High Praise, Celebrating 52 Magnificent Books from the Club's First Century
Celebrating 52 magnificent books from the Club’s first century.
“To this day mountain climbing remains the most literary of all sports. No other activity so compels its participants, from the international star to the weekend scrambler, to turn each personal conquest into public tale.”
Bruce Barcott, “Cliffhangers,”Harpers, August 1996
As I considered the books of the American Alpine Club’s first century, Barcott’s observation rang increasingly true. What other outdoor literature could be this rich, diverse, and copious? His use of the word “compel” seemed equally appropriate. Very few authors have made their livelihood or fame in writing about climbing, nor have they sought it. Climbers write for personal reasons, just as they—we—climb for personal reasons.
The thing is, publishers don’t print books for writers. Their business is in satisfying readers. That’s where we come in, and in recent decades our ranks have grown faster than bolted routes on a limestone crag. Many of us were first lured into climbing by epic tales from faraway ranges; others of us first clipped a sport route then wondered how it was done before power drills were invented. Whatever sequence led you to the mountains, chances are good that eventually you cared almost as much for the diversity and history of our sport as you did for pulling the hard moves. And as the tendons age, the balance often shifts, and soon our library shelves grow heavier than our rucksacks.
In the great spirit of mountaineering itself, we bring you a celebration of influential works from our literary history. These books are guiding stars, some to my generation, some to yours, some to those that came before, and some to those that have yet to take reading seriously. Such was my goal in building this list of 50, er, classics. Even if you can’t read all these books, at least have a look at what our comrades have been writing over the first 100 years of the AAC’s history.
How does one arrive at a list to represent a whole century? My methods here have hardly been scientific or quantifiable, as literary judgments seldom are. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to edit the AAJ’s book review section since 1996, so I began with a short list comprised from memory. I then consulted Neate’s Mountaineering Literature: A Bibliography of Material Published in English (1986), scoured decades of AAJ book reviews, and began talking to people, from young climbers I met on a glacier in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge to the venerable Nick Clinch, former AAC president and owner of a private collection of mountaineering titles (“some are pamphlets, you know”) nearing 30,000 in number.
I called Nick, for example, when I became concerned that the developing list had too few entries prior to the halfway mark—1952. He assured me that such a disproportion was natural: there simply weren’t that many books with mountaineering themes in print, nor were many people climbing back then. Furthermore, he suggested adding James Ramsey Ullman’s High Conquest: The Story of Mountaineering (see 1941, below), a history that has all but disappeared today but was highly influential for two decades. A generation or two younger, I could not have known its influence without the benefit of Nick’s experience.
Numerous e-mail messages were exchanged with Steve Hutchins, a reader of mountaineering literature. Steve’s knowledge is not only wide ranging, but esoteric: “Look,” he wrote, “at the binding of Beckey’s first volume of the Cascade Alpine Guide. It’s stitched and glued at the spine, not just glued. The story was that Fred insisted on the more durable and costly method, convinced that the books would be used in the field.” Steve’s suggestions were thoughtful and invaluable throughout the process and are woven into the list.
The purpose here is celebratory and emphatically nonhierarchical. The list is structured chronologically, meaning there are implied judgments about historical importance. While I showed favor toward titles by AAC members, it also happens that our membership penned the most interesting books about mountains and climbing—in short, we’ve been there, done that, and told the world what we’ve seen. In the event that a title has undergone various editions and revisions, I noted the first edition.
In Neate’s preface to Mountaineering Literature, she writes: “A practicable definition of ‘mountaineering book’ continues to elude me.” I now see why. These books are as wide ranging as are the reasons we climb. While I have tried to imagine what a consensus list might look like, the end result is personal. Your own favorites will inevitably be different. What I’m sure we have in common is our love for the hills and for climbing’s rich literary history. We read to learn of our past, to understand the present, to inspire our future—and just for the sheer fun of it. So tie in; let the celebration begin.
1908.Ice-Bound Heights of the Mustagh: An Account of Two Seasons of Pioneer Exploration and High Climbing in the Baltistan Himalaya, Fanny Bullock Workman and William Hunter Workman.
Four years before the founding of the American Alpine Club, a middle-aged American couple arrived on bicycles in Kashmir. Leaving their bikes behind, Fanny and William Workman proceeded to Ladakh and the Karakoram Pass. Thus began a fascination with the Himalaya that was to result in an attempt on Kangchenjunga (their first-ever climb!); a claimed, though later disproved, world altitude record by 56-year-old William of 23,394 feet on Pyramid Peak in 1903; and the true altitude record for women (22,810 feet) in Fanny’s 1906 ascent of Pinnacle Peak. These and other heavily-supported adventures the Workmans shared in five handsome books, illustrated with Fanny's superb photographs and issued between 1900 and 1917. The one I’ve chosen to lead our list is the first of the five to be published within the Club’s century. At 444 pages it is the largest of them all, and will take today’s reader unfailingly to two remote worlds— to turn-of-the-century Mustagh, and to the mental and cultural landscape of these most unusual adventurers. The Workmans were original AAC members.
