Monday, July 2, 2012

Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts

Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings showcases the shorter works from David Roberts' career of mountain journalism. He divides the book in three sections, covering his own adventures, profiles of interesting people, and reflections on a climber's life. I enjoyed reading about Roberts' life of climbs, as I have so far really only read his books co-authored with other climbers, such as Conrad Anker's The Lost Explorer or Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top. His ascents in Alaska sound impressive, especially for their time. Many of his other essays show off inspired writing rather than grand adventures, describing such excursions as his "tourist" ascent of Kilimanjaro and guiding a group of students in Utah. His writing is refreshingly analytical, with occasional wit; intelligent, but easily understood; honest, but never confessional. His profiles cover many of the great personalities of the American climbing scene, including a group essay of the Harvard Alpine Club greats, Don Sheldon (Alaskan bush pilot extraordinaire), John Roskelley, Fritz Wiessner, Hugh Herr (a double amputee who returned to climb at a high level), as well as an essay contrasting Messner and Habeler, the team that first scaled Everest without supplementary oxygen. His essays exploring the climbing life were my favorite section, especially his acerbic commentary on climbers' autobiographies. (I guess it's nice to read another guy writing about climbing books!) His essay on the life of a public climber brings up an issue his protege Jon Krakauer would later witness firsthand on Everest (see Into Thin Air), with climbers constantly under the eye of the media potentially risking more for a potential success. His "Roping Up" also catches early on the trend of high level climbers to do away with ropes and the frustrating anonymity of fixed-line ascents.

Regarding Everest, the Habeler-Messner essay is the highlight. (It is also found in Willis' Epics on Everest.) When I read it the first time in Willis' work, I was under the impression that Roberts had not actually interviewed Messner. Actually Messner graced Roberts with a precious hour of his time; Habeler, on the other hand, spent an evening at the pub with the author. The essay is well-done, but it is necessarily one-sided. I felt like I got a better feel for Habeler than solely by reading his book, The Lonely Victory, whereas Messner appears quite similar to his media image. The contrast between the two is still, however, interesting, and at times surprising. A bit of Everest trivia worked its way into the book as well. I had no idea that Burdsall, Emmons, Moore, and Young's original plan in their trip to China was to find a way around the British blockade of Mount Everest by traveling through China and Tibet. It was not until after they arrived in Shanghai that they settled for an ascent of Minya Konka (Mount Gongga), the highest summit reached by Americans until 1958 (see their Men Against the Clouds).

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