World Mountaineering: The World’s Great Mountains by the World’s Great Mountaineers. Audrey Salkeld, general editor. Forward by Christian Bonington. Mitchell Beazley: London, U.K. 1998. Numerous color and black-and-white photographs, maps, topos. 304 pages. $50.00
Poring over maps and thumbing through old references in search of new projects has consumed hours of my life. This is the dreaming, scheming phase of climbing that is nearly as pleasurable as the physical act itself. The pastime also serves to ground me in the humble realization that climbing remains a passionate and compelling journey—a journey that has been perpetuated by kindred spirits for many, many generations. Practitioners current and past are still searching for the same essence: personal confrontation in wild places where we have only the illusion of being in control. Thus Audrey Salkeld’s definition of the intangible urge to climb is as on-the-money as any I have encountered to date: “This is what climbing is most about—taking back the responsibility for one’s own existence.”
World Mountaineering provides a wealth of geographical and practical climbing information for a fascinating diversity of mountains, laid out in a concise and effective format. Many areas that have little previous documentation are covered in impressive detail. An amazing amount of research went into this book, and it has produced a work that can be read as much for pleasure as for trip planning.
But more importantly, it provides a wonderfully complete feel for the history, spirit and personality of each mountain described. The book accomplishes this by enlisting the insights and anecdotes of an impressive list of climbers with the necessary credentials to reveal the essential intricacies of the mountain they characterize. The book goes straight to the source for the pithiest information. Who better to describe the Eiger than Victor Saunders and Anderl Heckmair, or Everest than Peter Athans and George Mallory II, or Gasherbrum IV than Stephen Venebles and Robert Schauer? It’s these candid and personal accounts by the individuals most familiar with the important routes on each chosen mountain that make this book a real treasure.
Fifty-two peaks are described, beginning with a locator map that seems of limited value in many cases. The map of the Grand Teton, for instance, is relatively useless as a reference tool and serves merely as an artistic adornment to the chapter. For those interested in climbing a particular mountain, the maps referenced later will of course be essential. An introduction and informative overview of the various facets of each mountain is followed by a chronology of significant ascents that very effectively summarizes the essential climbing history. But by far the most practical feature for each selection is the black-and-white photo with routes clearly superimposed. Written route descriptions are minimal yet valuable in that they provide an objective appraisal of route quality, greatly aiding one in choosing between the myriad possibilities on any given mountain. Finally, a collection of practical information, including how to get there, available facilities, climbing season, recommended gear, maps and guides, local language, rescue and insurance considerations and a hint of the red tape you might encounter, provides the logistical kernel to facilitate more detailed trip planning.
The real hook, though, has to be the discussion of future climbing potential. Let’s face it, this is what we all really want to get a handle on: what remains to be done? I’m always a little skeptical of these discussions because I have to wonder what the cognoscenti are not telling us. Are these local activists really going to divulge to the masses the last remaining unclimbed gems on their beloved home turf? Maybe, maybe not. In some instances this section merely discusses future styles of climbing appropriate to the particular mountain, but occasionally a real eye-popping new line is revealed.
I found this guarded readiness to reveal unexplored terrain interesting when read in conjunction with Bonington’s excellent foreword. As one who should know, Bonington extols the pleasurable rewards of exploring unmapped wilderness while bemoaning the inexorable loss of this evanescent resource. Anyone fortunate enough to visit a comer of this earth before all others must struggle with the fact that the violated comer can never again be visited for the first time. Bonington deals with this dilemma in the obvious and predictable way: keep wild places as wild as possible by conducting ourselves humbly, responsibly and with regard for those who will inevitably follow. This is, of course, the only way to view our fragile and finite mountains. I detect a whimsical note of hyperbole in Bonington’s statement, “There still are, and I believe always will be, obscure valleys and numerous mountain ranges off the beaten track, where climbers can find untouched faces and ridges, even unclimbed peaks.” Let’s face it, the day will certainly arrive when the last valley has finally been visited. But as Bonington implores, if we climb and explore with an eye to the future, the mountains will continue to reveal their pristine majesty to countless generations to come, and climbers will continue to redefine the limits of possibility. This book is a splendid celebration of majestic mountains and the ebullient human spirit of exploration that thrives within them.