1911. My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir.
A founder and president of the Sierra Club until his death; Muir’s early environmental activism led to the establishment of Yosemite as a National Park. Much less known is that Muir was a founding member of the AAC and Club president from 1908–1910. This book, published in 1911, was put together from notes and illustrations Muir made 41 years earlier. Muir was an excellent climber of his generation, and made numerous first ascents throughout the Sierra. His literary reputation, however, is based not so much on his descriptions of mountaineering feats but on his glorious evocations of the mountain world. For example, his meditation on what it would be like to gaze forever at Cathedral Peak: “bathed in such beauty, watching the expressions ever varying on the faces of the mountains, watching the stars, which here have a glory that the lowlander never dreams of, watching the circling seasons, listening to the sounds of the waters and winds and birds, would be endless pleasure.”
1911. A Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia, Annie Smith Peck.
Here Peck describes numerous early climbs in the Andes, including the first ascent of Peru’s highest peak, Huascaran, then thought to be the highest summit in the Western Hemisphere. Peck wanted to establish a new altitude record for climbers in the Western Hemisphere and a world altitude record for women. But Aconcagua turned out to be higher and Fanny Bullock Workman’s ascent of Pinnacle Peak in 1906 would prevail. Peck was a fascinating figure, not only because she was a pioneering climber and a woman, but also because of her competition with Workman and the controversies that arose from her role as an expedition leader. Peck, like Muir, was a founding member of the AAC.
The Conquest of Mt. McKinley: The Story of Three Expeditions through the Alaskan Wilderness to Mt. McKinley, Belmore Browne.
In 1912 Browne was turned back a hundred yards below the summit, an occasion Bradford Washburn has described as “the greatest heartbreak in mountaineering history.” This book describes their epic attempt, which ended when a sudden storm snatched victory at the last moment. Browne wrote: “The last period of our climb on Mount McKinley is like a memory of an evil dream.” Keep in mind that after a safe descent, the three-man team still faced a 250-mile wilderness trek back to Cook Inlet! Browne’s book was instrumental in casting doubt on Dr. Frederick Cook’s spurious claim of the first ascent. In addition, Browne was a strong advocate for the establishment of Mt. McKinley National Park, participating in Senate hearings in 1916.
1914.The Ascent of Denali: A Narrative of the First Complete Ascent of the Highest Peak in North America, Hudson Stuck.
The subtitle says it all: This book is of great historical importance. Stuck was an Episcopal missionary—the Archdeacon of the Yukon—and had lived in Alaska for nine years at the time of the climb. On the first page he announces, “I would rather climb that mountain than discover the richest gold-mine in Alaska.” His team was well prepared and blessed with excellent weather. Stuck describes the first view from the summit: “Never was a nobler sight displayed to man.... What infinite tangle of mountain ranges filled the whole scene until gray sky, gray mountain, and gray sea merged in the ultimate distance!”
Mountaineering and exploration in the Selkirks: A Record of Pioneer Work Among the Canadian Alps, 1908–1912, Howard Palmer.
Besides Archdeacon Stuck's account of his McKinley ascent, another notable American mountaineering book appeared in 1914, this one reflecting the surge of activity taking place in Canada. Though Howard Palmer notched roughly 25 firsts in the Canadian Rockies, it was the Selkirks that captivated him. “The peaks within the loop of the Columbia rise from unfriendly terrain,” wrote Club great J. Monroe Thorington, “but they were Howard Palmer's first and last love.” He was, says Thorington, “one of that hard-bitten group ... whose amazing back-packing journeys through the passes of the Selkirks made mountaineering history just prior to World War I. They would leave Glacier House heavily laden, returning weeks later, their provisions exhausted but with victory on distant peaks.” Palmer made more than 20 first ascents in the Selkirks, among them Mt. Sir Sandford, highest in the range. This attractive book, called “classic” by Thorington and “a model of its kind” by Henry Hall, is the definitive story of early Selkirk climbing. Palmer was President of the Club from 1926–1928, editor of the AAJ from 1930–1933, and served continuously on the AAC Council for 33 years.
Tales of a Western Mountaineer, C. E. Rusk.
Rusk was one of the founding members of the AAC, associated with I.C. Russell and also with members C.H. Sholes and W.G. Steel, who had earlier established The Mazamas (Oregon). This delightful book is a landmark because it’s the only book that tells the story of climbing in the Cascades—for its own sake, as sport—during the early part of the 20th century. Though Rusk led an expedition to Mt. McKinley in 1910 and played a role in disproving Dr. Cook’s fraudulent claim (see 1913, above), his heart was always with the snowy peaks that range from the Canadian border south to Mt. Shasta. Fittingly, the ashes of Claude Ewing Rusk were carried to the top of The Castle, a rugged promontory near the summit of his favorite mountain of all, Mt. Adams.
The Glittering Mountains of Canada, J. Monroe Thorington.
