The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father. John Harlin III. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 283 pages. $26.00.
For more than 20 years I’ve known John Harlin III, not really well, but not simply casually either. During all that time I never got up the nerve to ask him what it was like to be the son of the John Harlin, the Blond God, probably the finest American alpinist of his day, the first American to climb the Eiger Nordwand, and of course the martyr of the Eiger Direttissima. Yet I had a strong sense that father and son were utterly different kinds of people. The John Harlin I knew seemed soft-spoken, sensitive, a good listener, a patient and skillful editor, and the farthest thing imaginable from an egomaniac. I only met John Harlin père once, when he was the surprise speaker at an AAC annual banquet in Boston in the early 1960s, where he gave a slide show that had the audience gasping. Everyone, however, knew the Harlin of legend: impossibly tough, fanatically driven, movie-star handsome, with a steely calm in the face of impending disaster.
To climb the Eiger in homage to one’s lost father, with IMAX filmmakers in attendance and a book contract in hand, could have amounted to little more than a stunt. Neither book nor film would have been produced to celebrate what would have been merely the umpteenth ascent of the 1938 route without that connection—even though the climber was a man in his late forties. But it turns out that The Eiger Obsession is a moving, surprising, deeply introspective, and altogether splendid work. In our vast literature of mountaineering, there is no other memoir quite like it.
John Harlin III was only nine years old when his father’s fixed rope broke and he plunged to his death in 1966. With disarming honesty, the son writes, “I wish I knew my father. All my life people have asked me how much I remember him, and the answer is that I really don't know.” (I guess other friends were less reticent than I about asking the key question.) Because of that distance and uncertainty, Obsession is as much a work of biographical research as it is a memoir. Yet the personal strands of the story add a trenchant testimony to a kind of mountain writing that is just beginning to be explored, most notably by Maria Coffey: the impact of death on the loved ones left behind.
Harlin’s book goes deepest when he plumbs the sorrows of his long-suffering mother and of his devastated younger sister. The book becomes almost shocking as Harlin unblinkingly recounts the less-than-admirable behavior of some of his father’s closest but most difficult partners, especially Gary Hemming and Dougal Haston. (With role models like that, who came to the ends they did, it is a wonder that the younger Harlin climbed at all!)
Finally, as Harlin does battle with his mountain nemesis, freely acknowledging the spasms of fear and doubt that climbing writers all too often suppress, the book becomes a rattling good adventure tale.
When John Harlin III won the AAC Literary Award last year, the honor was long overdue. Year after year, as chairman of the selection committee, Harlin refused to allow his name to be put in nomination, despite the ardent pleas of his colleagues. When he finally stepped down, the committee could pin the medal to his jacket lapel. And if anyone in the climbing world still wonders why Harlin so richly deserves the award, the answer is simple: read this powerful and utterly genuine book.