Reading books about mountaineering–written by mountaineers–reminds me of reading books about physics written by physicists. In both cases, I’ve flirted–ever so lightly–with the subject matter: in the case of physics, I’ve done high-school physics, taken a graduate level class in mathematical methods for physicists, taught myself the basic mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, read philosophy of physics monographs and journal articles; and so on. In the case of mountaineering, I’ve done some high-altitude hiking and basic climbing in a variety of locales (the Himalayas, the Andes, New Zealand etc). In both cases, I know just enough of the difficulty of the work described to understand it and to be in awe of those capable of it: I am in awe of the pristine beauty of the theoretical foundations of modern physics; I wish I were capable of manipulating these structures that intrigue me so. I am staggered by the fearsome beauty of the world’s really big mountains; I only wish I were brave and skilled enough to attempt climbing them.
Among the many pleasures of my just-concluded trip to India–with my wife and daughter–was the chance to dip into my brother’s small, but high-quality, mountaineering library. So, while in India, I read: The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna–the World’s Deadliest Peak by Ed Viesturs; Everest: Alone at the Summit by Stephen Venables; Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer by Anatoli Boukreev; and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Viestur’s book details his attempts to scale the deadliest eight-thousander of them all, Annapurna; Venables’ the alpine-style ascent of Everest from the Kangshung Face in 1988; Simpson’s his memorable escape to safety after suffering a near-fatal accident while descending from a successful climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes; Boukreev’s is a collection of diary entries translated from the original Russian, which provide some insight into the mind of a man who found himself playing a central role in the controversy surrounding the 1996 disaster on Everest.
In each case, there are stories of extreme human deprivation and endeavor, and descriptions of unimaginably harsh environmental conditions: the mountains are no place for the faint-hearted. Every one of the mountaineers above is a brave man, but each finds and experiences terror in the solitary high reaches of a big mountain: Viesturs–arguably the most self-avowedly cautious major alpinist of all–finds it on Annapurna’s treacherous, avalanche-prone slopes; Simpson experiences it during his painful crawl back down the Siula Grande glacier; Venables during his exhausting descent from Everest’s summit; Boukreev on many a wind-swept face of the big peaks he so masterfully climbed during his tragically short career.
Thus, to read the physicist’s or mountaineer’s biography or autobiography is to create and sustain a state of admiration and awe. In the case of mountaineering, I experience another emotion: the stirrings of a very primal fear. The heights, the extreme cold, the loneliness, the sustained, persistent state of exhaustion, all these add up to an experience that strikes me as almost unbearably unpleasant and fearful. Those who can undertake it again and again are, as far as I’m concerned, easily worthy of admiration.
From a safe distance.