A Selection of Recommended Literature on the Subject of Climbing

It's a slippery slope (pun intended) in making any list of books, albums, or favorites of anything. Such lists are almost entirely a reflection of the list-maker's preference, and representative of his/her experience. It is a wholly subjective exercise, and usually met with skepticism, and the inevitable: "but you left so-and-so (who wrote the greatest book ever), off the list!" And one could never deem any collection of climbing literature a definitive 'best of' list – the genre has too many good authors in a myriad of experiences for that. But a reading list of recommended titles is a place to start if you've recently started climbing and want to know more of its story, or, have climbed for years and just haven't read much on the subject. Maybe you just enjoy reading as an 'armchair mountaineer' and want to know more. If any of these describe you, then consider the selections below. Most of these authors have been widely read, but to find a few titles you'll definitely have to dig deeper. You are not likely to find 'The Lonely Victory' or 'Challenge of the North Cascades' at a bookstore in the mall, but try Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Powell's in Portland (and on-line), REI, Amazon.com, or maybe check out Craig's List or E-Bay for climbers thinning out their bookshelves. Don't forget to check out your local library – sometimes there lurks a mountaineer on the staff, who quietly builds their collection.

So here's my list of recommended literature, in no particular order of preference, followed by a short synopsis to impart the flavor of each. Hope you enjoy reading them (or others I may have missed), and spend even those rainy stormy days inside the tent, scaling-in-spirit the rock, snow and ice of the world.

The Lonely Victory (1979) – Peter Habeler Habeler's account of the preparation and successful bid for the first 'alpine style' summit of Everest, without the aid of supplemental oxygen. Despite medical professionals telling them it was not possible, Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner bagged the big one in a party of two, and upped the ante for 8,000 meter peaks to a whole new level with this ascent. The book includes a 9-page appendix by Dr. Oswald Olz discussing the medical issues encountered at high altitude. What these guys did was like the first moonshot, except minus the team of aerospace engineers in Houston to guide them. Well-written, honest prose about pushing barriers at the highest level – the top of the world.

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest (1997) – Anatoli Boukreev and Gary Weston DeWalt and Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (1997) – Jon Krakauer These two books are grouped as one read, because they are in essence, two sides of the same story: May 11, 1996 on Mt. Everest, when eight climbers died, and others sustained horrific injuries. Krakauer's story focuses on the circumstance of professional guiding at this altitude, where a guide may only barely maintain his own physical and psychological state of being, but has a less-experienced client to tend to as well. Krakauer simply asks if the money involved breeds undue risk. Boukreev defends the role of the guide, and offers a different account of that day than Krakauer.

Eiger Dreams (1990) – Jon Krakauer A collection of short stories about climbing, Krakauer relates the fear, excitement, loss, and commitment necessary in climbing the hard ones: Denali, the Eiger Norwand, Devil's Thumb. It is an enjoyable read and at times, downright funny, albeit with a fair dose of 'black' humor. In this book, Krakauer makes climbing accessible to armchair mountaineers, but doesn’t dumb it down for the experienced.

Solo Faces (1979) – James Salter This short novel is based largely on the climbing accomplishments and style of Gary Hemming, an American climber who (in addition to extraordinary ascents in the Alps), pulled off a daring rescue of two stranded German climbers on the Aguille de Dru in France, 1966. It explores the contrast between devotion to mountain climbing and the 'trappings' of ordinary life, and the ultimate personal sacrifices one often makes in pursuit of their passion. This book does not tie up neatly the loose ends of a life on the edge of death, but explores it, describes it in tight, precise language, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

Touching the Void (1988) – Joe Simpson Simpson and his partner Simon Yates have a little accident on the Siula Grande in Peru. Simpson is presumed dead, but is actually alive with a shattered leg and frozen hands after falling into a huge crevasse. He then proceeds to crawl out over a period of several days. Pretty mundane stuff, right? The psychological tension of this book, and Simpson's wry British wit throughout, make this an entertaining read about a harrowing trip. The book was the basis of a film by the same name, also highly recommended.

Tales From The Steep: John Long's Favorite Climbing Literature (1993) – John Long, ed. If you aren't willing to collect a bookshelf of climbing classics, or just want the short version, John Long has assembled excerpts from some of the best, and added words of his own.

Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalayas (1993) – Greg Child Greg Child is Australian, and started out as purely a rock climber, gaining notoriety for ascents in the Yosemite Valley. His reputation in the valley earned him an invitation to the Himalayas. In this book, he describes his first three Himalayan climbs. In a gripping narrative, he relays his physical, mental, and emotional triumph and loss. Child importantly describes the geography and culture of Pakistan first-hand; but it is his tribute to teammates that is this book's departure from many others.

Challenge of the North Cascades (1969) – Fred Beckey 'Beckey', as he is known to locals in the Pacific Northwest, could likely lay claim to more first ascents than anyone. That's anyone in the world, alive or dead. But Beckey is more humble than that, and it is evident in his writing: honest and frank in style, but not without reflection. Not a hint of self-aggrandizing. This personal account of peaks done in ground-up style in the 60s is an especially good read for those contemplating a trip to 'Little Switzerland', the North Cascades of Washington.

