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Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 7th edition. Steven M. Cox, Kris Fulsaas, editors; chapters by members of The Mountaineers. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2003. 575 pages. Hardcover, $37.95; paperback, $26.95.

I took the Seattle Mountaineers’ basic climbing course in 1970, at the age of 16. The course textbook was Freedom of the Hills, and I did my homework from a copy of its second edition, the one with the blue cover. Somewhere along the way I lost that copy. So when I was asked to review this new edition I was glad to find my wife’s third edition (the green one) and compare them side by side. The older book takes me back to memories of knickers and Goldline, my first moves on rock, anßd a bunch of old guys in metal helmets tapping in pitons till you get that high ringing sound. The new edition reminds me that much has changed; that there is considerably more that must fit between the covers of any text that tries to be comprehensive, as Freedom always has. The most visible theme spanning the 30 years that separate these editions is The Mountaineers’ fierce dedication to alpine mountaineering and to good information.

The particular strength of Freedom , now as in the earliest editions, is the sense that it is written for the well-rounded mountaineer—one who is faced with rock, snow, and ice, and who also has to venture into the wilderness in pursuit of his or her summits. Who may even get wet. Obviously the book speaks to Pacific Northwest climbers. But it has worthwhile information for sport climbers and those from other regions as well. This is a real plus in a book that is intended to serve primarily as a teaching manual.

Open any climbing magazine and you can find an article reviewing 20 different kind of rock shoes, or the latest in sport climbing achievements, or the climbing in some exotic locale. Clearly, the technical aspects of our sport have become more involved over the years. It’s this that accounts for the multiple editions of Freedom separating the one I used in 1970 from this most recent effort. Though I cannot speak for the editions in between the third and the seventh, the size and scope of this latest version is evidence that keeping up with developments is a formidable task. Fortunately it is a challenge The Mountaineers have met successfully. The new Freedom is replete with drawings, descriptions, and concise summations of the various aspects of our sport. Useful charts, graphs and tables detailing the most important points accompany many pages. On a technical basis there is nothing to find fault with in this exhaustive compendium—at least from the viewpoint of this semi-retired mountaineer. The explanations are superb, the drawings include relevant details and descriptions. I particularly like the clear depictions of various maneuvers in the rock climbing sections. For a book that has been written by committee, the various chapters are cohesive and read well. Its straightforward prose manages to instruct and enlighten a novice mountaineer, or provide information for those with more experience.

On the other hand, I notice a kind of homogenous quality about the new Freedom. By contrast, the third edition shows unmistakable signs of individual writing styles and the occasional polemic—like Harvey Manning’s plea in the preface for wilderness activism, or the whimsical writing in the chapter on navigation. In the new edition’s clearly depicted drawings, every character wears a helmet. Climbers are of both genders and are easy to follow throughout their complicated maneuvers. But they have no personality. Somehow, even when pictured on lead, they do not seem to sweat or break into a smile. What a contrast with the older edition’s whimsical line drawings by Bob Cram! His climber smiles wryly, wipes his brow, and plunge-steps fiercely down the slope. He wears a Tyrolean hat and appears to be whistling. The older book is idiosyncratic. (It is also more convoluted and harder to read.) For me, despite impressive content and organization, the new book lacks the magic of the first few editions.

Both editions devote relatively few pages to the questions of access, stewardship of the land, the ethics of climbing and leadership, and what it means to have the “freedom of the hills.” Yet in the older book the arguments seem more potent and less perfunctory then the seventh edition. Do we all agree nowadays? Have we all become zealous climbing automatons? Is there still magic and power out there in the mountains, amidst the technical wizardry and diagrams? I suppose it is hard for any instructional manual to speak of the magic and mystery of mountaineering. In 1975 they did it with a lot more pictures—great black and white shots of various Cascade Peaks. I look at them now: the long northeast buttress of Mt. Goode and the classic horn shape of Forbidden Peak. Though they speak to me today in different tones than they did to my 16-year-old self, they still beckon with immense charm. This new book doesn’t reach me in the same way—but maybe I can try it out on my kids.

Alan Millar