Voices from the Summit: The World’s Great Mountaineers on the Future of Climbing. Edited by Bernadette McDonald and John Amatt. Adventure Press/National Geographic, in association with The Banff Centre for Mountain Culture, 2000. Approximately 110 black-and-white photographs. 256 pages. $30.00.
The subtitle of this book immediately seduced me. What an original concept to have world-class mountaineers discuss the future of our rapidly changing sport. I was soon disappointed. Most of the contributors, obviously given little direction by The Banff Centre for Mountain Culture (who commissioned the project), have ignored the future almost completely. Instead, they simply placed their résumés out there for all to see. We find life histories that drone on for 99 percent of the essay, with trite ruminations about the future mentioned only as an afterthought. We wade through hideous paragraphs about the amount of human waste expelled on Everest since 1921 (243,534 gallons of urine alone—thanks for asking). We discover tedious, chronological lists of achievements, as if the authors are auditioning for yet another expedition. One writer simply sets forth her thoughts on the “did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit” controversy. Much of all this is interesting, I’ll admit, but isn’t it a bit off the subject?
Mick Fowler comes across as the most dedicated contributor. This adventurous Brit barely says a word about himself, instead concentrating on the subject at hand. After a concise history of Himalayan exploits, he examines seven current trends, ranging from non-technical siege climbing to intrepid free climbs at altitude. He boldly makes predictions on all these styles and closes with these words: “I would like to think [a book] such as this will focus minds and help to ensure we can still experience plenty of fun and adventure pushing standards well into the next millennium.”
Catherine Destivelle also took the project seriously. Her eloquent and insightful piece jumps out at the reader who has been annoyed by the previous ones. Her best lines: “I’m not a follower of Russian Roulette, even in a disguised form. Maybe that will be the game in the years to come, and in that case the possibilities are endless.”
Will Gadd invents a new, semi-serious rating system called GAG (Gadd Adjusted Grade). This rates climbs both on technical difficulty and on commitment. “Your Couch” occupies the lowest possible rating, and “50 pitches of solo 5.15a at altitude” is his take on the future. Gadd’s best lines: “The age of summits is over. They were worthy challenges for the climbers of their era, but now we must climb harder, more committing lines to stand with honor in the gaze of those who came before us.”
Other essays definitely worth reading (though they hardly touch upon the future of climbing) are those by Greg Child, Yvon Chouinard, Peter Croft, Kurt Diemberger, Ed Douglas, Tom Hornbein, Charles Houston, Guy Lacelle, Royal Robbins, Todd Skinner, and Jack Tackle.
Craig Richards has taken marvelous photographs of the authors, and these add immeasurably to this handsomely designed book. Looking at the images of some of the stars, I realized I had never laid eyes on them before. Sure, I’d seen their portraits in this very journal, but these were of tired, sunglassed, hooded, zinc-oxided zombies at altitude. Here are the real people, gray hair and all.
In a book of this size, there are bound to be mistakes. Voices contains a few howlers. Destivelle is climbing Devil’s Tower in the photo on page 129? The Phillip-Flamm Route lies on the Matterhorn? Solleder made the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn? Chouinard was on the first ascent of the Salathé Walll Bonatti climbed the Dru in 1956? Leo Houlding, only 19, can perhaps be excused for getting virtually every fact in his Yosemite history wrong, but a competent copy editor would have caught most of these errors. Finally, some dimwit decided to transform meters to feet with exactitude. So we have, for instance, Krzysztof Wielicki confronting the “984-foot face in front of me.” Obviously, in the original this was rendered as an approximation: 300 meters.
What do I think the future holds? I hoped you wouldn’t ask, and I see why so many essayists shunned the question. It’s quite obvious, as many contributors state, that harder climbs will be done and speed records will be shattered. Commercialization of climbing will become even more disgusting than it now is. With nothing to lose, I will venture a few outlandish predictions. The South Col will be totally cleaned up one day. Sport climbing will be an Olympic event very soon. The Nose of El Cap will soon be done in an hour. Someone within this decade will climb three 8000-meter peaks on the same day, using a helicopter, of course, to get from one to the other (but where does the chopper land—at base camp or maybe just a wee bit higher, say the Western Cwm of Everest?).
Many of the authors talk about the endless hidden ranges where huge, virgin walls will be free climbed in solitude. True adventure is still out there for those who have the courage and commitment to explore. The rest of us will have to be content with climbs that will increasingly swarm with humanity.