Thorington was one of the most important AAC members of all time, Club president from 1941 to 1943, and later editor of the American Alpine Journal. The Canadian Rockies were the favored playground of Club members in the early years, and this is the story of climbs in “The Canadian Alps” during the Club’s second decade. In 1921 Thorington had co-authored with future Club president Howard Palmer The Climber’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada, the first title in the AAC Climber’s Guide series and a book instrumental in spurring the growth of activity in the Canadian Rockies. (A second AAC Climber’s Guide by Thorington was issued in 1937, this one to the interior ranges of British Columbia; later editions of the Rocky Mountain guides were co-authored by future AAC president Bill Putnam.) Where The Clouds Can Go, the beloved autobiography of Conrad Kain, edited by Thorington and published by the Club in 1935, stands as another of his lasting literary gifts to the North American climbing community.
1932.The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents, Fritiof Fryxell.
This history records the ascents from 1898 in a short, simple writing style later adopted by many guidebook writers. Fryxell notes in his introduction that during the year 1921 “not a single ascent” was recorded in the entire range. On the Grand Teton in 1931, first ascents of what became known as the Exum and Underhill ridges were made on the same day in July. In the closing sentence of his introduction, Fryxell presciently observes “...it is perhaps profitable to review the past, placing on record such facts concerning the Teton peaks and their ascents as may prove of assistance to the even larger groups of mountaineers who will surely come.”
1935. Men Against the Clouds: The Conquest ofMinya Konka, Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons.
When Burdsall, Emmons, and company climbed this remote Chinese peak in 1932 it was the second highest mountain climbed to date, 24,892 feet. This was the highest Americans would reach until Nick Clinch’s team succeeded on Hidden Peak in 1958. It was also an outstanding example of a small tightly-knit team doing it all—reconnaissance, Alaska-style load hauling, ascent of an unknown and challenging mountain—in a single self-reliant excursion. And it affected those who followed such things. Clinch wrote in Classics in the Literature of Mountaineering, “The ascent and the book served to spark the interest of American climbers in the great Asian peaks.” While this may have been true for the cognoscente, most of the world let the Minya Konka climb come and go without recognizing it for the milestone it truly was.
Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, Ansel Adams.
Adams’ influence—on climbers, artists, environmentalists, and the American public—is so great as to be inestimable. Of all Club members his work is undoubtedly the most widely recognized and beloved. This enormous folio was beautifully produced with 50 huge black and white plates of the peaks along the crest of the Sierra. It is, according to Adams, “my best work with the camera in the Sierra.” By coincidence, 2002 happens to be the centennial of Adams’s birth year as well as the AAC’s. Adams’s is the more widely celebrated, with a variety of exhibi-
tions and observances occurring nationwide, including the publication of Ansel Adams at 100, said to be his definitive volume (114 images), cataloguing the exhibition of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Five Miles High: The Story of an Attack on the Second Highest Mountain in the World by Members of the First American Karakoram Expedition, Robert H. Bates and Charles S. Houston (and Richard Burdsall and William House).
It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of this climb and this book on the imaginations of American climbers. A relatively small party of Americans in excellent style make it to 26,000 feet on the Abruzzi Ridge, and a more illustrious group of climbers has never graced our membership (Robert Bates became an AAC president). This climb initiated an American fascination with K2 that would extend for 40 more years until Lou Reichardt (future AAC president), Jim Wickwire, John Roskelley, and Rick Ridgeway reached its summit on the sixth American attempt. The book was published by the AAC.
1941. High Conquest: The Story of Mountaineering, James Ramsey Ullman.
There have been more sophisticated histories written since, but when considered in the context of its historical moment this book stands out because it was the only game in town. American climbers coming of age in the 1940s and 50s were highly influenced, even inspired, by this book. Ullman was a writer who climbed, as opposed to the more typical climber who writes. His mountain-related titles include the best-selling novel, The White Tower (which the New York Times described as “...one of the best examples of sustained suspense I have ever encountered in fiction...”); a young-adults’ best-seller, Banner in the Sky (made into the Disney movie, The Third Man on the Mountain); the biography of John Harlin (see 1968, below); and the official account of the 1963 American Everest Expedition.
1942. The Manual of Ski-Mountaineering, David Brower, editor.
This pioneering instruction manual, which went through several editions, was the first of its kind in America. Though it didn’t trigger the recent popularity of backcountry skiing, it shows an outlook toward winter possibilities that today seems quite modern. Besides Brower, contributors included AAC members Bestor Robinson, Richard Leonard, Ed LaChappelle, and Allen Steck, among others. Brower, like John Muir before him, was both an AAC member and leader of the Sierra Club. Steve Roper noted in these pages last year that Brower was “...the world’s preeminent conservationist of the last half of the twentieth century.” This book reminds us that first he was a mountaineer.
