I am grateful for Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider for one big reason. Of course, I think his film Meru was better and more representative of great climbing (and I am biased toward alpine climbing anyway.) Free Solo has given the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience a new reference point for climbing. They understand the risk differently than even before the 60 Minutes piece about Alex Honnold.
But on the flip side of this coin, I can’t tell if this novice climbing audience understands that Alex Honnold’s exploits in Free Solo were still outliers among climbers of the future. Well, they probably do and recognize that Honnold is unique. Well, I guess it won’t help people to continue to mistake El Cap for the biggest big wall in North America (it’s not, in case you were wondering.)
What I appreciate more, for being widely well-known, is Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. It’s also more representative of climbing in general. It was a multi-year project. It required years of honed skills. It was not merely about being an extreme outlier. And thanks to a very slow news cycle after Christmas in 2015, the whole country knew of their climb and heard something about the now infamous boulder problem.
But that’s all mountain films and climbing news. Mountaineering and climbing literature has some challenges, and yet really shouldn’t. The mountaineering and climbing genre has some of the most amazing literature in the world and yet, the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience still hasn’t gotten past the tragedies: The first book about climbing and mountaineering they often think about is Jon Kraukauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. It is “tell-all” book exploiting the tragedy of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight climbers, mostly guided clients, died.
In fact, when new acquaintances learn about my blog they often tell me about how they read Into Thin Air and how it moved them. I think that’s great. No, I am not being sarcastic; I genuinely do. Good climbing books are powerful and insightful about humanity, what we are capable of doing, and finding dignity despite our weaknesses. However, in all seriousness, if they don’t cite Into Thin Air, it’s one of these titles…
- The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (1997)
- The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner (2002)
- Forever on the Mountain by James Tabor (2007)
- One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkison (2010)
- No Way Down by Graham Bowley (2010)
- The Last Man on the Mountain by Jennifer Jordan (2010)
- Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall (2014)
- Surviving Logan by Erik Bjarnason and Cathi Shaw (2016)
And there are still miscategorizations of the climbing disaster genre. Just look at this list from Good Reads.
They know these stories because they heard about the event in the news, or even (gulp) Outside Magazine, and decide to pick it up. Unfortunately, they have only scratched the surface of climbing books.
The majority of climbing books are not about disasters. In fact, I’d argue that a disaster is not the prerequisite for a good or even a great climbing book. I have read what critics have called the best or greatest climbing books and articles and I think the best are biographical or auto-biographical and introspective stories of a climb or a life climbing. A good character, a wild landscape, and a transformational journey — that’s worth reading.
I think you might argue that Into Thin Air did those things, and in some ways it did. But there were better ones. Here are five just off the top of my head (sorry if I repeat these too often):
- The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (1968)
- Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald (2017)
- The Tower by Kelly Cordes (2014)
- Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe (2018)
- Beyond the Mountain by Steve House (2009)