Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

From Books to the Heights

April 20, 2002

The question of why someone would climb a mountain continues to tease us long after George Leigh Mallory's mocking response, "Because it's there." The riddle has fresh intensity since 1996, when a sudden storm caught and killed eight climbers near the summit of the 29,035-foot Mt. Everest. Any answer is about as good as another. But one thing that hooks people on climbing is reading, and author Robert Roper's excellent new biography of Everest pioneer Willi Unsoeld explores that point.

Climbers aren't like tennis players or football players, he argues in "Fatal Mountaineer." "They have their noses deep in books when young, and after being thrilled by the great figures from the past they become mad to do the thing themselves." He adds that "an amazing number" of Unsoeld's friends and fellow climbers were motivated by reading accounts of past expeditions.

Charles Houston, for one, became obsessed with climbing after reading G. W. Young's "On High Hills" at the age of 12. There is anecdotal evidence that many others' early steps toward the peaks were first made in their imaginations. Their literary guides include Eric Shipton and Harold Tilman, the pioneer British explorers of the Himalaya; Chris Bonington, Heinrich Harrar, Gaston Rebuffat, Walter Bonatti and Lionel Terray.

Many cite "Annapurna," Maurice Herzog's account of the 1950 first ascent of an 8,000- meter peak, a select group of 14 of the world's tallest mountains. Until recent years, this was the most popular mountaineering book of them all. But it has since been eclipsed by Jon Krakauer's chilling chronicle of the 1996 Everest disaster, "Into Thin Air."

Nicholas B. Clinch of Palo Alto, a former president of the American Alpine Club who has an extensive mountaineering library, accepts Roper's argument up to a point. Clinch's experience is that young people make a first brush with climbing, often at the invitation of a friend or mentor, and then begin fueling their passion by reading. There's little question, however, of the mountains-to-books link. Clinch himself wrote "A Walk in the Sky," about the American expedition that made the first ascent of Gasherbrum in Pakistan in 1958.

Roper notes that the early expedition books often were idealized epics of exotic lands, full of stiff upper lips and muddling through. Personality conflicts were glossed over in favor of the sportsmanship and teamwork needed to get a climber to the top. The trend changed in the 1970s, along with much else in life, to include clashes over who got to be on the summit team, the challenging of leaders' judgment, fights over climbing style and ethics, breathless love affairs at high camps and graphic descriptions of hygiene problems.

Many youngsters now start climbing on artificial walls in gyms, with some gravitating to outdoor rock climbing areas. Would they be inspired to greater heights by Harrar's "White Spider" or Terray's "Conquistadors of the Useless"? Most would be content to stay in the gym. But there will always be a tiny fraction who come away with a passion that sends them toward white, distant summits.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|