It must be said that I am a huge sucker for mountaineering books. The childhood adventure story is simply reconfigured into a paradigm involving tourism; physical risk; and the possibility of looking quite dashing. Not being terribly dashing, but wanting to be, I find the pose of the mountaineer alluring. I can’t do it though, even when I’ve been in the mountains and wearing the gear, I find the practice of being a poseur too much to bear. So rather than pursue a career as a poseur I end up dabbling as a dilettante. There is more than a little red facedness to be found in this marginal ethical positioning. Real mountaineers however, write books, it’s how they earn their pay. From the Duke of Abruzzi to Aleister Crowley, from Shipton to Hillary, from Tenzing to Sue Fear: they all love writing it down, after they have come down the mountain. You’ve got to fund the next trip somehow. I like reading these books; they offer a taste of real mountaineering with none of the attendant dangers, except boredom.
Mountaineering books have one of two strategies. The first and by far the most common is the self strategy where upon finding oneself in the most desolate and useless of locations the only reasonable thing to do is to talk about oneself at extreme length. Ruminating over every feeling, every ache, and every tiny banal thought: considering it all and writing it down for the eager and desperate armchair audience to absorb. The second strategy is to pretty much ignore the self and to devote everything to description and evocation of nature. It is difficult to say which is worse: self or other? Generally though self is much worse but nature can be boring to a self strangulating degree. Mountains, snow, blizzards, crevasses, wind and cold, regardless of circumstances, resemble themselves and when they repeat over and over again like theme music, it can be enough to make you throw any mountaineering book into the wind.
A book I’ve re-read recently, Rick Ridgeway’s The Last Step, goes the self option. An account of the successful US expedition to K2 in nineteen seventy-something Ridgeway has good ground to work with. The mountain, to begin with, is huge, ominous and has a long record of killing the people who tried to climb it. Also by travelling with a large expedition Ridgeway has twenty climbers to chronicle, all of whom have aspirations to reach the zenith of poseur-dom. The Last Step shows how badly things can go wrong when twenty team members behave like golfers and all wish to succeed at the expense of the others.
The core of The Last Step is the dispute between the climbers who are “professionals” and those who are pursuing a recreational, perhaps spiritual, goal. The professionals can’t bear the fact that the amateurs are slowing them down by sleeping with one another; by smoking dope; by admiring the mountain scenery; by being not as strong or fast as the others. In many ways this turns into a dispute about gender, the professionals being all men and the amateurs are women (along with the men who are sleeping with them or would like to). The professionals protest about the distraction that the women offer and suggest that they threaten the success of the expedition. Ridgeway clearly sides with the professionals and considers himself one of their kind, especially as the amateurs cannot hack the pace set by the hardcore climbers.
The climbers are all mapped in quite some detail; their history, their climbing resume, their personality, their ambition. In some ways Ridgeway’s characterization of the team resembles a SWOT analysis which does not exactly bring characters to life but the detail is interesting. No detail is too small, for it may be evidence of some carelessness in the manner by which they approach the mountain. The mountain is described only in terms of the route taken and, given its isolation, might just as easily be in Patagonia, Alaska or the Cascades. Pakistan might just as well be Oregon. The route becomes the focus as the professionals lay siege to K2, making camp after camp and reaching ever higher until, you guessed it, four of the twenty, including Ridgeway, reach the top and survive the descent to tell the tale. The whole book is a defence of hardcore climbing.
Written in the seventies the ghosts of Annapurna and Everest loom large, its support of siege style climbing (massed efforts of load carrying to get as many climbers as possible up the mountain) is unequivocal. But the lack of synergy in Ridgeway’s team foreshadows the paradigm shift that took mountaineering by storm in the late seventies whereupon large expeditions are given away and two or three climber teams who go up high in “Alpine style” (emulating the superstar of mountaineering Reinhold Messner, who with Peter Habeler, climbed most everything in a weekend wearing shorts and thongs during the late seventies and early eighties) and come down just a fast. Fast is not possible with twenty climbers.
The book I’m reading today is In the shadow of Denali. It’s about a completely different kind of disagreement: it goes for other not self. People in the mountains are the incongruity it argues. Well not people per se: just bad people, disrespectful people, they shouldn’t be in the mountains. The wilderness should be intimate, the book argues, not experienced with two hundred roped associates climbing a “yellow brick road to the summit” or viewed with busloads at roadside lookouts. In this light the 1200 or so climbers who make their way in spring and autumn up the “easy” West Buttress route are taking the piss. Sure they’ll have reached the highest point on the Nth American continent but when so many do it and pay for it what is it worth?
The argument is aimed squarely at climbers and people who might like to think of themselves as such, if you really want to be a climber he is saying, to be dashing (like me) then don’t climb the West Buttress of Denali with some buff guide hauling you up camp by camp but do the harder thing and find a route of your own making, up a mountain of your own imagining. It is a strong, and pretty blokey, argument but it doesn’t count for much on a scale of the day to day. Work and life and family for the majority of climbers come first, long before climbing which is (to read the climbing mags) relegated to a weekend or two in springtime. Climbing for most is a minor reprise of adolescent folly where risk is to be weighed cautiously. There is an implicit recognition that going up the West Buttress on a guided climb is most likely the only way a whole army of dreamers are going to have a chance of making one dream come true. And in this acknowledgement In the shadow of Denali denies the possibility of taking away the dreams of springtime climbers by force of argument and simply hopes by the end that climbers of whatever ilk honour the mountain as it honours them when they claim: “I climbed Denali”. It seems a forlorn hope to me, when a fat smoker like me dreams of a fine summit day there is no chance that younger, stronger, fitter and more technically able dreamers will turn away. Much of mountaineering is not so much about the doing, that mostly sucks, but it is about the value of being able to say that one has done something, and there’s no part of that which honours the mountain.