Mountain Climbing Literature

I definitely am OCD. Once I start down a rat hole I keep digging until I hit bedrock. Case in point: books about mountain climbing. I had, up until last month, about zero interest in mountain climbing. I’m terrified of heights, get tunnel vision and migraines above 8,000 feet, and would no sooner climb a rock or dangle from a piton as I would try to row across the Atlantic alone.

But, an obsession is an obsession, and mountain climbing has been mine for the past month, with at least six books consumed and the same number of documentaries viewed. All because of a book about Bradford Washburn, the Boston Brahmin who founded the Boston Museum of Science, mapped Mount Everest, and led the golden age of American alpinists in the 1920s and 30s.

Most everyone is familiar with Jon Krakauer’s best seller, Into Thin Air, which recounts the Mount Everest tragedy of May, 1996 when eight climbers, Sherpas and guides died near the summit of the world’s highest mountain because of stupidity, inexperience, and really bad weather. Krakauer, who climbed to the summit that day, expanded a feature story in Outside magazine into a great, and controversial book that slammed the chic practice of wealthy, inexperienced climbers getting dragged up a crowded mountain by Sherpas and guides in what was becoming a very crowded traffic jam in the so-called death zone.

I took things a step further. Here is what I’ve been reading, with an emphasis on K2, the second-highest, and far more deadly peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains:

Starting with Last of His Kind, which introduced me to the “Harvard Five” — the five members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club that went on to define American climbing in the 1930s — I moved onto:

Five Miles High: by Harvard Five members Dr. Charles Houston and Robert Bates about the first American expedition to K2 in 1938. The mountain was unclimbed then, and had only been attempted once before by the Duke of Abruzzi, Luigi Amedeo, in 1909. This is a wonderfully written classic of expedition literature, undertaken at a time when climbing parties had to walk all the way to the base of the peak from Kashmir, accompanied by hundreds of porters carrying loads along treacherous mountain paths and over precarious rope bridges laid over the roaring Indus River. This is a great first book as it about an era in mountaineering before high performance technical equipment — when men climbed wearing wool pants and leather hobnailed boots.

K2: Life and Death of the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain: by Ed Viesturs (first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks) and David Roberts, author of the Bradford Washburn biography, Last of His Kind. Viesturs is an icon in mountaineering, and his expert perspective is a sharp contrast to the somewhat sanitized picture of hale-good-fellow rosiness painted in Five Miles High. This book starts off with the 2008 disaster on K2 which wiped out 11 climbers on August 1. Viesturs wraps up the history of failed and successful attempts to summit K2, making this a great omnibus to what seems to be the scariest peak of them all.

One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story Tragedy and True Heroism on K2: by Freddie Wilkinson. Another story focused on the 2008 disaster on K2, when a serac, or block of ice near the summit wiped out a lot of climbers in a single instant. This has much more perspective from the point of view of the Sherpas, who are usually overlooked in western accounts of climbing in the Karakorams and Himalayas.

Eiger Dreams, by Jon Krakauer. Probably the best known mountaineering author because of his best selling Into Thin Air and other non-fiction works, Krakauer is a serious climber as well. This is a collection of his articles and essays on the world of climbing. My favorite was his solo ascent of Alaska’s Devil’s Thumb, one of the best things I’ve ever read in the entire genre of adventure writing.

No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks: Ed Viesturs. Again, Viesturs is the man when it comes to contemporary American climbers. A veterinarian who studied at the University of Washington, he became a guide on Washington’s Mount Ranier and went on to become the preeminent American climber, one of a handful of people who have climbed all 14 of the world’s mountains over 8,000 meters. The story is a little rambling — as if it was dictated into a tape recorder — but nevertheless its awesome in its first person perspective for the armchair alpinist like me.

