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Climbing | Book Reviews

On the genre of mountain literature

“I love old mountaineering books. The ones you find at the back of second hand books stores, tucked away in the corner” - so started a book review I wrote in late 2007.

And a love affair it is. Not only for old mountaineering books (which I do have a real soft spot for), but any book on the subject of climbing and the high peaks.

Books on mountains and climbing have become a huge global industry, as they appeal to the general public- for their daring tales of high adventure and superhuman feats, their sense of exploration both in the physical and the mental arenas, their often sense of tragedy and their visual beauty and sense of wonder, to name a few.

There is even a term for reading enthusiasts of mountain literature – armchair mountaineers’ (are you one of these?!) - folks who have the wisdom to admire the ‘game of ghosts’ from the safety of the living room.

In my own life, so captivated was I by the spell of mountain books, that I resolved to read a book a month, and review it on the site. As a result I spent many an hour in the corridors of dusty old book stores, in quiet halls of libraries, and the climbing sections of Exclusive Books, as well as hours in bed reading, I mean working.

Writing and editing for the site, as well as all the books and the related reviews I wrote, added to build my confidence to a place where I felt I could write my own books. The first book took nine years to publish and nearly impoverished me, but the second went smoother, and on the whole, I can say I am proud to have added my piece to the halls of mountain knowledge.

Books have a timeless appeal. They capture the soul of subjects, heroes and stories. And what stories! Stories shape who we are. Relating and expressing stories is a fundamental building block in the development of humanity and the sharing of learning.

Browsing the many book reviews in the archives, in closing I think I enjoy this one the most. It wasn’t the most amazing read, but this little book had charm, had great stories and history. Finding it was a discovery in itself. These are the things I love most in mountain literature: Enjoy!

I love old mountaineering books. The ones you find at the back of second hand books stores, tucked away in the corner.

Hard cover, with yellow stained old paper and that old musty book smell. And stories and pictures of the grand old days of mountain clambering, ‘way back when’ in the day when Hillary was king of the world.

It happened a couple of weeks ago. I was actually browsing for a clothes closet. There are a number of second hand furniture stores in Plumstead. In one of these stores, in an old oak drawer, I found one such piece of mountain literature inside: "Great moments: MOUNTAINEERING".

A good find in such a genre is hard to pass up. And only 5 bucks. Time to drop what ever I was reading and dig into some old memoirs from the hills.

First up is the immortal tale of Balmat and Paccard’s first ascent of Mont Blanc. “Paccard’s hat blew off and went careering off over the mountains” reads the caption for the illustration by Thomas Beck, that has the two climbers looking more like New York mafia digging a shallow grave for some unfortunate soul they have just done away with, than pioneering mountaineers.

More classic tales follow with titles such as “Victory on the Wetterhorn”, “The drama of the broken axe”, “An Archdeacon on top of North America” and even “A woman does the impossible” (believe it or not, woman can climb mountains too)

Published in 1956, only 2 years after the success of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing, there are many books of this sort from the fifties. Naturally, the final chapter features the ascent to the top of the world, an event what must at that time have felt like the absolute in what could be done.

Obviously there were those even then, that saw the conquest of Everest as a new beginning, rather than an end. Eric Shipton for one is remembered for having famously saying something to the effect of “well thank goodness for that, now we can get on and do some real climbing”.

Nevertheless, I digress, so let me get back to the point: next time you are passing an old bookshop, be it in Obs or Long Street, Melville or Bryanston, stop in for a minute and see if you can dig out one of these old classic books of mountain literature.

It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane, and enormous fun.

Image: A classic illustration from the reviewed book


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