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History of the Great Mountaineering Adventures

History of the Great Mountaineering Adventures. Stefano Ardito. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2000. 490 color photos, 200 black-and-white photos, 8 color maps, 50 illustrations. 320 pages. $48.00.

When this book arrived in a box that measured eight by 16 by 20 inches, my first reaction was, “Oh no, not another coffee table book.” The book itself measures over 162 cubic inches and weighs a hefty 5.75 pounds. Its size has given the publishers room to enhance the book’s illustrations, many of which are in color and full page, with the extra space needed to bring them to life. The photos are stunning and make this a quality book, calendar art at its very best.

There are a couple of puzzling exceptions in which the captions apparently don’t match the photos, but still the photos and their arrangement, along with the careful use of white space by the editors, make this an exceptional book. Yet with this added space (the pages are almost 14 inches high by ten inches wide), it is a pity the publisher did not use larger type, which would have made the pages easier to read and the captions under the illustrations easier to scan. The pages are well laid out with historical photos of early climbers often placed side by side with the pictures of the mountains themselves.

This is not a guidebook, nor is it something one would sit down and read from cover to cover, although I found parts of it very entertaining. It is a highly selective pictorial history of mountaineering, with emphasis on the personalities, routes, and mountains of central Europe (i.e., the Alps), plus selected climbs in North and South America and with the major peaks of the Himalaya. Because of this, a well-constructed index is critical to the proper use of the text. Both the idiosyncratic selections and the sloppy index detract from the book’s usefulness and the reader’s use and pleasure.

Over half of the book is devoted to climbing in the Alps and the British Isles. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, and its surrounding massif is given extended coverage (some of which is confusing: the first ascent occurred in July or in August, depending on which page you’re reading, and Mt. Blanc, not Mt. Elbrus, is cited as the highest point in Europe). Elbrus itself receives only a single rather off-hand reference as one of the triumphs of the British climber Douglas Freshfield (p. 114). The Pamirs and the Caucasus are not listed in the index at all, although the latter is mentioned briefly in the text on page 114. At the same time, the author has put a rather odd reference in the index to the Pacific Coast Trail. The Pyrenees, on the other hand, are covered in the book, but in a very half-hearted way, with only five minor references. Furthermore, there is nothing on climbing in Sweden, Norway, Greenland, or Antarctica in the index. And, although Baffin Island is mentioned in the text (p. 215), where four of its mountains are described, it is ignored in the index. North and South America fared a little better, but still received highly selective coverage.

The second problem I had in using this book is, as you have already guessed, its index. In any reference book on the history of mountaineering, which this clearly is, the reader needs a way to easily discover in its contents people, places, routes, etc. One cannot do this by means of this book’s index. For example, the Duke of Abruzzi, Luigi Amadeo of Savoy, that ubiquitous traveler and mountain climber from the turn of the century, is listed in the index under Luigi but is consistently referred to in the text as the Duke of Abruzzi. Nor is the index a complete guide to the book’s contents, leaving out such important events covered in the book as the famous climb of Mount McKinley by the “Sourdoughs.” Finally, I wish the author had included in the index the names and places mentioned in the Chronology. This list of dates important to the history of mountaineering is arranged by geographic areas, with the names and ascents. It is a very helpful tool for any researcher. None of the Chronology is included in the Index.

On a more positive note, this book has not neglected women climbers, although it leaves out some major figures like Arlene Blum and that indefatigable world traveler and charter member of the AAC, Fanny Bullock Workman, who broke any number of records while traveling and climbing in the Himalaya and Asia.

This book was written for those readers with an interest in the details of the history of European mountaineering, its climbers, guides, routes, and mountains. It has succeeded in this goal very well. Libraries, plus those of us with lots of room in our bookcases, together with anyone who has an interest in the history of European mountaineering or the peaks in the Himalaya, should buy this book. For the rest of us who do not need this level of detail, there are better choices out there.

Nonetheless, as I looked through this book with its superb mountain photos, I was reminded of what Kim told “the Holy One” as they sat looking at the Himalaya together in Kipling’s grand novel, “…Surely the Gods live here…” How else could so much beauty be in one place?

Robert Burns