Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Climbers, by Chris Bonington

Chris Bonington writes a history of mountaineering in The Climbers. The book is based on a TV series of the same name (that I have not seen), with fourteen chapters covering the development of equipment, technique, and attitude. It's an interesting read, coming from an author who has experienced firsthand a significant epoch in climbing's history, and who depended on such developments to pull off his difficult ascents in the Himalaya. The book is somewhat European-centered, though Bonington does combat the English-center-of-the-universe story that is all too common in climbing histories, granting credit to Paul Preuss, Willo Welzenbach, Walter Bonatti, and others for their contributions to Alpine ascents. As an American, I feel a bit left out, though adding the contributions of Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and others would detract from the linear narrative Bonington builds of a Alpine genesis growing into Himalayan opportunities. As appropriate for a book shadowing a TV series, the chapters are focused, but limited. "The Art of Suffering," for example, highlights the climbing career of Reinhold Messner, but also mentions difficult Himalayan climbs by Boardman /Tasker, Voytek Kurtyka, and others.

Everest plays an important part in the book, even getting its own chapter for the early British attempts. He tells the narrative well, with some level-headed analysis. (On a side note, it was fun to read Col. Strutt of the 1922 expedition sound off on the supposed do-or-die climbers scaling the North Faces in the Alps.) I appreciated that Bonington covered the early attempts on both Kanchenjunga and K2, featuring the near-miss of Fritz Weissner. The first ascent of Everest in 1953 makes the chapter covering the ticking off of the 8000ers in the 1950s and 60s. Bonington's own climbs are an important part of the Everest material, especially the Southwest Face. He narrates the Annapurna South Face ascent and gives plenty of room to the two Everest climbs. In a later chapter, he mentions how Himalayan climbing developed away from such logistical nightmares into alpine-style ascents, even calling the siege-style climb "the dinosaur of the Himalaya." Messner's two climbs of Everest are mentioned, as well the Kangshung Face climbs, Bonington's Northeast Ridge attempt, Troillet and Loretan's race to the summit, and a couple other modern climbs.

This is an enjoyable book---quite a bit more analytical and inclusive than earlier British climbing histories. Hope you like it!

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, which starts here.

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