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The Literature of Ascent

A climber's bookcase. [Photo] Derek Franz

A climber’s bookcase. [Photo] Derek Franz

Most climbers aren’t born to the mountains: they read their way into them. For American mountaineer and writer David Roberts, the story that started it all was Maurice Herzog’s 1951 account of the first ascent of an 8000-meter peak. “Annapurna had fired me,” Roberts writes in True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna. “When I put the book down, I wanted more than anything else in the world to become a mountaineer.” The great Japanese alpinist and Piolet d’Or winner Kei Taniguchi writes in Alpinist 52 of the moment she first dreamed of pursuing a life above the clouds: “It was as though I’d walked into one of the illustrations in my books.” In The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard recalls a bus trip he took out of Medicine Hat, Alberta, as a nine-year old. As the sun set into the west, the woman seated next to him pulled out Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider and began reading it out loud. “Heroism murmured like clear creek water in the words she recited,” Blanchard remembers. “Men tied to each other with a twisted braid of hemp and pitoned to the dark precipice, their heads hooded and bowed to an onslaught of spindrifted snow…. As the bus edged on to Calgary I could see the blue bulk of the Rockies serrating the far horizon. Something called to me.”

Sure, many climbers–including mountaineering legends such as Lionel Terray, Tenzing Norgay, Chantal Mauduit and Reinhold Messner–began their climbing life at altitude, and then moved over the mountains as though they’d never left home. But most people who find themselves hopelessly in thrall to the heights fall into that passion through books. From its moment of inception as a definable literary genre in the Romantic period, mountaineering writing has woven its web of illusion through impressionable young minds, imparted shape to their outdoor aspirations, given a voice to the call of the wild. Most climbers have literature to thank for their subsequent years of desire and suffering in high, cold places.

Literature is everywhere at the beginnings of the mountaineering imagination. It’s also there in the middle of the actual activity. Big mountains necessitate big waits, and for most climbers, waiting means reading. In Eiger Dreams, Jon Krakauer locates three different kinds of reading options for “On Being Tentbound.” There’s expedition literature, which relieves your present discomfort by highlighting the horrors suffered by other climbers. There’s the “ponderous tome,” to match the “unparalleled tedium of the stormed-in camp.” And then there’s the “shallow stuff,” to animate your numbed-out imagination–Krakauer points specifically to works of “science fiction,” “thrillers” and “pornography.” There may be other ways than that final pick of proving yourself the most objectionable tent companion ever, but not many. And anyway, one of the unwritten rules of expedition reading is that the book you tote up to altitude has to be something you’re willing to share with others.

As Wade Davis explains in his mountaineering history Into the Silence, George Mallory brought two share-worthy literary tomes with him to Everest: a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and a copy of Robert Bridges’ anthology of poetry, The Spirit of Man. At Camp III, it seems, Mallory liked to exercise a penchant for reading aloud to his tent companions. “Irvine,” he reported in a letter to his wife Ruth, “was rather poetry shy.” But Odell, he continued, “was much inclined to be interested,” especially in the tortured poetic passages, like this one from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound”:

Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

The literature of torment seems to be at home in the mountains. One still photograph from the 2014 film documentary Valley Uprising portrays Royal Robbins, seated at Yosemite’s Camp 4, the rock-wall center of ’70s dirtbag counterculture, poring over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of youthful disillusionment, The Great Gatsby. Peter Boardman, in The Shining Mountain, tells of how, in the expedition off-hours, he “escaped into a different world” by reading Zola’s Germinal. “The grim struggle of the miners in northern France against appalling working and social conditions,” Boardman writes, “involved me deeply.”

Cover image for an edition of The Shining Mountain [Photo] Provided by Stephen Slemon

Cover image for an edition of The Shining Mountain [Photo] Provided by Stephen Slemon

Boardman’s timeless classic documents not only one of mountaineering’s most significant light-weight Himalayan wall climbs–the brilliant first ascent of Changabang’s west face in 1976, with Joe Tasker–but also something of the emotional investments entailed in expedition reading. “The books…always had a strong effect on our moods,” writes Boardman. “It was as if they brought new personalities into the tent.” At one burnt-out moment in the months-long climb, Boardman tried reading another of Zola’s depressing masterpieces of literary realism, Nana, but found himself “so wound up for action that I could not concentrate.” Another time he gave John Steinbeck’s diary a try. “It seemed a bore,” he reported, “snapping and biting at trifling worries and obsessions.” Back in base camp, Boardman and Tasker both attempted to get into the hippie metaphysics of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It “needed far more academic discipline to absorb than I could muster on an expedition,” divulges Boardman. “Joe just dismissed it completely.”

