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To the Summit: Fifty Mountains that Lure, Inspire, Challenge

To the Summit: Fifty Mountains that Lure, Inspire, Challenge. Joseph Poindexter. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishing: New York, 1998. 300 color photos. 320 pages. $39.98.

The specter of mountain beauty and illusion dignifies this ambitious debut. This visually rich publication marshals 50 specific mountains (and some rock formations) scattered around the earth in an attempt to convey the essence and spirit of mountaineering. The creative format is extraordinary, with spellbinding images, beginning with the glittering cover of Paiyu Peak in the Karakoram. The sheer physical size is designed to overwhelm the reader with an immediate result. To glance at some of the irresistible 300 photographs is a powerful experience: sometimes images appear as a fictional landscape strewn with storm clouds dancing like ghosts. Some of the best of our mountain photographers have contributed to these images, the eight centerfold pages creating wide spreadsheets. However, a few of the results are grainy, meaningless, or overexposed. Two are inexcusably reversed (Mt. Kenya and Mt. Whitney, the latter unforgivable because this Sierra Nevada backdrop has appeared so often on calendars and in western films). Still, for the armchair traveler, perusing this publication is a luxurious way to grasp rock and ice. With a weighty seven pounds of paper, chemicals and ink, there is little danger of the book blowing away on a stormy day (it would make a good press for alpine flora).

To the Summit indeed captures the world’s growing fascination with mountaineering, but it is not the only book that captures many aspects of what is stated as a national obsession. Nor is the format the most comprehensive work on mountains and mountaineering, as is purported on the cover jacket. Several recent atlas-sized books rise to this paradigm, notably the Stefano Ardito and Salkeld and Bonington creations. These authors, as well as Walt Unsworth, might rightfully disagree.

There is an expected symmetry between such recent books, but they do bring different pleasures. All of them contain lucid action pictures, vivid first-hand accounts, and in some fashion depict the story of mountaineering from the 15th century onward. Here, the 50 challenging and inspiring mountains chosen as subjects are nominally famous, ranging from Nanga Parbat to Yerupaja, Mt. Cook to Mt. Robson, Fuji to Devils Tower and El Capitan, and the Grand Teton to Mount Blanc. The preponderance of the subjects are the high alpine peaks, all arranged in regional sections and accompanied by helpful index locator maps. The author’s text and historical research have a good sense of pacing, and he has managed to pin down the essential characterization of each chosen mountain. While the text is sometimes prosaic and uninformative, excerpts from a score of notable writings illuminate various aspects of the climbing experience from historic adventures to recent epics. Everesters from Mallory to Hornbein are quoted. There is a richness of insight (including epigraphs from Curran, Messner, Herzog), the best of which is from Mo Anthoine, who relates, “I don’t think getting to the top is all that important. You can always have another go…. The nicest feeling is to know that you are relying on someone else and he is relying on you.” This evaluation, together with the element of confrontational risk we generally fail to obtain in today’s society, may well explain the appeal of alpinism better than Mallory’s oft-cited explanation.

While the publication relates considerable mountaineering history, the writing is not scrupulously precise, and errors creep up unexpectedly. The author and his researchers have read many clippings, but loose editing makes this an inferior reference. Some of the factual breakdowns are date typos, a sprinkling of misspellings and inconsistency with accent marks, and the appearance of Wiessner as an Austrian. Once, Simpson and Yates appear as Yankees. The Grandes Jorasses is correctly identified in one picture caption and once not.

The book does present well-placed biographies of notable climbers from various nations. An analysis of equipment and technical rating systems, however, seems out of place in a coffee-table, armchair-reader publication. Flaws aside, however, this is a monumental and worthy publication overall.

Fred Beckey