K2: The Savage Mountain: by Houston and Bates, author of the 1938 account, Five Miles High, this is about their return to the mountain in 1953 to re-try for the first ascent. The drama in this expedition can’t be understated. Their companion, Art Gilkey, is stricken with thrombosis at high altitude. Where the modern mountaineering ethic seems to be “tough luck” when it comes to helping dying climbers off the hill,  the 1953 expedition tried to descend with Gilkey. A slip sends five roped-together climbers, including the incapacitated Gilkey, sliding helplessly down the slope and over a cliff. Only the heroic belay of one man, Peter Schoening, who arrested the slide and bore the weight of five dangling men single-handedly, saved the day, entering him into the annals of mountaineering mythology with what is known today simply as “The Belay.”  While seeking a route down, the team staked down Gilkey in his sleeping bag and parked him while they explored for a safe path down to basecamp. When they returned he was gone, and some assume Gilkey cut himself free to fall to his death, knowing he was endangering the lives of the others.

Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak, by Maurice Herzog. A classic in the genre about the French expedition to the top of Annapurna in 1950.  This is a nasty mountain. Viesturs climbed it last in his quest for all 14 8,000 meter peaks, and other expeditions had a very rough time climbing its steep flanks (Everest is actually regarded as an easier peak than most because it doesn’t demand the technical climbing skills of Annapurna, or deliver the vicious weather of K2).

Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson. This has been made into a great movie, perhaps one of the best mountaineering flicks (I’ll get into movies and shows in another post), about the amazing fight for survival in the Andes. Quick synopsis. Simpson and buddy Simon Yates set out to a climb Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985. Simpson slips, slides over the edge of a cliff, dangles in the air while Yates, not knowing what is going on with his friend, tries to hang onto him while sitting in a snow bank above. Realizing he can’t hold onto his friend and knowing he will slip and join him in a deadly fall, Yates pulls out a knife, cuts the rope and lets Simpson fall.

Simpson plummets down the face of the mountain and into a deep crevasse in the bergschrund (technical term for the gap between the glacier and the mountain face). Yates gives his friend up for dead, returns to the base camp, and makes preparations to leave. Simpson survives and crawls — with broken leg — out of the crevasse and down the glacier to the basecamp just as Yates is about to depart.

The Boys of Everest: by Clint Willis. An entertaining profile of British legend Sir Christopher Bonington and his merry band of working class hero climbers who marked the entrance of the counterculture into the world of climbing in the 1960s and 70s, replacing the old Oxbridge aristocracy that dominated expedition assault styles of climbing in the 1950s (which led to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay making the first summit of Mount Everest) with the stripped down, light and fast Alpine style of climbing pioneered in the Alps. This is a raw, lyrical book, with a lot of profound philosophizing about the mountaineering death wish.

So that’s it, I’m about mountained out. The big takeaway from all this reading. First, mountain climbing is probably the hardest, most dangerous thing a person can do short of going to war. Second, you climb a mountain expecting to die. The odds on hills like K2 are pretty much 50/50 you’re not coming back, or if you do, without some fingers or toes. I’ve always been a fan of nautical adventure, and have dabbled in polar stuff, but none of it comes close to mountain writing for great armchair excitement on a cold winter’s night.

Also, the used book function on Amazon is pretty amazing. I was paying an average of $2 per title for some of these books.  Please add suggestions to the comments for other books worth chasing down.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

17 thoughts on “Mountain Climbing Literature”

  1. Deep Survival (Laurence Gonzales) uses mountaineering stories to teach potentially more useful lessons. Not sure if recommending another book is helping or hurting you, though. 🙂

  2. David:

    I went on the same jag a few years back – and read it all!

    I found that there are a lot of interesting stories – but less great writing in this genre.

    Into Thin Air and Touching The Void are by far my favorites. They go well beyond recounting the facts of what happened and let you inside the head of the people involved.

    Touching the Void should be read by any person interested in the limits of human survival. It is a tale of overcoming overwhelming obstacles with grit and true mental toughness. Agreed – best mountaineering movie ever.


  3. Dave,

    For more local flavor, “Not Without Peril” by Nicholas Howe is a great read on the history of deaths on Mt. Washington.

    — Tom

  4. bsd

    OCD. JOB. NYC. Whatever, avoid all effective therapies, your pursuits and posts save me tons of time (C2, Barry Hannah, etc.).

    all the best.