Boardman had already bagged a B.A. in English literature from the University of Nottingham. In the future, his name would be associated with one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards: the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. All of which is to say that when reading books at sea level, Boardman inclined to the literary classics. On Changabang, altitude and exposure flattened out that leaning. One late afternoon, tent bound by unsettled weather at advance camp, Boardman spent the darkening hours reading John Master’s ripping yarn Night Runners of Bengal, featuring those mythical figures of benighted imperialist fantasy: the “thuggees,” roadside stranglers in the night. “I was obsessed with the plot,” writes Boardman.

Joe was irritated at the waste of torch-battery power, for whilst he was preparing the evening meal, I was reading the end of the book to find out what happened. If the battery had faded, I would have been desperately concerned–I was so involved with the book that it would have been a mishap on a par with a small boy losing a bag of sweets. Changabang had made me vulnerable to the roads of escapism.

What mountaineers read in the middle moments of high alpine struggle seems to range from the sublime to the ridiculous. What they write at the end of the action, at least those climbers seeking professional and public recognition, has proven to be a deeply serious business–at least until recently. In the early days of formalized alpinism, publication gave proof to the claim that a climber or climbing team had actually accomplished its objective, and so a capacity to write clear, expository prose proved itself a necessary professional skill. Mountaineering memoir-writing would eventually traverse a number of tonal registers as it proceeded: science writing, adventure writing, Romantic breathlessness, jokey self-deprecation. But limits remain, and writing that divagates from the genre’s residual foundation in the privileges of race, class and gender can still plunge a professional alpinist’s reputation from the Summit of Appreciation into the Valley of Disregard.

The exceptional British alpinist Alison Hargreaves learned this truth painfully through the dismissive reception of her 1995 memoir A Hard Day’s Summer, which detailed her bravura performance as the first climber ever to solo all six of the great north faces of the Alps in a single season. As it happened, not all Hargreaves’ written sentences conformed to the unwritten rules. “Not a literary treat,” snapped the reviewer in the Alpine Journal. “Flows along well enough,” but “you only get 117 pages,” and what’s worse, too many of them focus on life with the husband and children back at the campsite. The book “needs to be read as the tale of a family summer,” the reviewer concluded. “As well,” he added grudgingly, “as of great climbing exploits.”

“To this day,” writes Bruce Barcott in a 1996 Harper’s essay entitled “Cliffhangers,” “mountaineering remains the most literary of all sports. No other activity so compels its participants…to turn each personal conquest into public tale…. Mountaineering’s greatest athletes are also the genre’s best-selling authors.” Or have been, until recently. We are now witnessing the ascent of videography as the dominant form of mountaineering self-representation, and this shift may be bringing in a different set of narrative conventions–not to mention the ubiquitous product emplacement and the inevitable corporate logo. Is literary mountain writing now giving way to the selfie?

This shift towards the visual media may be opening new ground for the genre of mountaineering literature to change. Many of today’s climbers pack a weightier awareness of the social and environmental impact of alpinism. Many seek greater attention to gender balance in how actual mountaineering practice is represented. And many are bringing renewed ethical mindfulness to the interactions between economically unequal mountaineering cultures. To orthodox eyes, mountaineering literature may seem to be on a down-climb, but alpinism’s growing engagement with social and planetary concerns–ecology, feminism, global inclusivity–are reasons to hope that mountaineering writing may in fact be mapping out some new, creative routes towards a better future. Mountaineering literature’s call to self-aggrandizing adventure may be diminishing in volume. Those in the margins of production may be moving to the literary center. Mountain writing may be inviting us all to join in the genuinely heroic work of preserving and sustaining our planet’s high alpine places. And mountaineering reading may yet open its storm-struck tent-flaps to a wider literary landscape–to other ways of telling the mountains, and to that great world of narrative wonder found in true, inclusive literary difference.