1949. A Climber’s Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, Fred Beckey.
This guidebook, third in the AAC Climber’s Guide series (see 1925, above), is the original edition of what would burgeon into Beckey’s three-volume, thousand-page opus, the Cascade Alpine Guide. It’s these latter volumes that we commonly think of when we hear the term “Beckey’s Bible.” However, in his foreword to Beckey’s Challenge of the North Cascades (see 1968, below) Harvey Manning called the 1949 edition “one of the most influential events in the
annals of North Cascades travel. ‘Beckey’s Bible’ as we called it, shaped the alpine lives of all of us”—and of thousands of climbers since.
1954. K2: The Savage Mountain, Robert Bates and Charles Houston.
The 1953 expedition was composed of many of the members of the 1938 group. This book tells their story and that of one of the most dramatic episodes—and certainly the most dramatic belay—in all of mountaineering history. Most readers of the AAJ will be familiar with the outline of events, and those who aren’t should read about it for themselves rather than hear me summarize. I suspect most students of climbing history will agree with Nick Clinch when he says, “...in my opinion, the high point of American mountaineering remains the 1953 American expedition to K2.” Like its 1939 predecessor, this book was published by the AAC.
1956. A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, Leigh Ortenburger.
This book, a work in progress for most of Ortenburger’s adult life, was a labor of love. Ortenburger based his work on Henry Coulter and Merrill Maclane’s 1947 guide, 67 pages published by the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club. By 1956 Ortenburger had climbed most of the routes in the book. Although there was a second edition of Ortenburger’s Guide in 1965, there were also two “condensed” versions in 1974 and 1979, as well as what Jack Durrance and Hank Coulter refer to in the foreword to the third edition as the “Pink Monster Edition.” It was difficult to keep the written record apace with the climbing activity. The third edition was finished in 1996 by Rennie Jackson five years after Ortenburger died, and weighs in at over 400 large- format pages. In the acknowledgments Jackson thanks the many rangers and guides and others who were helpful, a list which numbers well over 100 and includes dozens of well-known AAC members.
1956. Give Me the Hills, Miriam Underhill.
This is the climbing memoir of Miriam O’Brien, gifted American climber and AAC member who was active in the Alps in the 1920s and 1930s. She was a fine writer, and this is a fascinating story. The stories of her “manless” climbs, including the first on the Grepon, and also those with guides—the great Armand Charlet among them—and future husband Robert Underhill, are fascinatingly rendered. Their climb of the Aiguilles du Diable traverse in 1928 is noted as one of the all-time 100 great climbs in the Alps by Silvain Jouty in his revised edition of Roger Frison-Roche’s History of Mountain Climbing, as well as in Stefano Ardito’s year-by- year chronology of great climbs in Mt. Blanc: Discovery and Conquest of the Giant of the Alps. Another lasting tribute to her climbing prowess is the route Via Miriam on the Torre Grande in the Dolomites.
1960. Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, Harvey Manning, et al.
Manning served as “chairman of the editors” for this collaborative effort by the Climbing Committee of the Mountaineers. Now in its sixth edition, with over half a million copies in print, it would be hard to overestimate its influence. The first sentence sets the tone: “The quest of the mountaineer, in simplest terms, is for the freedom of the hills, to be fully at home in the high wilderness with no barriers he cannot pass, no dangers he cannot avoid.” In fact, many books on this list are indebted to this one,
the first book published by The Mountaineers, whose subsequent book division has brought out more than 600 titles.
1965. History of the Sierra Nevada, Francis P. Farquhar. Though not a climbing history per se, there is
much climbing recorded here, including chapters on the Whitney survey, Clarence King, and John Muir. Farquhar, who edited the AAJ from 1956 to 1959, covers the “human experiences in the Sierra Nevada from the time the Spaniards first saw it in the latter part of the eighteenth century to the present.” As he notes, the characters who appear in this story are “strong, vigorous, and eager. They faced the unknown barrier of the Sierra and overcame it.” In this description we recognize our predecessors and our direct connection to the age of exploration. Francis Farquhar wrote Sierra Nevada history in another way when he invited Robert Underhill to come to California and give a clinic on modern roped climbing. Held in the summer of 1931 and dubbed the “Palisade Climbing School,” it concluded with the first ascents of Thunderbolt Peak and Mt. Whitney’s east face, led to the first ascent of Yosemite’s Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934, and planted the seeds that would ultimately bear fruit in the Golden Age of Yosemite rock climbing.
1965. Everest: The West Ridge, Thomas Hornbein.
Hornbein’s tale of his and Willi Unsoeld’s first ascent of the west ridge and their harrowing bivouac while descending the south ridge is part of a larger story, that of the national expedition led by Norman Dhyhrenfurth that placed Jim Whittaker, the first American, on the summit in 1963. (The expedition’s official account is Americans on Everest, by James Ramsey Ullman.) Hornbein’s book is a thing of beauty, particularly in its first edition, 12th in the Sierra Club’s Exhibit-Format Series, a lavish, massive book with production values rarely matched today. The obituary for Jake Breitenbach, killed in the Khumbu Icefall on the approach, never fails to move me deeply. This book spoke to a whole generation of climbers to be.
