Beyond the Mountain. Steve House. Foreword by Reinhold Messner. Patagonia Books: 2009. Hardcover. 285 pages. $29.95.
Beyond the Mountain is Steve Houses self-described tale of “Commitment on Steroids,” with selected insights into one of alpinisms most accomplished characters. Why am I compelled to be such a smart ass and think of the book as “Beyond the Image”? Am I envious for shortchanging my own commitment to alpinism, or am I just too far out of The Show to discern fact from fiction? So who is House House beyond the image? Is he our pop-culture icon, a self-created hero? Is the book any good? Does it answer any serious questions? Does it redefine alpinism, move the bar, or change one’s view of climbing? What questions has Houses career presented that Beyond the Mountain might answer?
This book gives us a few powerful insights, the first of which is House’s assessment of his success in understanding and then articulating the age-old question of Why. In the book’s introduction House admits he failed to answer “why” and for the most part I agree. That said, he is successful in bringing the reader close to the experience of being in that moment of total awareness that high-stakes living on the sharp end affords. His narratives of soloing Beauty is Rare Thing on Denali and Hajji Brakk in the Karakoram are where we see the characteristic that is embedded in House’s DNA and defines great climbers, namely depth and intensity of focus. In these passages House brings the reader face to face with the ultimate free-soloist question—up or down?—when success, failure, and death are all that remain. While most shrink from the question, throughout the book House strives to re-enter this transcendent state of being, but then struggles for meaning when the edge grows dull from accomplishment.
What House wrote in Alpinist magazine a few years ago about his experience with Bruce Miller on Nanga Parbat in 2004 left me (and others) wondering if House had lost his moral compass. To apparently blame your partner for personal failure and not honor the commitment of the partnership was appalling. House explores this imbalance in Beyond the Mountain and comes clean with an explication of his state of mind. Ironically, when I heard about Miller saving House a second time after his 25-meter fall this March on Mt. Temple, I wondered how many times Miller would be called upon before he got credit. Fortunately, House had already resolved the earlier transgression in writing this book. Nonetheless, I would like to learn more about Houses journey between those disparate states of mind: from blaming to honoring the man who most contributed to success on Nanga Parbat.
House has executed what others envisioned. For example, whose idea was the single push ascent of the Czech Direct on Denali? While the book does not provide explicit insight, I believe the answer reveals a great deal about the Mark Twight-Scott Backes-House relationship. (Note: on their non-stop 60-hour third ascent of the 9,000-foot Czech Direct, this team cut about nine days off the first ascentionists’ time and four off the second ascentionists’ time.) Whoever of the three first believed it possible brilliantly envisioned success without the benefit of bivy ledges, or indeed, bivying at all.
One difference between Twight’s writing and House’s (in this book) is that while Twight challenged his own ideas, House expresses disappointment but little self-doubt. At times it seems that we are reading a re-telling of House’s journal, which makes me wonder how the story would have unfolded if he had honored the journal by using its original voice.
Is House simply hooked on the dopamine rush these intense climbs afford? The high that a climber achieves by living through such high-stakes experiences has an addictive quality that makes them incredibly desirable yet ever more difficult to re-create. This possibility becomes evident in House’s retelling of his and Rolo Garibottis one-day accent of Mt. Foraker s Infinite Spur. When that beautiful route went so easily, and they failed to be pushed, House and Garibotti left with both the experience and their relationship somehow diminished.
Is the book any good? I think so. Mostly because it is witness to the intense effort and commitment Steve House has brought to the project of building himself into a climber capable of succeeding on the toughest routes in the world. The Acknowledgments section alone makes the book worth purchasing. There we see the man, the authentic emotion, House’s character, and the value he places on those most influential to his development as a world-class athlete, alpinist, and man searching for acceptance and meaning.
Whether Beyond the Mountain will change others’ view of alpinism depends on the era in which one enters the sport. As a teenager I found Messners The Seventh Grade among a pile of library books and was immediately transformed. Desmaison’s Total Alpinism still makes my palms sweat. Will Beyond the Mountain have a similar effect on another young aspirant? Given my late middle-age stage in life, I don’t think I can know the answer, but I hope it does.
While he may have failed to answer “why,” Beyond the Mountain offers a glimpse of an answer through knowing by doing. That precept, knowing by doing, is rare enough, and we can only hope House will share more in his future work.