A History Of Mountain Climbing. Roger Frison-Roche and Sylvain Jouty. Flammarion: Paris and New York, 1996. Hardback, large format, numerous color plates and photographs. 236 pages. $65.
A history of mountaineering, lavishly illustrated, in a coffee-table format. No mean feat! The book gets off to a good start: the initial chapters are superb and justify the high-altitude price tag. Alpinism was born in the Alps, primarily in the Chamonix/Zermatt environs, so the French authors speak with considerable artistry on the highly contested first ascents of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But following their nationalistic chronicling of European alpinism (including British, German, Austrian, but most enthusiastically, French) in the book’s first half, they should have stopped while ahead. Once they launch into the book’s second half and “Other Mountain Ranges,” factual mistakes multiply like mushrooms after a rain. Ascents in the American “lower 48,” the Canadian Rockies, and Alaska are conveniently described alongside exploits in the Caucasus, Andes, Africa, and New Zealand.
Chapter titles like “The French to the Fore” make it obvious this book was written for the French market. Yes, climbers are naturally competitive—with the mountains and each other— but as an historical constant, the theme of nationalism is stated ad nauseam. There is, however, excellent historical trivia: the precursor of the ice axe, a small hatchet, was called a pioulette, hence the term piolet. Grand Jorasse was the nickname of a chamois hunter and early guide on Mont Blanc named Lombard. Jacque Balmat’s sick baby actually died the same day that he and Dr. Paccard reached the Mont Blanc summit (August 8, 1786), and Balmat hurriedly descended to be with his wife.
Numerous misspellings and factual errors interrupted my reading. Samples: Miriam (NOT Myriam) Underhill. Mick (NOT Mike) Burke. Hans C Christian Doseth (NOT Donseth) and Finn Daehli (NOT Doehli); and NOT ALL four Norwegians died on the descent after the first ascent of Great Trango (only the two with misspelled names died!). Likewise, Rand Herron was killed in a fall down the Second Pyramid at Giza, NOT down the Great Pyramid. Plus Heinrich Harrer “subsequently spent the next seven extraordinary years climbing in Tibet.” No kidding? And Todd Skinner did have a partner on the first free ascent of the Salathé Wall: his name is Paul Piana.
The photos illustrating American climbing are generally weak. The start of the North America section—surprise!—offers photos of 1950s French alpinists logically juxtaposed with engravings of John Fremont and Major Powell. None of the ’30s-era American rock climbers, K2 veterans, or Yosemite Golden Age-ers (except Harding) are seen. There is one photo of Skinner and Piana, and two of Lynn Hill. But the effect is slapdash. One paragraph describes the FA of Yosemite’s Sentinel by Salathé and Steck in 1950; the next, the FA of Popocatepetl in Mexico in 1519 by the Conquistadors! The Cassin Ridge: two sentences. The FA of Hidden Peak by Andy Kauffman and Pete Schoening: two sentences. You get the picture.…
The history of the Alps (superbly illustrated and engagingly written) clearly came at the expense of an abbreviated world climbing history. Four sentences on Mt. Kenya; minimal descriptions of the 1938 and 1939 American K2 expeditions, with incorrect facts on the latter. Fritz Wiessner and Pasang Lama’s descent was not caused “when Wolfe and two Sherpas were killed”—and actually, three Sherpas later died. There are multiple Everest errors. The benefits of breathing bottled oxygen while sleeping at high altitude was “discovered” on the 1922 Everest expedition by George Finch, Geoffrey Bruce, and the Gurka, Tejbir. To suggest it was “a French technique” first championed on Makalu is absurd! On the 1921 Everest expedition, Mallory and Bullock DID NOT immediately perform “a key task by climbing up to the North Col.” Rather, they couldn’t find the approach to the Col until after weeks of recon! It is Irvine’s ice axe that was found by the First Step in 1933, NOT Mallory’s and Hornbein and Unsoeld DID NOT meet another American team on Everest’s summit in 1963; they met Jerstad and Bishop later, while descending the Southeast Ridge.
In the positive, women’s alpine and Himalayan climbing achievements, from Annie Peck on Huascaran to Catherine Destivelle soloing the Matterhorn are given equal mention (as they should be), plus are well-illustrated. Artistically, numerous paintings of mountain scenery and climbing history, enchanting archival photographs of guides and gear, plus climbing-movie posters of K2, Tirich Mir and others add visual splendor to the book. Two useful appendices, “50 Great Names in Mountaineering” and “100 Key Dates,” round out the story. Mountaineering is indeed “the pointless if wonderful struggle between humans and peaks,” but someone on this team should have fact-checked with considerably greater diligence.