1967. Ascent, Steve Roper and Allen Steck.
This marked the first of 14 volumes and has showcased the writing and photography of countless AAC members (without being a Club publication until the last edition, in 1999). Though Steck and Roper have been in charge from the beginning, other early editors included Edgar Boyles, Glen Denny, Dave Dornan, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt, David Roberts, Jim Stuart, and Lito Tejada-Flores. I selected the first Ascent for this list not because it is necessarily the best, but because at that historical moment the editors had such an uncannily accurate sense of the climbing Zeitgeist. As David Roberts said in his foreword to The Best of Ascent (1993), “before Ascent we had no medium...in which to declare our passion.” That first volume contains at least two lasting pieces for our history: Steck’s own “Ascent of Hummingbird Ridge,” and Tejada-Flores’ “Games Climbers Play.”
1968. Challenge of the North Cascades, Fred Beckey.
Beckey started contributing stories and photos of his climbs to the AAJ back in the 1940s when he was still a teenager. “My impression looking at these old AAJs,” says Steve Hutchins, “is that this kid’s ongoing articles must have electrified members and actually changed their consciousness about climbing’s possibilities.” This classic (Neate’s label) autobiography spans only 30 years of Beckey’s remarkable record—he’s climbed steadily for 34 more years and, at age 79 shows no signs of stopping.
1968. Straight Up: The Life and Death of John Harlin, James Ramsey Ullman.
“There may never be another American climber
who gets a carefully researched, full-on biography by a skilled and mature professional author.” When Steve Hutchins wrote this it took me aback: climbers write about themselves, they write about other climbers. But how often does a climber attract a writer’s interest; in other words, how often does a climber step outside our rather insulated world and into the public eye? “The result,” Hutchins continues, “was not just a fascinating look at one of the most interesting personalities of an era, but a close-up of the phenomenon of California climbers/ AAC members bringing their Yosemite technique to the Alps.”
The Mountain of My Fear, David Roberts.
This is the first book by one of our most lucid and distinguished writers. It describes the ascent of the west ridge of Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range by four young men. The climb in and of itself is a remarkable achievement, but the writing sets a standard for clarity and beauty that has rarely been matched before or since. Not only was the climb accomplished in excellent style, but I remember thinking that it showed me what was possible for mere mortals such as myself. Bates and Houston, Hornbein and Unsoeld were gods to me at that time, but Roberts’ story thrilled and frightened me because I could identify with it.
Minus 148: The Winter Ascent of Mt McKinley, Art Davidson.
In 1967 Denali didn’t see anywhere near the traffic it does today; even a summer asccnt was newsworthy in the climbing world. This book describes the first winter ascent—nearly unthinkable at the time—its harrowing conditions, its tragic costs. This ascent marks a milestone in the history of our continent’s grandest peak. Read it on a winter night in front of the fireplace.
Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative, David Roberts.
Roberts’ account of his attempt on Mt. Deborah with Don Jensen is filled with bickering between the two, horrifying crevasse danger, and very little actual progress on the climb. I remember finding this book unpleasant upon my first reading. Later, before my first Alaska trip, Willi Unsoeld, whom I regarded as the Oracle at Delphi, advised me to read Deborah before I left. In the light of Unsoeld’s recommendation, I still found Roberts’ tale unpleasant, but now it rang with truth. This is a cautionary tale.
1971. Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: Rambles through the Range of Light,
This is a collection of 29 Clyde articles and essays brought together in book form by Dave Bohn, with a prologue by Jules Eichorn and a long letter from Smoke Blanchard. Clyde died the following year, his ashes scattered by friends on the summit of Clyde Peak. Clyde accomplished some 96 first ascents in the Sierra Nevada between 1914 and 1939, mostly solo, and was a fine writer. This is something of an underground classic—only 3,000 copies were printed. As this one is hard to find, another selection of Clyde’s writing is Close-ups of the High Sierra (1998).
1971. The Challenge of Rainier, Dee Molenaar.
Mt. Rainier has more glaciers than any peak in the contiguous United States: 35 square miles of ice, including 26 officially named glaciers. These facts, combined with its altitude and notorious weather, make it all the more surprising that Rainier receives as much human traffic as any other snowy mountain in America. A large number of American Himalayan climbers have worked and trained on Rainier, and the number of prominent AAC members who have a history with the peak is amazing, from John Muir to Ed Viesturs. Molenaar, a member of the 1953 K2 expedition and contributing artist to countless climbing books, did a thorough job of compiling the human history of exploration and tragedy on this great mountain.
Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft (1973), Royal Robbins.
These two slim volumes (167 pages between them) are as cleanly written as the style they set forth. As a climber starting out in the early 1970s I doubt I knew anyone then who didn’t read these and attempt to commit them to memory. Sure, now we have sticky rubber and camming devices, but the foundations are all here, set down by Robbins 30 years ago. I read somewhere just last year of a novice climber in the Valley rapping off a route to consult Advanced Rockcraft on the shelves of the store, then jumaring back up to his high point with the beta. Robbins is better known for his climbing achievements and ethical stances, but his writing is a model of clarity.
1972.Chouinard Equipment Catalog, Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, and Doug Robinson.
