Mountaineers: Great Tales of Bravery and Conquest

Publication Year: 2012.

Mountaineers: Great Tales of Bravery and Conquest. Ed Douglas et al. DK Publishing, 2011. 360 pages. Color photos. Hardcover. $40.00.

Ignore the vulgar subtitle and open the book. It’s filled with hundreds of glossy 12x10 pages and abundant photographs. There is also a good deal of text, but no “tales,” except of the most abbreviated kind. Instead one finds a sweeping if anecdotal history of not only mountaineering but mountains themselves, plus geological changes and evolving climbing gear, from prehistoric times until now. As with most DK Publishing books, the emphasis is on pictures, not words.

Indeed, it is hard to learn who wrote those words, which have all the personality of an encyclopedia. No author credits appear on the dust jacket or title page; you must hunt for the attribution to Ed Douglas and associates. These writers give us brief but knowledgeable accounts of peaks and those who climbed them, or tried to. The biographies, while generally adulatory as well as accurate, can be properly critical: Oscar Eckenstein was “direct, argumentative, and quick-tempered”; Don Whillans drank too much and got fat; Paul Bauer was an especially distasteful Nazi.

Mountain descriptions (a page or two each) are well chosen, but readers will regret some omissions—in my case, Mt. Kailash, the beautiful striated sacred summit of western Tibet. The photographs, some familiar, some not, are often beautiful, although a few of the older ones aren’t sharp. The pages are attractively laid out, with sidebars and boxes, and the legendary DK production is excellent, including sewn signatures, rare these days.

The book is aimed at beginners with big coffee tables. But more sophisticated readers can profit as well. How many of us know about the glaciologist Franz Josef Hugi, who made the first ascent of the Finsteraarhorn in 1828? Or the climbing monk Placidus À Spescha? Or John Ball, the Victorian guidebook pioneer? Or the mountain interests of people famous for other achievements, including John Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner?

Mountaineering provides no full meals, but it is a big, tasty plate of hors d’oeuvres. Above all, it reminds (or informs) us that climbing has a rich, long history. Every climbing gym should have a copy.

Steven Jervis