Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Heroic Climbs, edited by Bonington & Salkeld

Chris Bonington and Audrey Salkeld pull together a fantastic collection of mountaineering writing in Heroic Climbs: A Celebration of World Mountaineering. Theirs is perhaps the first anthology I've come across that brings together both top quality writing and largely untrodden (actually much of it is previously unpublished) material. The editors gather a wealth of famous names, including Scott, Hunt, Rutkiewicz, Nunn, Saunders, Webster, Blanchard, Khrischaty, Habeler, Hillary, Messner, Diemberger, Houston, and many others, and present some of their most difficult or interesting climbs that you've probably never read about. Though both Peter Boardman (Sacred Summits) and Joe Tasker (Savage Arena) wrote about their climb along with Doug Scott on the third highest mountain, they largely played down the perils of their first summit attempt, whereas Scott in "Lightweights on Kanchenjunga" stares down his own mortality in a bitter fight for survival during a terrible storm. Similarly, we finally get Habeler's perspective on his climb with Messner of Hidden Peak. Tony Streather gives full details of his trying climb on Haramosh, a climb I'd heard called "tragic," but knew nothing about. Greg Mortimer details his sailing to and from Antarctica on a yacht (not designed for ice breaking) to climb a mountain. Messner, Hasse, and Kurtyka give histories of under-recognized regional and national climbing. I was excited to read works by so many climbers that I'd heard about, but that I'd never read. In addition to the climbing narratives, Salkeld and Venables provide brief introductions to each of the regions covered in the book. Also, Salkeld hunted down a beautiful (and often useful) array of photographs to accompany the stories.

The Everest material includes a narrative by Hillary of his summit day climb, Diemberger's paen to the Kangshung Face, and some mentions in the essays of Pertemba, Kurtyka, and Venables. Hillary's "The Last Lap" is a later telling of his climb with Tenzing Norgay to the summit, and he avoids some of the pitfalls of earlier narratives, such as estimating the height of the Hillary Step and the "fish" references in its climbing. He also admits exasperation at Lowe's quoting him for the media about knocking the bastard off. Diemberger's Kangshung Face piece is a great telling of his relationship with the lesser-known, but dangerous side of Everest, from early fascination to his participation as filmmaker for the 1981 American expedition that ascended the "Lowe" Buttress. Though a thrilling climb, there's unfortunately no book specifically for this one, and I was glad to read some new (to me) details. Venables includes the early history of Everest climbing in his introduction. Pertemba discusses his three climbs of Everest, as well as the effects of mountaineering upon his community. Kurtyka's history of Polish Himalayan climbing of course includes the dual winter and South Pillar ascents of 1980.

I was happy with everything in this book save the title. With the exception of Streather's narrative, and a sideline in Houston's, the only traditional "heroism" is an attempt to rescue a sheep, and perhaps a camera. For the most part, these are narratives of climbs that go right or of the author getting himself out of a pickle. While inspirational and intrepid, I wouldn't call most of these climbs "heroic."

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