“What is a commercial catalog doing in the book review section?” Galen Rowell asked in his 1973 AAJ review—answering his own rhetorical question with, “It contains more information on the ethics and style of modern climbing than any other publication in our language.” History has proven Rowell’s observation to be right on. Usually when people refer to this catalog, it’s in reference to Doug Robinson’s essay, “The Whole Art of Natural Protection.” (While I admire that article greatly, my personal favorite of Robinson’s is “The Climber As Visionary,” first published in Ascent and later included in Robinson’s collected essays, A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open ). Furthermore, the catalog had a higher consciousness that’s hard to define; with its cover (a sixteenth century Chinese painting) and its pages filled with quotes from the Rolling Stones, Einstein, and Chouinard himself, this little catalog was way cool in the days before way ever modified cool.
1974. The Vertical World ofYosemite, Galen Rowell.
Readers of the AAJ are undoubtedly familiar with the work of Galen Rowell. As stunning (and relentless!) as his photographs may be, it would be a grave injustice to think of him simply as a photographer. This book, Rowell’s first, has him wearing the hats of historian and editor, collecting in one volume many of the most important accounts of climbing in the Valley. Like many others, I’m partial to Chuck Pratt’s “The South Face of Mt. Watkins” (which first appeared in
these pages in 1965). I don’t know many climbers of my generation—that is, the one starting to climb as this book appeared—who were not influenced by The Vertical World.
1975. Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide to Rock Climbing, Warren Harding.
Before Harding’s death in February of this year I might not have included this one. But like the man, the book is a one-of-a-kind creation. It’s funny, it has an edge, and it sometimes goes too far. But as Harding liked to remind us, we take ourselves far too seriously. In the void left by his passing, we have, at least, this book to remind us of that.
Climbing in North America, Chris Jones.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this book is simply that there really has been nothing quite like it, before or since. Sure, people complained that it left them wanting more, but that seems appropriate given the nature of the undertaking. The breadth of Jones’ research strikes
me as staggering, and the dozens of references which follow each of its 22 chapters are indispensable and represent an enormous amount of research. But this isn’t merely a dry list of historic routes; Jones’ achievement here is his human history, his rounding out of our sense of these historic figures as people. Until compiling this list, I hadn’t returned to this book in many years; now I can’t pull myself away from it.
1977. Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado, Dudley Chelton and Bob Godfrey.
Like Chris Jones’ history, this book tells the human stories behind the climbs of its day. However, its photography had an even greater impact. Today we take for granted stunning photos of climbers leading that can only be taken by professional photographers on rappel. This book helped to launch the new era of climbing photography, displaying just how stunning the images can be when the photographer is focused on his art, not on participating in the climb. This year a 25th anniversary edition, edited by Chelton and Jeff Achey, follows up on the follows up on the evolution of climbing in Colorado so beautifully showcased in the first edition.
In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, Galen Rowell.
In his review in these pages, William House, a member of the 1938 K2 team, expressed his boredom with the discussions of “serious internal dissensions.” But Rowell’s story of the failed 1975 American attempt on K2, rife with problems with porters and rifts within the team, is, I think, the first example of the new American expedition book: an attempt to tell the truth about a complicated and messy human scenario. House closed his review with the seeming grudging admission that it “may some day become a collector’s item.” There he was right. Rowell’s attempt to tell it all, his great attention to history, and the larger format that nicely displays the photography for which Rowell would later become famous, all combine to make a great book out of a story filed with much unpleasantness. The photograph of Leif Patterson celebrating “the sight of green grass at Urdukas” just months before he would die captures a beautiful and redemptive moment.
Mountain Passages, Jeremy Bernstein.
Bernstein is a true Renaissance man: physicist, climber, and staff writer for The New Yorker. For the latter, he wrote about both physics and climbing. This volume, which was published by a university press, collects his mountaineering essays, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. For that reason alone—as conveyor of our world to the larger reading public—this is an important book. Bernstein’s portrait of Chouinard is probably his most widely known piece, but I’m particularly fond of his evocations of climbing in the Alps, which he accomplishes
in a self-effacing style. When I climbed the Arête des Cosmiques on the Aiguilles du Midi just a few years ago, I remembered Bernstein’s version of it and was grateful for the seed he had planted many years before.
1978. Climbing Ice, Yvon Chouinard.
Steve Hutchins notes: “This book had a tremendous influence on attitudes toward technique and equipment. (Take for example the amusing scramble by The Mountaineers to revise the snow and ice chapters in Freedom to incorporate the new knowledge—right down to the sudden appearance of French words and the undisguised copies of Chouinard’s photos in line art!) Short axes,
curved and drooped picks, and the revelation of committed climbing on super-steep ice, it all took a big jump forward right here.” I learned the French method from Chouinard’s photos, and many an aspirant committed to memory the list of suggestions for “Speed and Safety.” More than anything I took to heart the opening anecdote about an attempt on Mt. Alberta. It’s hard not to learn something about humility when it is demonstrated by someone of Chouinard’s stature and grace.
Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, Steve Roper and Allen Steck. This book, which begins by expertly considering just what might give a climb classic status, very quickly became a classic itself. Part history, part guidebook, this volume excels at both. Its influence was undoubtedly greater than Steck and Roper imagined. Critics called it “Fifty Crowded Climbs,” but that hardly seems fair; we share the mountains with increasing numbers of people. There’s only one
route in here I’ve done twice—once five years before the appearance of this book, and once 10 years after; it wasn’t crowded either time. “Our routes,” the editors said, “are not the fifty classic climbs of the continent, but rather our personal choice....” This book invites us to try these, but the greater invitation is to make our own choices, our own lists.
1980. Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, Arlene Blum.
In 1978 this all-woman group succeeded on Annapurna—the first time the peak had been climbed
by Americans or by women. This is an important story not only because it broke down long-held assumptions about the ability of women to climb the highest peaks, but because holds up well as a traditional expedition tale of hard climbing, triumph, and heartbreak. The bibliography
provides a thorough accounting of mountaineering and exploration books by women. Before this book fewer people believed that a woman’s place could be on the summit.
The Last Step: The American Ascent of K2, Rick Ridgeway.
The final chapter in four decades of American efforts on K2 ends in success. Just as members of the 1938 expedition returned in 1953 (see 1954, K2, above), a core from the 1975 team (see 1977, Throne Room, above) returned in 1978, led by Jim Whittaker. The expedition culminated in successful summit bids by Jim Wickwire, Lou Reichardt, Rick Ridgeway, and John Roskelley. The climb has undeniable historical importance, but as Whittaker says in his introduction: “The American ascent of K2 is a story about people.” If this seems like a cliché, in Ridgeway’s capable hands the human drama of this tremendous effort shines through.
1982. A Walk in the Sky, Nick Clinch.
This is the story of the only American first ascent of an 8,000- meter mountain. Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I) was first climbed in 1958 by Pete Schoening and Andy Kauffman in an expedition led by Nick Clinch, who later became president of the Club. In addition to its obvious historical importance, it should be noted that this was a small party of friends—“informally organized, almost entirely self-supported”—at a time when Himalayan expeditions typically were large national productions, heavily subsidized and publicized. Even though Clinch wrote the book in 1959, it wasn’t published until 1982. He added both the preface and epilogue decades after the climb, words that strike the reader as modest and wise.
By the way, Hidden Peak wouldn’t see a second ascent until Messner and Habeler would do a new route on the northwest face in 1975, alpine style and without oxygen, a pivotal event in Himalayan climbing.
Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, Jon Krakauer.
In this collection of 12 essays one should not expect the rough early scrawlings of a young apprentice. These are highly polished pieces, keenly observed and expertly described. One advantage this book has over the author’s later works is the inclusion of a few lighter subjects. His portraits of the Burgess brothers and of the current climbing scene in Chamonix (circa 1989) are laugh-out-loud funny. Pieces in which Krakauer becomes the subject of his own work, such as on the Eiger in the title piece and on The Devil’s Thumb, are drawn with the same dead-on, unflinching eye. As a prose stylist Krakauer is unmatched on this list.
. Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali, Bradford Washburn and David Roberts.
This book combines the work of one of our finest photographers with an equally talented writer. The effect is stunning: beautiful as an art object, immensely readable as a history. This is one of the finest coffee-table books ever published.
The Ascent, Jeff Long.
This fictional Everest expedition, set against the cultural background of Chinese- occupied Tibet, won the prestigious Boardman/Tasker Award for Mountaineering Literature, making Long the only American to receive this prize. Long’s earlier novel, Angels of Light (1987), is also noteworthy. It presents a fictionalized version of Yosemite climbers and the famous airplane that crashed in the High Sierra loaded with drugs. In both books Long manages what all fiction writers attempt: to get at larger truths not so easily garnered from personal or historical experiences.
1992. K2: The 1939 Tragedy, Andrew J. Kauffman and William L. Putnam.
Written more than 50 years after the expedition, Kauffman and Putnam set the record straight. Before this book the general impressions of this climb were that Fritz Weissner made it to within 800 feet of the summit, that four climbers died, and that the reputations of two climbers, Weissner and Jack Durrance, suffered greatly in the aftermath. As the authors ask in their introduction: “But why bother to rehash a story whose broad outlines are known? Why set out to correct the innumerable factual errors found in virtually every available account? For two important reasons: truth and justice.” This book brings closure to events that began to be resolved during Kauffman and Putnam’s successful lobbying to bestow honorary AAC membership on Weissner. Between them Kauffmann and Putnam have 117 years of membership in the AAC.
1994. Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, Steve Roper.
