5 of the best mountaineering novels
Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes.
RIGHT, HERE GOES THE FIRST LONGER POST AND ITS ON 5 OF THE TOP WORKS OF MOUNTAINEERING FICTION.
Why only 5? I hear almost nobody saying. Well, its a start, isn't it? I have tried to give a balanced list of different writing styles in this one but I am leaving room for future posts as well. I will be very happy for others to fill comments or send me suggestions to check out another 5, 10 or 15 works I might not have read.
Firstly here is the list in a short palatable version for the hordes of you itching to disagree with me and quickly skip to the comments section... and then below is a little more detail on each. Enjoy (or dont, as is your wont).
Warning: Put the gun away - this is only my opinion.
- Climbers - M. John Harrison
A complex and beautifully observed tale of men, rock, obsession and running away from reality.
- The Fall - Simon Mawer
Wow! Love, sex, obsession, betrayal, war, Eiger, extreme alpinism and the destructive power of all of the above. A superb novel.
- The Ascent of Rum Doodle - WE Bowman
A very amusing account of an imaginery Himalayan expedition peopled by some typically imcompetent chaps. This lampoons the wave of Himalayan expeditions of the 1950's.
- The Eiger Sanction - Trevenian
The thinking man's James Bond in the mountains. You know what you are going to get but it is nevertheless gripping enough when the action starts. Not everything is believeable (not much actually) and you may struggle with the whole 70s institutional women-are-sexual-objects thing.
- The White Tower - James Ramsey Ullman
Again, once you get over the unlikely premise there many good qualities about Ullman's novel exploring the wilderness's ability to test human character.
I would also include a couple of honourable mentions for:
The Ascent of F6- a Tragedy by W.H.Auden and Christopher Isherwood, simply because it tries to do something bold, notably using mountaineering as an allegory in a theatrical setting. It is also interesting that again mountaineering is used as an example of obsession and escapism from the life of the individual. #justsaying (as Auden forgot to tweet).
Tartarin sur les Alpes - Alphonse Daudet. I fell in love with Alphonse Daudet when my brother read me Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters form My Windmill). It was a strange and touching thing for an older brother to do. Anyway even beyond this it turns out Daudet can write. Tartarin on the Alps is the second Tartarin book and is in no way a masterpiece, but as a curio check it out. It is mocking in a Rum Doodley kind of way and if you really love something then you should be able to laugh at it!
Getting back to the main works of fiction, below you can find a more in depth look at each book. Hope you like it! Please comment at the end, let me know your thoughts and what you think I should read. Enjoy!
I will also be posting more on works of mountaineering fiction in the future as well as an alternative post with a handful of the worst works of fiction / drama related to climbing soon, so keep an eye out for that, just for giggles.
Right. Game face.
CLIMBERS BY M. JOHN HARRISON
Climbers is a novel about men and rock. But don’t expect a straightforward man separates from woman, man goes climbing, shit goes wrong, man triumphs kind of novel here. Harrison is way better than that.
I am told (I didn’t know this until recently) that M. John Harrison is well known for his Sci-fi books. This seems to be reflected in some of the descriptive passages in Climbers which are fantastical to say the least.
Mike, the principal character is escaping from the disappointment or perhaps the shame of a failed marriage by diving head long into a quasi-hedonistic thrill seeking adventure through rock climbing.
Maybe he wants to feel more alive, maybe to test himself, maybe to give some meaning to his existence and find some answers. If that all sounds a little bit cliche’d, its because in essence life is. The book itself, however, is most definitely not.
I was captivated by the poignancy of Harrison’s writing at times. It often feels as if he is breathlessly penning direct experiences from his own life shortly after they have happened such is their immediacy - frequently through utterly mundane episodes that the reader feels he has also lived through.
Early on I was ready to find fault with Climbers because, despite the quite evident skill of the writer, the novel felt simply like a series of detached vignettes, each illustrating the various characters. Although they are well-observed - again they feel like real life events and conversations almost lifted verbatim - I was left feeling a little disconnected from the story. But I should have known better.