American Rock: Region, Rock and Culture in American Climbing (2001) – Don Mellor Ever wonder about those names you see cited in Climbing or Rock and Ice, but don't have the time to track it all down and research each one? Shawagunks. Seneca Rocks. Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Taqhuitz and Suicide. Yosemite. Stone Mountain. Joshua Tree. Smith Rock. Don Mellor's book reads like a smorgasbord of everything you like to eat, dished up at a table in front of you. He describes the history, culture, and climbing ethics of just about every major rock climbing area in the U.S.

El Capitan: Historic feats and radical routes (2000) – Daniel Duane Duane does a bang-up job of capturing the "Golden Age" of rock climbing, and the incredible array of talent that has tackled El Cap. The routes, the personalities, and excellent black and white photography – if you are not dreaming of a road trip to Yosemite after reading this book, you're brain-dead.

Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (1979) – Allen Steck and Steve Roper Since heckled as the "Fifty Crowded Classics", they've become so popular, this book is really more of a guidebook than a book 'about climbing'. Yet, it reads so well, and the historical accounts of ascents so detailed, that this is a must-read for the North American climber… then get out and bag a few! Worth mentioning too is a similar 'follow-up' (by Mark Kroese) titled: Fifty Favorite Climbs: The North American Tick List (2001) This book includes stunning color photographs, and recommended climbs by top-level climbers. Most of this list is not within reach of the average climber, but inspiring nonetheless.

Touching My Father's Soul (2002) – Jamling Tenzing Norgay A very poetic journal of Norgay's bid to summit Everest, forty-three years after his father's historic ascent; Tenzing Norgay first summitted Everest with New Zealander Edmund Hillary in 1953. To Norgay, climbing is not really a sport, but more of a spiritual quest, a personal cleansing, and integral part of his cultural context. The account of how he and his wife sought spiritual guidance before his climb provides an insight to the people of the Himal rarely seen in climbing literature. This book is a welcome departure from the plethora of mediocre "I Was There" accounts of climbing the world's highest peak.

Climbing Free (2003) – Lynn Hill (with Greg Child) A biography of Lynn Hill's life adventure, not just climbing, but embracing people and places, providing an entertaining account of her experiences. Hill doesn't dwell on the down-side of climbing, the injuries and death, as most others do – perhaps that is just a reflection of her positive take on life in general.

Starlight and Storm (1954) – Gaston Rebuffat From the 1920s to the 1950s, European climbers scored first ascents of some of the hardest routes in the Alps and Dolomites. French climbing guide Gaston Rébuffat wrote Starlight and Storm as a personal account of this time. Rébuffat was a pure, ground-up climber whose love of his life, and the others he shared it with, permeates the text.

Mountains of My Life (2001) – Walter Bonatti Bonatti was one of the boldest European climbers of his day, and a leading figure in mountaineering of the 20th century. The book is an autobiographical account of his major climbs, including several sections on the 1954 Italian expedition on K2. Bonatti sought purity and excitement in his climbs, but faced the wrath of public criticism after this expedition, fueled by the commentaries of his teammates. This book addresses the ethics of mountaineering, a sport with no set rules, no referee, and no prize money.

The White Spider (1959) – Heinrich Harrar In 1938, Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek, and Ludwig Vörg were the first to successfully climb the Eiger's north face. The infamous mountain had, to that point, turned back every attempt with tragic results. The book takes the reader step-by-step through the German team's first ascent. Of equal importance, however, the book also provides the historical context necessary to understand what their accomplishment meant. Harrer also describes the media frenzy which ensued after multiple tragedies on the mountain, and the sometimes-dark and foreboding motivation behind climbing and alpinism.

Climbing in North America (1976, republished 1997) – Chris Jones This is the definitive, complete history of mountaineering in the United States and Canada, from the earliest days of the sport through the 1970s. This account of accomplishments, folklore, and mythology is notable for its breadth, and recognition that climbing is not only a sporting pursuit, but a culture as well. Climbing in North America developed differently than it did in Europe, largely due to the geographic differences between this continent, still being explored, and Europe, which had been occupied by a large population for centuries. The result was a frontiersman-like approach to the high and remote peaks of North America; Jones colors his meticulous historical work with great stories and stunning black and white photos.

Notable absences from my list (not that you might want to read them anyway):

Annapurna (1952) – Maurice Herzog

The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) – W.E. Bowman

Addicted to Danger (1999) – Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt

Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston (2007) – Bernadette McDonald

Chris Bonington's Everest (2002) – Chris Bonington

The Burgess Book of Lies (1999) – Adrian Burgess

Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine (1999) – Jochen Hemmleb

Girl on the Rock: A Woman's Guide to Climbing with Strength, Grace and Courage (2008) – Katie Brown

The Mountain of My Fear (1968) and Deborah: A wilderness narrative (1970) – David Roberts (these two are also sold as a single volume).

… and please do NOT read:

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Rock Climbing (1999) The world has enough "Complete Idiot's", without sending them out to the mountains! If this is purchased, read, cited or even mentioned by any of my partners, they will be dropped from a great height.