This is at once a history and a personal memoir of climbing in the Valley, particularly the years 1957 to 1971 when American climbers and their routes were setting the standard worldwide for big wall climbing. In his preface Roper wrote: “To put into print the recollections of a bygone era is like traversing along a frightfully exposed ridge.... No writer can deal with personal events without treading this....” One of the great achievements of this book (there are many) is just how successfully Roper walks that ridge: the personal is here, the history is here, and Roper is meticulous in keeping them clearly separated, even when they would appear inextricable, such as on his first ascent with Kamps and Pratt of the Direct North Buttress on Middle Cathedral in 1959. Robbins has called this the “best piece of extended writing about the early Yosemite climbing scene yet published,” and Chouinard adds that Roper
“has captured the real spirit of the Golden Age of American rockclimb- ing.” They ought to know, they were there. Most of us weren’t there, but when we read this book we wish, more than ever, that we had been. The book was awarded first place for non-fiction at the premiere Banff Mountain Book Festival.
1994. In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, Jonathan Waterman.
In Waterman’s first two Denali books, Surviving Denali and High Alaska, he compiled statistics, provided climbing histories, and offered route information. In the Shadow of Denali complements these earlier two with its acutely observed rendering of personal experience on the mountain. At least two of the essays, “Lone Wolf (the Other John Waterman)” and “Winter of Our Discontent,” about the first winter ascent of the Cassin, are highly memorable, even haunting.
1997. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer.
This is an ongoing publishing phenomenon that’s difficult to summarize succinctly. In a 1999 article in these pages, bookseller Michael Chessler wrote that at that time the book had sold close to 3 million copies and had grossed perhaps 50 million dollars. Chessler wrote “Some climbers will always admire [Krakauer] for his writing and his good works [donating a percentage of profits to the American Himalayan Foundation], while others will always feel that Boukreev’s version [The Climb, with G. Weston DeWalt, 1997] was right.” Whichever your view, Into Thin Air’s influence is undeniable. Krakauer asks the hard questions about the ethics of guiding on 8,000-meter peaks, and some will always hold that against him. But these are questions that deserve— demand, really—our consideration. This one is a benchmark, if for no other reason than the sheer numbers of people, mostly nonclimbers, who have read it and shaped their view of mountaineering by it.
1999. Bradford Washburn: Mountain Photography, Anthony Decaneas, editor.
I’ve been hesitant to include books from the past few years on this list, for who can say what their influence might be? But not much guesswork is required here: this book’s place in history is guaranteed. Washburn’s photographs have been a staple of the American climbing world (and these pages) for decades. Many a first ascent has been inspired by imagining a line over a brilliantly detailed Washburn black and white. This book is the most elegant showcase of his life’s work.
1999. Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine, Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, and Eric R. Simonson, as told to William E. Nothdurft.
The most enduring mystery of 20th century mountaineering is whether Mallory and Irvine completed their ascent of Everest on June 8, 1924. As the whole world knows, an American expedition led by Simonson found Mallory’s remains in 1999. This book reconstructs the 1924 expedition in light of the new evidence and tells its own story as well: the discovery of that evidence. Four or five books describe aspects of the Mallory discovery, but this one by the expedition’s originators is the most thorough in its combination of historical perspective, firsthand experience, and insight. It’s also beautifully presented.
1999. Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, High and Fast, Mark Twight.
Twight articulates here what great climbers have understood intuitively. The book appears to be of the “how-to” genre but it’s hardly for the novice, and though all climbers could learn something from these pages, it has a more important purpose. This book describes, clearly and with refreshing maturity and balance, the state to which our art has evolved.
It’s been a magnificent century. From the porter caravans of the Bullock-Workmans to the fast and light world of today’s extreme alpine climbers, we’ve glimpsed the many faces of our alpine ambitions, and seen how right Bruce Barcott was in calling ours such a literary sport. And what about the future? Chessler pointed out in his “After Thin Air” essay that the market is there for our genre. Still, I believe what a literary agent once told me, that no art would be produced because someone had their fingertip on the pulse of the market. Good writing comes from the same place as good climbing, and one’s heart should not be market-driven. When I look over the 2002 AAJ book reviews and wonder about the future, I see much for which to be hopeful: Sherpa people telling their own stories, Rick Ridgeway’s poignant search for “the lost father” of his title, and Jon Waterman’s grueling solo Arctic odyssey that turns into a thoughtful exploration of Inuit culture. Our tradition is rich and healthy. As climbers have stood on the shoulders of giants, so have our writers.
If I asked 50 climbers to name a book I left off the list, I would have 50 different answers and twice as long a list. Last May I was on the Ruth Glacier and made the acquaintance of a pair of young climbers who were doing the Cobra Pillar on Mt. Barrille. We were sitting around base camp eating no-bake cheesecake when I put the question of climbing books to them. “On Edge: The Life and Climbs of Henry Barber [Chip Lee, 1982],” responded Justin Talbot unhesitatingly, “that’s a good one.” It’s a book I happen to know; I admired Barber tremendously, yet hadn’t considered the book for the list. But now the book leapt up in my estimation. I liked the idea of this youth, a Connecticut kid, reading about Barber, another New England “kid” (the book ends when Barber is 28 years old!), and finding his inspiration there. And the proof was, here was Justin today on one of the great routes in the Alaska range. Literature and inspiration, influence and mountains: it’s personal.