Two paltry years at the University of Derby, little of which was spent actually within the brick walls of this institution, is when I first started to climb regularly. Evenings were spent in the chalk-clouded air of The Foundry in Sheffield, whenever we could get hold of a friend with that most precious of student commodities - a car. There was the occasional day on Peak grit, when the likes of Stanage and Burbage finally ceased to be things I only read about in the exalted pages of High Magazine. Words that had rolled around my mind began to roll off my tongue with meaning; sticht plate, karibiner, slack, take in! I never stopped to ask myself why I was climbing. But anythgin was better than the dreary studies I had unwittingly channelled myself into.
The central character of Climbers appears to need an obsession to blind him from his own reality. He discovers rock climbing in this book, he discovers it as the drug it can be.
HAVE WE ALL CLIMBED TO AVOID SOMETHING?
Whilst he goes far beyond what I ever achieved on rock, the fleeting elation of a climb or the rush of a fall are vividly portrayed in the pages of this novel and recognisable to anyone who has done as little as tie a figure of eight.
This is actually a really well written account, not just in terms of the passages relating to rock climbing, but also the work as a whole, detailing an obsession, the weakness and strength of the mind and the drug of danger in a very intense and evocative way. Ultimately those small detached vignettes, falling at us at speed seem to coagulate, thicken and come together in longer passages and ultimately, a very admirable novel.
Rather like the pieces of puzzle coming together. Now there’s a cliche’ for you!
Nerdy score: 5/5 Harrison is a climber. He knows his stuff.
THE FALL BY SIMON MAWER
I found this novel really quite unsettling. At times erotic, at times cold. A tale of obsession, love, lust and destruction with a knife-twist at the end.
Mawer challenges the reader and handles some huge subjects in a complex and well structured novel, almost always with a lightness of touch to the prose that skips along with never a dull moment.
The twist at the end was a little telegraphed but then again I don’t think it was intended to be a great denouement, and there was nothing that detracted from the narrative. Spanning the Second World War, the free-loving sixties and more recent times this is a novel of two families intertwined from well before the friendship of Rob and Jamie, childhood buddies, climbing partners and love rivals.
The two come and go in their relationship which sees them reach the pinnacle of modern climbing, largely driven by Jamie’s ambition to live up to his father’s image. Their relationship is coloured by a few key episodes not the least of which is a rivalry in love and jealousy of each other.
LIFE IS MELANCHOLY. FOR 442 PAGES I WALLOWED IN IT WITHOUT SELF-PITY.
Aged around 15, I remember a boy standing in line for the school canteen. I noticed he had lost a good deal of weight during the summer holidays. He told me it was from time spent in the Pyrenees, walking and riding his mountain bike. It was amazing. I wasn’t alone. When you discover a like mind at that painful and sensitive age, wracked with insecurity about your mind, body and the things you like it is the sweetest nectar. Validation.
We struck up a friendship that would last for years. We talked the talk and for brief few years we walked and climbed together. We shared the stale air of a small tent, the early mornings, the bad coffee, the dreams and the lead. One alpine summer when I had just lost the love of my life, my friend - infinitely wiser than me in matters of the heart - brought me a bag of weed. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine.
When I got together with his sister, things changed. We simply never had the same closeness, the same honesty. We stopped baring our souls to each other. Troubles in love were now surely a bridge too far. When I left her 13 years later I sadly ended two relationships.
You see we all have our personal stories of partners in climb, of friendships lost and time does of course colour our vision a distinctly pink hue, but the pain and joy of sharing experiences is second to none. The pages of “the Fall” describing Rob and Jamie’s relationship, their struggle with mountains as well as their own somewhat imbalanced relationship and the extraordinary women in their lives are compelling, riveting and edifying.
Life is melancholy. For 442 pages I wallowed in it without self-pity.
Nerdy score: 5/5 He like totes gets climbing, yeah?
THE ASCENT OF RUM DOODLE BY WE BOWMAN
Often compared to Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, The Ascent of Rum Doodle was actually written almost 70 years later. Nevertheless the humour is in a similar vain, although Bowman never set out to write anything other than a comic novel. Pretty well known within the world of mountaineering, it has probably never gained much traction outside this sector and I think thats a bit of a shame, because it is not so much a book about climbing, if anything it is a book about the British character.
