First Ascent: Pioneering Mountain Climbs

Publication Year: 2009.

First Ascent: Pioneering Mountain Climbs. Stephen Venables. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2008. Numerous color and black and white photographs. 192 pages. $45.

In this lavish coffee-table book we read about the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the tragedy on the Matterhorn, the epics on the Eiger’s north face. Sound familiar? How about the struggles up Annapurna and Everest? Yes, these legendary climbs are old hat to most members of our club, weaned as we are by the fine writers of yesteryear. But young readers, innocent of mountaineering’s engaging history, will be fascinated by this book. I hope it inspires kids to heave the earbuds and head for the hills.

Stephen Venables ably describes the scope of the book late in his introduction, telling us that he will deal with “groundbreaking” ascents, “esoteric oddities,” and “less well-trodden paths.” And, indeed, we find lots of this material in addition to the familiar stories.

Venables is honest when he admits inclusion of “an unrealistically high proportion of first ascents by British climbers.” This is certainly true, the best example being the 400-word description of the first ascent of Napes Needle, a sexy little spire in England, all of 100 feet high, climbed way back when. Yet the Cassin Ridge on Denali is not mentioned, nor is the 1965 ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan, never fully repeated and feared to this day. Talk about groundbreaking climbs! You can’t have it all. This is a problem shared by writers who purport to cover the globe but who are essentially provincial.

Venables’ chapter titles give a good indication of his subject material. Here are a few: “Pilgrims, Kings, & Prophets” deals with the first “mountaineer,” Moses on Mount Sinai, then leaps forward to French kings and the first English tourist/climbers. “Himalayan Renaissance” ably relates the beginnings of “modern” mountaineering: climbs on walls, not ridges; speedy ascents; and high adventures without using bottled oxygen. Other chapter titles need little explanation: “Mont Blanc, 1786” and “The Golden Age of Alpine Climbing.”

In this handsome book there’s much good writing and a plethora of outstanding photos, many, to my knowledge, published for the first time and therefore appealing. The splendid reproduction of many of the large pics is a testimonial to modern technology.

Venables is usually a professional wordsmith, but I have rarely seen a book so full of mistakes, many of which can be traced to the copy-editor and/or designer. Still, Venables should have proofread the book near completion. We have a legion of misspelled names—“Vittoria” Sella, “Emile” Comici, Fred “Beckley,” “Rattim” Cassin, Toni “Kurtz,” “John” Krakauer, Nick “Clench,” and dozens of others. We have Mount “Huntingdon” and “Venezuala.” We have Washburn’s Museum of Science located in Washington. We find that the North Cascades have migrated south into Oregon. We gaze upon a magnificent photo of an indolent George Mallory, but the caption refers only to a Welsh cliff. I wish Venables and his publisher had heeded A. E. Housman’s advice of 1930: “Accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.”

Steve Roper