I was away last week in the north of Scotland, climbing with my old friend Stuart. As well as being an excellent technical climber he’s an enthusiast for books about mountains and mountaineering, and the postman regularly brings me a package from Stu containing a surplus volume or two from his vast library. While we were away I was reading one of his offerings, Mountain Holidays by Janet Adam Smith, a crisp account of Scottish and Alpine excursions in the 1930s. I enjoyed it so much that when I got home again I went back to my own shelves to look for some of my old favourites. Even those who plan to get no closer to the actual mountains than a postcard of Mont Blanc will find some unexpected and brilliant armchair adventuring here.
One of the great reads is Annapurna (1952) by Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb an 8000-metre peak (there are only 14 in the world). It’s a riveting account of disaster and triumph, and it concludes with the second-best closing line in mountain literature, the luminously calm ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men’. The very best ending is Eric Newby’s, in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958). Newby and his companion Hugh Carless bump into Wilfred Thesiger in a miserable village camp in the lower Panjshir. Getting ready for another night of privation the pair blow up their air-beds. ‘”God, you must be a couple of pansies”, said Theisger’. In the similarly stiff-upper-lip language of The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937) H.W.Tilman writes of reaching the summit with his climbing partner Noel Odell, ‘I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it’.
My greatest favourite is Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider (1959). This classic doesn’t so much describe the first ascent of the Eiger North Face as haul the quivering reader bodily up the mile-high face. I first gulped it down as a teenager, and the words Hinterstoisser Traverse and Death Bivouac never fail to shiver my spine. Accounts of tragic expeditions are always fascinating because they give more weight to the precise combination of bravery and selfishness that compels human beings to climb high mountains – Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void (1988) wins the prize here. I once sat on a plane out to Kathmandu next to a climber who was reading this book. He couldn’t raise his eyes from the page for long enough to lift his drink. Mislocating his own mouth, he poured a beer straight into his lap and went on reading, oblivious. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) is equally unputdownable, a forensic account of the unfolding of a tragic season on Everest.
It’s not all about the remote Himalayas, though. W.H.Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland (1947) recalls days and nights with friends on Ben Nevis, Cir Mhor on Arran and the Cuillin of Skye with modest affection. Murray also gives the recipe for the mountaineer’s cocktail known as Mummery’s Blood, consisting of equal parts of rum and Bovril, served boiling hot. He claims that a pint ‘lowers angles, shortens distances and improves weather’. Well it would, wouldn’t it?
Other books that jump off my shelves include Gwen Moffat’s Space Below My Feet (1961), about becoming the first female mountain guide, a nice contrast to Janet Adam Smith’s writing. Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat (1988) is as essential as Annapurna. Alvarez is a poet who neatly defines climbing as ‘chess for the body’, and the title of his comic retelling of climbing exploits relates to his theory that climbers keep on doing it as a way of easing the constant gnawing of some inner rodent. After an epic day on the Old Man of Hoy, a fearsome sea stack in the Orkneys, Alvarez is asked ‘How’s your rat, then?’ ‘He over-ate’, Alvarez answers. ‘I think he just died’.
The fiction section isn’t quite as crowded, but there are a couple of gems. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness (1931) is wildly eccentric, even bonkers, but it’s eerie and peculiarly memorable. The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) by W.E.Bowman is a wicked spoof of some of the more square-jawed mountaineering classics, and is one of the funniest books I have ever read. There’s also, ahem, my own White—a love story set against an Everest ascent.
If there were to be just one book for the armchair mountaineer, though, it could well be Mountains of the Mind: A History of an Obsession by Robert Macfarlane (2003). This erudite, passionate book is part history, part personal memoir and part meditation on that essential mixture of bravery and selfishness and the ever-entwined wonder and terror of mountaineering itself.
May there always be a new book—whatever our particular fascination– waiting to be read. And possibly a pint of Mummery’s Blood somewhere to hand.