    B Wasserman MD

  5. 1. Highly recommend “Not Without Peril” for the New Englanders
    2. Ed Viesturs accomplishment is impressive on many levels but mostly because he did not use supplemental oxygen.
    3. David you are not OCD regarding the climate literature until you join the American Alpine Club-which will entitles you to The American Alpine Journal(the notable climbs in all 50 states and begins with the notable climbs by American climbers around the world-usually hairball and ridiculous and even more so because they are almost almost always told in an humble and understated way) -but the real candy is “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” -expect “rappelled off end of rope, poorly prepared”
    4.For something more current read “Beyond the Mountain” by Steve House. This guy takes fast and light on difficult climbs to 11.
    5. And for your exposure issues Watch Sender films flick on Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck
    6. You might also check editor Clint Willis from Maine who publishes Adrenalin adventure series of short stores called Epic ……whatever ……ice climb sail desert. Good stuff.

  6. Don’t forget “Game of Ghosts” Joe Simpson’s sequel to “Touching the Void”. Seriously after reading Game of Ghosts you would not go for a walk to the pub with that guy. I see you know Clint Willis forgot he wrote “The Everest of Boys”.

  7. Very cool idea. I would also recommend One Man’s Mountains by Scottish climber Tom Patey. Patey died on a climb in 1970 but he was a very insightful–and occasionally very humorous–writer. This was his only book.

  8. If you have exhausted the literature of mountaineering you may want to look into rock climbing. The literature on this pursuit is almost exclusively magazine journalism, not books. In my mind the most interesting of the the rock climbers was a guy named John Bachar. He was a free climber in Yosemite. No ropes, no protection. He did routes no on else could do and was also into speed climbing; true insanity. Of course he died in a fall, it was inevitable, but the articles about him in Outside magazine are fascinating. Check it out.

  9. David – all excellent titles. You should also try White Spider by Heinrich Harrer – ascent of the Eiger – and Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson – the first winter ascent of McKinley. If you enjoy these another category I would recommend are the Polar exploration books

  10. Fred-John Bacher and his generation spawned Steph Davis, Alex Hunnold, Ueli Steck, Dean Potter and I am glad for that. I constantly try to make sure I am not fascinated with climbing because it is some kind of death cult but rather because the ability to compartmentalize fear and execute physically at an extra-normal level is amazingly cool. The Level of tragedy in the wake of a visionary climbers death is tragic in a special way somehow. Check the blog the climbing Narcissist. This guys follows the cutting edge in bouldering and redonk problems.

  11. You? OCD? Never! 🙂

    I’m already way behind on your reading list; bought The Heart of the Sea (pretty sure you recommended) and unfortunately it’s in queue behind Atlas Shrugged, which I read at the pace of about 10 pages/month.

    My cousin Rob Slater died on k2 back in the 1990s, along with the more well-known Alison Hargreaves. I see that her son now has the bug:

  12. David, I have the same obsession you do and have started on the same line of books! Finished 1 Mtn 1k Summits, Reading Viesturs K2: Life and Death ….love it!!! Read Into Thin Air and the antithesis of “The Climb” by Bourkareev —-Loved Wilkinson’s too as when he ended it -i felt as though i slid off the mountain with Ger McDonnell, Big Pasang, Koreans and others. It ripped me apart metaphorically speaking!

    I went to the Washburn Moutaineering Museum here in Golden, CO and it was amazing – had Pete Shoening’s ice axe of the ’53 expedition to K2 that saved lives!!!
    and Whittaker’s outfit when he was first American to summit Everest. I wish so badly to climb those mountains but have such a fear of heights and well i am a Klutz – I am good at sports but for some reason trip on air when walking :O)

    So i relate to your dilema and cause – you are not alone!!!!
    Take care and happy reading !!!!

  13. Thanks Dave, now I’ll never read anything but mountain climbing books until I’m old and gray (am currently reading Dave Roberts’ “Escape from Lucania” – another great one). BTW, Bates (Robert) came in to my office several years ago to inquire about his final resting place after “visiting my good friend Washburn” as he put it. After sitting down with him to give him the details of his family lot, he proceeded to describe everything from Washburn’s mountain photography to his own K2 experiences. As the phone rang off the hook, I sat wide-eyed listening to the old codger trying to inspire the Wang Fuzhou in me. No such luck, I too am climbing vicariously through these books!

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