Reviews of Mountaineering Books

The Best Of Ascent

edited by Steve Roper and Allen Steck (380 pages; Sierra Club Books; 1993; $25.00).

Review by Tim Hult

Having been a good climber this past year, Santa was good to me. (O.K., O.K., I wasn't really a good climber, but I was good.) At any rate, on Christmas morning I awoke to find my stocking stuffed with my favorite present-books. Specifically, mountaineering and adventure books. What motivated me to write this review-besides a desire to not allow J. Flinn to have all the fun yacking up what his latest good read is -was my desire to share with our little climbing community the joy of reading a new book by those venerable word-smiths of the climbing world, Steve Roper and Allen Steck.

Yes, the same two guys who have singlehandedly created the phenomenon of 50 crowded climbs, and whose vague, confusing and just plain inaccurate route descriptions are responsible for more PCSers getting lost on numerous Sierra peaks than any other pair. This time however, their course is true as they've edited a magnificent compilation entitled "The Best of Ascent: 25 years of the Mountaineering Experience."

While this book will never top the "classics" category by itself, it does contain several notable classics in the mountaineering literature which first appeared in the periodical Ascent. It also includes three interesting appendices, all of which make it an interesting reference text: Ascent's contents, year by year; Ascent's contributors, listed alphabetically; and a section that contains shorts biographies about the contributors to this compilation.

Here then is a wonderful collection of stories, accounts, narratives, fantasies and histories written by some of the sports' most notable authors and climbers: Lito Tejada-Flores, Chris Jones, David Roberts, Galen Rowell, Steck, Chuck Pratt, Jonathan Waterman, Royal Robbins, Doug Robinson, and Kitty Calhoun.

Beyond these luminaries, however, lies the joy of discovering a new writer whose prose resonates within you. Someone who captures better than you ever could, the mood, or feeling you've had of being in a particular place, or in a similar situation. So real (and funny!) was Eric Sanford's portrayal of legions of neophyte climbers attempting Denali in his "Roughing It on Denali" that I had to remind myself I was in the "Whimsy" section, not the autobiographical area-what whimsy means in this case is anyone's guess, probably a collection of tales resulting from his and others' experiences while on the peak.

Best of all, this book was put together for readers just like me-tired and lazy. You see, I do most of my reading propped up in bed just before going to sleep, and can usually dust off no more than 20 to 50 pages before my concentration wanders and I'm truly ready for dreamland. Fortunately, "The Best of Ascent" is chock full of stories 10 to 15 pages in length, just the right prelude to dreams of endless high altitude alpine ridges on crisp days, picturesque summits, and warm granite slabs above green high country meadows.

Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber

by Steve Roper (237 pps; The Mountaineers; $24.95).

Review by John Flinn

Find yourself a seat by the camp fire and fill your Sierra Cup with some Red Mountain burgundy. Make yourself comfortable as Steve Roper spins tales of the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.

Parts of Roper's new book do indeed read like a gossipy fireside remembrance; other parts seem more like a scholarly analysis. The overall effect is a solid and enjoyable history of Yosemite climbing.

Golden Ages, of course, are somewhat subjective. According to Roper, Yosemite's began in 1947 with John Salathe and Axe Nelson's first ascent of the Lost Arrow Chimney and ended in 1971 with Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell's 27-day circus on the Wall of the Early Morning Light.

Most of the book focuses on the 1960s, when Camp 4 was home to the men who virtually invented big wall climbing: Harding, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard, TM Herbert-and Roper. (And, yes, they were all men. As Roper points out, women had little impact on the sport during these years.)

Armchair mountaineers may know the general outline, but Roper-a wonderful storyteller-enlivens it with great anecdotes. Many of us, for example, have heard the story of Allen Steck and John Salathe's battle with thirst as they made the first ascent of the North Face of Sentinel Rock over a scorching July 4 weekend in 1950. What most of us didn't know, until now, was that a parched Salathe used his very last swig of water to soak his dentures.

Then there was the unlikely collection of climbers assembled for a 1957 ABC Wide World of Sports segment about Yosemite climbing. Bob Swift, John Harlin and Jules Eichorn were recruited for the cameras. The latter, judged "clumsy looking" was instructed to stage a fall, which he did. Watching all this, but not invited to participate, was Gaston Rebuffat.

Roper sets the record straight on some important points. Many writers, including Roper and yours truly, have repeated the story of Salathe fashioning the first hard steel alloy pitons from the axle of a Model A. Alas, this is probably apocryphal. Roper points out that axles were extremely difficult to work with, and bars of the steel alloy would have been cheap and easy for Salathe to obtain.

At times the book strives a little too hard to be the official record. It's hard to imagine, for example, that anyone except the participants care that Gary Colliver and Chris Jones made the eighth ascent of the Salathe Wall in 1969. Instead, I could have used a few more TM Herbert stories.

Overall, though, "Camp 4" is a wonderful read and a great addition to any mountaineer's bookshelf. Roper does a masterful job of capturing a magical time in the history of our sport.

Second Man on the Rope

by Ian Mitchell (Mercat Press, Edinburgh)

Review by Joe Baker

Second Man on the Rope is the story of the unlikely partnership between Ian Mitchell, a Munro-bagger (think: someone working on the HPS list) and Davie Brown, an aging Scottish 'Severe' hardman. The book was a joint winner of the 1991 Boardman-Tasker Prize. Davie had climbed past the retirement of most of his partners, and enlisted Ian as his belayer on classic climbs, while joining Ian (with a bit of embarrassment over mere tramping) as Ian completed the Munro list. The humor is gentle but quite amusing. It is a great story of two climbers who come from opposite ends of the difficulty spectrum, but share a deep love for the mountains. They find themselves stared at in wonder by young, lycra-clad climbers, as they continue to use their woolens, wood-handled ice axes, and ancient crampons. Warning: the dialog is all written in Sco'ish ("Aye, weel, ye've tae know what ye're daeing.") I found that it all made sense after a shot of (Scottish) whiskey.

The Burgess Book of Lies

by Adrian & Alan Burgess (The Mountaineers, Seattle)

Review by Joe Baker

If you've seen the references to the Burgess twins in other climbers' books, you would expect this book to tell some wild tales. You won't be disappointed. The twins have been climbing hard and living harder since the early 70's. They take turns writing chapters (with Adrian writing a few more than Alan) that cover their adventures from their first cragging in 63, through their numerous expeditions to the Himalaya, Canada, Fitzroy, and more. The brothers are fiercely loyal and trust each other completely. While the adventures all surround the mountains, only a small part of the book is devoted to descriptions of the actual climbing. Instead, there are lots of wild tales of crazy times spent with climbers. The inscription on the front cover says, "Maybe true. Maybe not true. Better you believe. -Old Sherpa Saying." The stories range from bar brawls between climbers and bikers, to instructions on how to sneak your gear through customs in Kathmandu without paying duties, to sitting in jail in Talkeetna with Don Whillans after getting caught stealing 500 cans of beer. At one point, they are discussing the new generation of climbers with a friend, who says, "They don't drink. They don't even like to fight! What use are they?" In Second Man on a Rope, Davie Brown, after reading a book that consists solely of descriptions of climbing bursts out, "There's nae people in it! He must nae have any pals!" It is clear from this book that the Burgess twins have plenty of pals.