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Grasping for Heaven: Interviews with North American Mountaineers

Grasping for Heaven: Interviews with North American Mountaineers. Frederic Hartemann and Robert Hauptman. Foreword by Jan Reynolds. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. 224 pages. Paperback.


This book transcribes conversations with 16 climbers and three historians, almost all North American and Himalayan mountaineers. The conversations are interesting because the persons being interviewed are accomplished and articulate and because Hauptman, who conducts the interviews, is generally very well informed, that is, well read in mountaineering history, and this keeps the discussions at a reasonably sophisticated level.

I like the book best when we hear from folks who have until now more or less slipped under my radar: Charlotte Fox—I love her takes on Jon Krakauer and on Sandy Pitman—the late Christine Boskoff, and Carlos Buehler, for example.

Likewise, I very much enjoyed the inclusion of Elizabeth Hawley, Maurice Isserman, and Audrey Salkeld (who together raise questions about the mountaineer and North American in the subtitle). Although Hawley is the subject of a recent book by Bernadette McDonald (who is flatteringly mentioned enough times to deserve her own interview), she is not someone whose own voice has been widely heard until recently.

Isserman comes across as particularly wise, reminding me to return to his excellent Himalayan history, Fallen Giants, co-authored with Stewart Weaver. Discussing why so many Himalayan peaks were first climbed in the 1950s instead of the 1930s he observes that “mountaineers were willing to assume greater levels of risk than were previously thought appropriate.… What’s a poor decision for one generation of climbers has proven to be within the spectrum of acceptable risk for later generations.”

The average age of the interviewees is 63; thus the lens is mostly retrospective. Furthermore, quite of few of these subjects have written books of their own or had books written about them or both. Perhaps the mountaineer in the subtitle is a tip-off to some kind of generational divide: who thinks of themselves as mountaineers today? I doubt that Steve House does, but then he’s not included here. In fact, I was surprised (maybe a little alarmed) when Hauptman admitted that he hadn’t heard of House and Vince Anderson’s Rupal Face climb. I suppose this speaks to the book’s generally historical, rather than contemporary, perspective.

Question: What do these have in common: Mount Si, James Tabor, Nanga Parbat, Willi Unsoeld, Grand Jorasses, Les Droites?

Answer: They’re all misspelled in the book. It seems doubtful to me that Hauptman himself does not know the correct spelling of these, so, can we no longer get an editor or proofreader who knows or will learn these things? I fear this situation will only worsen in the future.

Many of the subjects are, well, the usual subjects, climbers who have been in the spotlight (our somewhat dim spotlight, anyway) for a long time: Roskelley, Ridgeway, Houston, Wick-wire. These are, of course, some of the most interesting and storied fellows in our pantheon, but we know their stories, don’t we? There is perhaps a hint of diplomacy or perspective from them here that may have been absent when we last heard from them. Like any good book, one of the effects of this one is to remind the reader to return to some of these subjects’ earlier works, and, my quibbles aside, I expect to return to this book in the future as well.

David Stevenson