged into seven convenient chapters, each covering a continent. As I read the text my enthusiasm waned. The first chapter, on Anderson’s climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, sets the tone for the whole. Anderson travels with a friend and photographer and walks up the lower slopes with porters. He says little of the native people, local politics, history of climbing, or history of the region. Yes, he climbs to the top unroped, but so would any climber on this route. The same is true for his other climbs. Mule drivers bring his loads to the well-traveled Polish Glacier route on Cerro Aconcagua. He ropes with a partner to negotiate the glaciers on Mount McKinley. He walks to the summit of Europe from the crowded hut on Mount Elbrus. Finally, he goes to the south side of Mount Vinson with a large guided party. On Vinson, at least, Anderson accomplishes an impressive new route, but unfortunately doesn’t share much of the experience with his readers. On each of these ascents, only on the final day does he climb alone. Then, on Everest, all pretense of climbing solo is dropped. He climbs on his fourth attempt with a partner, Mike Bearzi, the entire time. By Anderson’s definition, my own climbs of the seven summits were also done solo.

Oh well, I can forgive the hype. I understand the need for sponsorship. A larger problem than Anderson’s definition of solo is his lack of inspiration in the storytelling. I found the text bland. The few hints of excitement, as when his porter on Kilimanjaro breaks his leg, are barely touched upon in his stream-of-consciousness-style prose. We are left without knowing how the accident happened or the crisis was resolved. Little is said about the people or the cultures along the way. Alas, many of the other stories lack even a hint of drama. Worse, little is given to Anderson’s inner thoughts and feelings. I would have liked to know how he felt going to Everest a fourth time, having already suffered considerable frostbite on earlier attempts. He describes the death of a Spanish climber in an avalanche, but comments not a word on how it affects him. The philosophical aspects of why we climb are totally ignored.

I pushed myself to read every word of the book, waiting for the climax, Anderson’s final attempt on Everest. The book’s cover says that, although he failed to reach the summit in the summer of 1995, his tale of the harrowing attempt is one of the greatest mountaineering stories of our time. How could I stop reading? Anderson and his partner reach a high camp at 8,000 meters without difficulty or crisis. They set out for the summit, and then the climb and text end with, “Snow crept up to our waists. Drifts built into miniature avalanches and moved down toward us. The moon slid behind the couloir like a ghostly friend exiting the room and the duet of soloists turned without a word to each other back toward the life below.”

That’s it, folks. The most harrowing story of our time.

It is a pity. Anderson is a great climber. I would have liked to have heard an account of his attempt on the East Face of Mount Everest, or his ascent of the South Face of Aconcagua. I would like to have heard more about Anderson the man, and how his views on climbing and life have evolved. Instead, we are left with a weak formula book: seven summits, seven chapters. On the positive side, it is a nice book to thumb through for a photographic journey to all seven continents.

Geoff Tabin