I read about mountains long before I actually saw any. I was born in the sweltering flatlands of southeast Texas and grew up in the suburbs of northeast Texas. I did not see my first mountains until I was sixteen years old. Years before I caught my first glimpse of Colorado, though, I had been exploring a few forbidding peaks in my imagination: namely, the Lonely Mountain and the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth. As a boy I devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; I was completely obsessed not just with the characters and the world that Tolkien created, but also with those magical landscapes. I mean, just look at that cover art…
Mountains have long played a significant role in literature, and mountaineering has long been a surprisingly literary affair. It’s difficult to think of any other endeavor that has led its top practitioners to write so eloquently and voluminously about its rigors. Explorers and mountaineers have written about their exploits from the beginning: from Petrarch’s account of his ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336, to Alexander von Humboldt’s attempt on Chimborazo in 1802, to Edward Whymper’s triumphant yet tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, to the German expeditions to Nanga Parbat in the 1930s, to Maurice Herzog’s first ascent of Annapurna … and the list goes on. Many of today’s top climbers trace their moment of inspiration to an encounter with a book about climbing by such greats as Eric Shipton, H. W. Tilman, Maurice Herzog, or Reinhold Messner.
There are likely several good reasons for the connection between alpinism and the written word. One of them is certainly the inherent narrative structure of any mountaineering expedition. A cast of characters assembles; friendships and rivalries emerge as the group prepares for their adventures; the quest for the peak begins; the summit is reached (or not); cue the horrors of the hairy descent in an epic blizzard. Another is that climbing a mountain is a metaphor-laden pursuit; we associate it with overcoming our fears, testing our resolve, and stepping out into those blank spaces on our personal maps.
The first book that really caught my attention was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I had just graduated from university and was working in telecommunications in Dallas when a friend recommended it to me. I think I may have stayed up all night to finish it; the book took my breath away. It also made me hungry for more, so I read everything that I could get my hands on. The more I read, the more I wanted to be in the mountains, not just in the context of going through the physical trials of a summit bid, but also in the context of experiencing what it felt like to sleep in almost absolute silence under the stars at 12,000 feet, to be waylaid by a sudden summer storm that explodes from behind a ridge, or to round the bend and see a perfectly still, crystal-clear lake surrounded by rock walls and the sky.
The books about mountaineering and adventure that I read as a young man inspired me in so many ways. In the late 1990s, a friend and I would drive from Dallas to Colorado in one straight shot (about 20 hours), spend a day or two scrambling up a fourteener, and then drive back. When I decided to go to graduate school, I ended up writing a master’s thesis about German and Austrian polar exploration, and then I followed that up with a dissertation about the cultural history of mountaineering. And then recently I stumbled on to Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void and Herzog’s Annapurna … and then Amazon recommended House and Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism … and once again my fevered imagination has got the upper hand.
So this leads me to ask you, dear readers: what books about mountaineering, adventure and exploration fire up your imagination and inspiration? If you were snowbound in a tent for a few days and only had one book in your pack, what would it be?