This slim tome was published in 1956. The backdrop to it therefore one of extraordinary mountaineering success during the golden age of Himalayan climbing. It was a mere five years since Annapurna was climbed, three years after the first ascent of Everest and was published in the year that Gasherbrum II became the 10th 8-thousander to relinquish its unbroken spell over the mountaineering world.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle, far from cow-towing to the spirit of adventurer-worship during this climbing age, is the most British of spoofs. A motley crew; amongst them Dr Prone (the permanently ill doctor) Binder (the dumb expedition leader), Constant (the arguing diplomat) and 3000 Yogistani porters, is assembled to lunch an assault of a 40,000-and-a-half-foot peak: Rum Doodle.
The pace of the book never relents and it is puncTuated by amusingly captioned photographs.
Nerdy score: 1/5 This book is not about climbing - it is about buffoons - so chill the fridge out.
THE EIGER SANCTION BY TREVENIAN
The Eiger Sanction is a thriller written by Rodney William Whitaker, under the pen name of Trevenian. Its that classic tale of art-professor-moonlighting-as-professional-killer, you know the one. Will he come out of retirement for one last avenging escapade? Yes. Yes he will.
It turns out that collecting art is an expensive pastime and contract killing just happens to be nice little earner (how do you suppose I put together my collection?). But its ok, he works for a secret government agency, so he’s a good guy.
Anyway he has to climb the Eiger in order to kill someone in the ascending party… but wait. Who is he actually supposed to kill?
Most people will remember the film version, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. Seeing as Clint can do almost no wrong in my book, I have to say that the novel falls short of the film. There. I said it. I told you I had to.
It seems a little churlish to draw attention to it but the book is very much of its time (1972). The main character Jonathan Hemlock really does require you to suspend your disbelief. In fact the description of him and his attributes as a briliant mind, athlete, lover blablabla... is really rather clumsy, but ok, suspend your disbelief and ignore the fact that all his female students are so in love with him that they sit with their legs subconsciously open when he talks to them (yes I am cringing just writing that bit but I didn't make it up).
...FROST BITTEN AND EXHAUSTED HE DROPS TROU' AND PISSES ON THE SUMMIT.
For the purist, and I fear there are too many amongst the readers of this blog, this novel will grate in many areas. After 100 pages of not-the-greatest-prose-ever-written the mountains make an appearance and 'Big Ben' Bowman says of Aconcagua: “This has got to be my last hill. And goddam my ass if this old bitch is going to bust me”. A day or so later, frost bitten and exhausted he drops trou' and pisses on the summit to show his contempt. No, wait, come back, please….
...there is a reason its on this list of top mountaineering fiction and its not just to balance the other good works. It is sometimes uncomfortably mysoginistic to today’s eyes, slow for the first 100 pages and occasionally rather badly written but when the alpine action starts (if you ignore the climbing ignorance of the author) its a fun ride. It makes the list because if you are looking for a brainless thriller to be devoured whilst lying on the beach, oiled by pina coladas, this will satiate your cravings.
Nerdy score: 1/5 Relax its just a thriller ok. Stupider stuff happened in Cliffhanger, remember that.
THE WHITE TOWER BY JAMES RAMSEY ULLMAN
If you manage to believe that the quite extraordinarily unlikely cast of characters could have somehow all found each other in a Swiss valley in 1945 then it is a reasonably enjoyable novel.
It certainly has all the elements: war, love, national identity, the human psyche and of course mountains although the characters do feel a bit like national stereotypes writ LARGE! Maybe this can be excused in 1945, when James Ramsay Ullman’s work was the fourth best selling novel of that year.
Certainly in the pantheon (what’s smaller than a pantheon?) of mountaineering fiction it ranks quite highly. A climb is really quite a good away to bring people together, to test humans not only physically but mentally, individually and as a team. From that point of view The White Tower is pretty good.
It could be argued that Ullman’s tendency to describe mountains in excessive detail gets a little irritating. It is not strictly necessary and indeed impedes the flow of the novel but it is a war story with a decent romance along side the natural ability of mountaineering (and to be fair to him, the author) to explore important themes in the context of the brutality of war and nature, through his disparate bunch of characters.
Nerdy score: 4/5 Ullman does reasonably well on climbing detail.
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