Galen Rowell is one of the best nature photographers in the world. As might be expected, the photographs in these two books are truly spectacular. Page after page of breathtaking mountain scenes go by--the sort of thing you normally encounter only on fancy calendars. Either book would be worth the price for the pictures alone.
All too often, publishers of coffee-table books with good photographs feel they don't have to pay much attention to the writing that makes up the rest. I'm happy to report that this isn't the case with Rowell's books. Although each tells a different story and addresses a different problem, each is, in its own way, absorbing and exciting.
"In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods" is an update (with new color photographs) of Rowell's account of a failed American Himalayan expedition in 1975. The expedition was conceived as an assault on a peak known as K-2, the second tallest mountain in the world. The origin of the name is interesting: When the range, which includes this mountain, was originally surveyed, all the peaks were given numbers. Later, the official survey decided that native names (or their translations) should be assigned to peaks whenever possible. (An exception had already been made for Sir George Everest, surveyor general of India). To everyone's surprise, there was no native name for K-2 at all. It turns out that the peak is not visible from any inhabited place and consequently had never acquired a native name. So while its fellows lost their numbers, K-2 retained its survey title.
Rowell, with access to the diaries of his fellow climbers, presents us with an intimate view of what it's like to be involved in a major mountaineering expedition. He makes the trek to the mountain base, and the constant haggling with the porters over their pay rates, the dissension within the group of climbers over who would finally be allowed to attempt the summit, into an absorbing story that reads like a good thriller--I had a hard time putting it down.
Intertwined with this adventure are a series of essays about other mountaineers who had attempted K-2, the split in the mountaineering community between those who lust after the summit and those to whom the "style" of climbing is more important than the goal, and the impact of the opening of the western Himalayas to foreigners in 1975 on the fragile ecosystem and culture of Baltistan, the Pakistani province in which K-2 and its neighboring peaks are found. The last of these topics was particularly interesting, because when the region was opened for the first time since World War II, there were suddenly dozens of major expeditions there all at once. The impact on the local people (for example, on the porters who suddenly realized that they could play off one employer against another) produces an unexpectedly poignant note in the book.
"Mountain Light," on the other hand, is a book about mountains and photography. In it, Rowell intersperses essays in which he discusses his own style and the philosophy of his work with sets of photographs he calls "exhibits." With each photograph, there is a short text telling the story of how he came to record that particular scene and a bit of technical data. The technical discussion will doubtless be interesting to camera buffs, but it's presented in such a way that it doesn't obtrude for those who, like myself, use the camera primarily to record the kid's birthdays. I found the essays fascinating, if only because I had never given much thought to how one goes about converting a scene into a photograph. Rowell's philosophy, which he states as a process of "isolating the highest moments of living," is certainly evident in the magnificent prints displayed in the book.
Either of these books would make a splendid Christmas gift as well as a valuable addition to any collection. If you like a good adventure story, then you should get "In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods." If you like mountains and have any interest in photography, then "Mountain Light" is for you. The best choice, however, is to get both!