Was Reading Your First Climbing Book as Impactful?

Dusk Descent, inspired by cover of Alpinist 69. (All rights reserved)

If you were fortunate to read a mountaineering history or one of David Roberts biographical tales for your first book on climbing, your appetite for more would be difficult to sate.

I got into climbing when I was 12. I was principally interested in peak bagging but walls fascinated me. I bought a copy of Face Climbing by John Long. I manged to learn how to smear and edge, and more fundamentally, to stand on my legs and feet. I climbed in my Timberland boots back then, since I was, still aiming for treeless summits. Saving up for La Sportivas then seemed like too big of a challenge.

I don’t know the date, but I remember the evening vividly. I was in my parents home during my freshman year in college reading in my bed. It was late, and my parents were downstairs watching television. The story was from July 1965, with Harvard Mountaineering Club Members, David Roberts, Don Jensen, Matt Hale, and Ed Bernd on Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts included one of four article-length versions of the story in an anthology titled Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings of David Roberts (1986). On the descent from the summit, having established a significant new route and the second ascent, the team split up, Jensen and Hale to one camp and Roberts and Bernd to the other. Bernd vanishes in the dark and Roberts spends days alone waiting out a storm running through the vagueness of Bernd’s disappearance. I had never read anything so remarkable, for the story, and the rawness of the story. It seemed fictional, yet I believed that this extraordinary and horrible experience truly happened. I felt as alive as Roberts had in his tent on Mount Huntington.

I returned to the bookstore and found another book with Roberts byline, this time shared by a name I was not yet familiar with, Conrad Anker. Together they wrote alternating chapters of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest (1999). I read it only months later and finished, according to a Post-It-Note inside, on January 8, 2000. I wrote, “This book is an enjoyable read because it mixes the romantic era of climbing in wool and silk with reality and the reality of climbing today and its culture and the history of mountaineering.” I should have edited that better before leaving that note in there.

Although I hadn’t learned the breadth of various climbing styles and disciplines, yet, I now saw the alpine style on Mount Huntington, the siege-style expeditions to Everest, and the modern commercial-style expeditions to the 8,000ers. I think it was that spring that I discovered Ed Viesturs on MountainZone.com, who lead me to read the influential Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. From there I just kept reading climbing books and started subscribing to climbing magazines.

Amrita Dhar, an English professor at the University of Ohio Newark, originally from Calcutta, India, calls mountaineering the most literary of all sports. I think that is true, even compared to the expansive writing about baseball I have read and know there is more to be consumed. Part of this, Dhar explains in the Alpinist Podcast on November 21, 2019, mountaineers often start their journey with literature, climb, and then write about it afterwards. In her vein, I would argue that mountaineering and climbing proper doesn’t include spectator stands, but involves the experience inside the climber as well as the physical route, which is best told as a narrative. Words are powerful, and they blossom in amazing ways from our inner climbing journeys.

Whether I may have fallen just as in love with climbing literature with another author or different books, I can’t say. Even our adventure off the mountain, can have its own unpredictable surprises. But after the last 20 years of reading climbing narratives, I would still be where I am now. Climbing narratives are powerful and best told in words.

Was the first climbing book you read as impactful on you? And what book was it and how did you find it? Send me an email (address found here) or leave me a comment on social media. I would love to know your story.

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