Himalaya Alpine Style: The Most Challenging Routes on the Highest Peaks. Andy Fanshawe and Stephen Venables. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1996. Color photographs, hardcover. $45.00.
Here’s a book that describes the Himalayan climbs that matter to climbers—not necessarily the climbs that have made the participants into household heroes, but the ones that remain benchmarks in the evolution of alpine climbing as a pure, exploratory, and soul-searching human endeavor. Merely reading the contents page sets my heart racing. For the devoted alpinist the contents page presents the quintessential list of dream peaks. And not just dream peaks but dream routes on those peaks: The Golden Pillar on Spantik, The South Pillar of the Ogre, Eternal Flame on Trango Tower, Gasherbrum IV, Shivling, Thalay Sagar …. Are we really going to be treated to descriptions of these gems? Indeed we are.
This collection of the finest Himalayan ascents, made by some of the boldest alpinists of all time, is hard to put down. Many of the ascents described are legendary in the annals of alpine style climbing: Doug Scott’s epic crawl off the Ogre, Lucas and Bohigas’s brilliantly bold ascent of Alex MacIntyre’s attempted line on the south face of Annapurna, Kurtyka and Schauer’s monumental achievement on the west face of Gasherbrum IV. This is pretty heady stuff!
If this book has no other value, it is at the very least an essential chronicle of the most enduring climbs done in the Himalaya. I recurrently have the (mistaken) tendency to get all excited about some new-wave modem alpine style ascent, associating it with some previously unrealized level of boldness and commitment. This book serves as a healthy reminder that alpine climbers have been digging deep into their souls and climbing with utter commitment for a long time. While sport climbing is wrapped up in a quantifiable escalation of technical difficulty, alpine climbing is imbued with a less tangible progression. Brilliant achievements in alpine climbing are inherently less predictable—and ultimately more spontaneous. They result from a coalescing of human determination in sync with fickle mountain weather, dynamic route conditions, and all the rest of the factors that have frustrated many a determined effort. But when things come together, the stories are sublime. Himalaya Alpine Style contains the best of them.
I think it’s the nature of alpine climbs and alpine climbers that the most incredible stories are often guarded within the memories of the participants. Perhaps there is a reticence to publicize ascents in which the people involved knew that humility before the mountains was fundamental to success. These constitute the climbs on which no one was confused about having “conquered” mountains—the climbs on which success was more a function of grappling with the frail human spirit than grappling with the mountain. Mountains acknowledge and reward sufficient humility and allow the truly committed to tread their elusive summits. The best of these ascents are recounted herein.
I launched into this book thinking I’d read enough of the chapters to get a feel for the layout and presentation and then skim through the rest. My preconception of its being merely a good reference book rather than a captivating read was put to rest right away. Each chapter takes the reader through a clearly written experience that begins with a concise mountaineering and cultural history of the particular peak and its surrounding region. The best routes and most significant ascents are described. From this ample background the author has culled the most tantalizing line of ascent to describe in savory detail. These route descriptions are accompanied by photos and topo sketches where needed. Finally, a succinct Summary, Statistics, and Information section effectively gathers pertinent information along with further references. I found this to be a delightful format that left me with the somewhat humorous notion that I possessed a guide book to some rather monumental climbs. All I have to do is pocket a photo copy of the description for Kennedy and Buhler’s route on Ama Dablam and I’m on my way!
Stephen Venables spends considerable time explaining and justifying his selection of climbs and the criteria for inclusion as an alpine-style ascent. In the end he elected to include some climbs that barely fulfill commonly held criteria for alpine-style ascents: no fixed rope, continuous self-contained upward motion, etc., etc. I guess my reaction is … who cares? What he has successfully compiled, in my opinion, is a collection of the climbs that matter.
I completely agree with Venables’ assertion that “alpine style” is more an ideal than a set of rules. The climbs he has selected describe the boldest approaches to some of the most amazing ascents to date in the Himalaya. Whether or not you agree that the ascent of Broad Peak by Schmuck, Wintersteller, Diemberger, and Buhl in 1957 satisfies the alpine style criteria, it remains one of the most admirable ascents in Himalayan history. This book comprises a record of climbs that stir the soul.
There are routes described that will appeal to every level of alpine climber. There’s everything from snowy walk-ups to big walls, trekking peaks to 8000-meter giants. Even Everest gets redeemed from its current reputation as a tired old hill beaten to death by the grim onslaught of commercial expeditions. I was quite surprised at Venables’ willingness to divulge a number of significant unclimbed projects scattered about the Himalaya. Given the proprietary tendencies of most serious alpinists when it comes to yielding new route ideas, this is a magnanimous offering indeed from one of the more accomplished alpinists of the day.
With its plethora of compelling stories, an incredible collection of superb photos and its enduring reference value, Himalaya Alpine Style is a must in the library of anyone passionate about mountains.