American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Postcards from the Ledge: Collected Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child

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  • Publication Year: 1999

Postcards from the Ledge: Collected Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child. Greg Child. Mountaineers Books: Seattle, 1998. 25 black-and-white photos. 224 pages. $22.95.

Among the voices of the several climbers writing well about climbing today, Greg Child’s seems to me unique. He has absorbed his influences and made them his own. Child has learned much from the self-deprecating Brits, from Tilman through Patey; has leavened their ironic understatement with a brash, unexpurgated candor, half Hunter Thompson, half native Aussie braggadocio; and has transfused his penchant for the satirical with an investigative reporter’s passion for the truth.

Postcards from the Ledge finds Child at the height of his powers. Rare is the case of a climber still in the vanguard of ascent who achieves a balanced perspective on the glorious folly of mountaineering, and for good reason. Enthusiasm clouds detachment; only in golf do we trust the player to act as his own referee. It is no accident that Melville quit going to sea at 25, and only then began to write about it.

Pushing 40, Greg Child continues to tackle precipices as daunting as any being explored in the world today: witness his ascent last summer, with three companions, of Great Sail Peak in Baffin Island by its steepest wall, an exploit he narrated for National Geographic. Yet at the same time, some element of distance bom perhaps of an innate skepticism about the excesses of alpine ego and pretension allows Child to make delightful fun of himself as well as of his mountaineering.

As in all gatherings of pieces originally written for magazines, some of the entries in Postcards from the Ledge survive the occasions that prompted them better than others.

Perusing Child’s third (and finest) collection, I am struck anew by his versatility. He can blow a satiric riff in the vein of Patey or McNaught-Davis with the best of them; and he can also plumb the core of the comedic, as in his hilarious account of inviting his mother to watch him climb in hopes of allaying her fears. At the same time, he can bear clear-eyed and chilling witness, in “Soul on Ice,” to the pointless tragedy of a French schoolgirl dying in a crevasse on the Mer de Glace.

And in two well-researched, closely reasoned accounts of climbers who may have lied about their accomplishments, Child marshals an impressive prosecutorial style. Before anyone had questioned Tomo Cesen’s epochal solo on the south face of Lhotse, I had traveled to Slovenia to interview him. I found him so likable and genuine that when the Lhotse gossip began to circulate, I dismissed it as the sour grapes of rivals. Despite the fact that I had written a book about exploration hoaxes, it took Child’s devastatingly logical presentation of the case to convince me that Cesen had faked his greatest climb.

Finally, one must pay tribute to Child’s skill at that aspect of mountain writing that most eludes its authors: the delineation of character. In a few deft strokes, he captures Lynn Hill’s cold efficiency, Alison Hargreaves’s unaffected gaiety. But it is in his rueful recollections of two intense and troubled climbers, Bill Denz and a loner he calls Luke Sky walker, that Child’s grasp of our beloved pastime at its weirdest and most unsettling comes to the fore. Reading these two unforgettable reminiscences, I found my thoughts drifting back to the kindred misfits I had crossed paths with in my own reckless years. Repeating an old mantra of gratitude to the gods of chance that had allowed me to survive the follies of youth, I added a coda for Greg, thanking the Fates for sparing him, so that he could write so well about what he has seen and done.

David Roberts

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