A superb book on mountaineering

You either love books on mountaineering or, like most people, couldn’t care less about them. I’m in the former class: I’ve always been fascinated by mountains and have made three treks to the Himalaya just to see Annapurna and Mount Everest. (The panorama of Everest and its surrounding peaks from the top of the adjacent molehill of Kala Pattar is, I maintain, the world’s most beautiful view.) I’d post some pictures of my Himalayan adventures, but they’re all on 35 mm slides, which I really must convert to e-photos someday.

At any rate, I’ve seen a lot of mountains, from the Sierra Nevada and Mount McKinley (now Denali) in North America to the Alps of Europe and the high Andes of South America—and none of them even come close to the Himalaya.  When you first see those big mountains, as I did when hiking into Everest in the early 70s, you can’t believe their height. My first view of Everest was on the approach, and the peaks were shrouded with clouds, as they tend to be. All of a sudden a clear patch appeared in the sky, and in it was the summit of Everest. The thing is, it was much higher in the sky than I expected: it was up near the Sun!

If anything on this planet gives me an experience that I’d characterize as “spiritual,” it’s seeing the Himalaya. I don’t know why big mountains evoke this feeling, but I’m not alone in reacting that way.

The Annapurna group:


But I digress, for I want to recommend a book on Himalayan mountaineering that I’m reading now. It is in fact one of the best of that genre I’ve ever read (along with Galen Rowell’s In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, containing Rowell’s incomparable pictures, and Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog. The former is about an unsuccessful attempt on K2, the world’s second highest peak, and the latter about the first successful ascent of Annapurna.

The book I’m reading is actually five years old, but I’m not sure if it’s well known, for it’s published by—of all places—Yale University Press. The title is Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayas Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, and the authors are Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. Isserman is a professor of American history at Hamilton College and an expert on communism and the American left, while Weaver is a professor of history at the University of Rochester.  Both men are mountain-lovers and climbers as well.

What makes this book surprising is not only that it’s written by two professors, but that it’s compulsively readable while being thorough at the same time.  The authors recount the history of mountaineering beginning with the formation of the Himalaya as a collision of tectonic plates. The history of Himalayan mountaineering begins with the discovery of the mountains by westerners, continues with the early attempts to survey and climb the peaks, and finishes by describing the current “age of extremes,” when people climb the mountains solo and without oxygen (as Reinhold Messner did on Everest), or try dangerous new routes.

It’s an amazing, can’t-put-down read—if you like mountains. The amount of research that went into it is staggering, but it’s written like a popular book, and should have been published by a mainstream outfit that could have publicized it properly. I recommend it very highly.

Two of the highlights for me were the traverse of Everest by the Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963 (a “traverse” is when you ascend a peak by one route and go down the other side; it’s an tour de force because you descend by an unfamiliar route). The two men ascended Everest by the West Ridge and came down by the traditional South Col route first used successfully by Hillary and Norgay.  My friend Andrew Berry, who sent me this book, considers it the greatest mountaineering feat in history.

Here’s a photo of Hornbein and Unsoeld ascending the West Ridge. The most famous photo is from National Geographic, and I can’t find it; this one comes from the cover of Hornbein’s book. You can see the two climbers as specks to the left of the author’s name, and perhaps can get an idea of their achievement:


And the route of their famous traverse:


Another sad and related tale is about Unsoeld’s daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, named after the famous Indian peak. Like her father, Devi (as she was called) took to mountaineering and, at the age of 22, decided to climb the peak that gave her her name. Devi was with a group of experienced mountaineers, and had a lot of experience herself, but developed an unknown ailment that could have been either an intestinal obstruction, altitude sickness, or perhaps something else. She languished in her tent, and, suddenly, took her harmonica out of her pocket, gave it to another climber, and said, “I am going to die.” She immediately collapsed and could not be revived.

Removing bodies from high on a mountain is a perilous job, so they simply zipped Devi’s body into her sleeping bag and slid her off the edge of the mountain.  Her father said, “Nanda Devi died fulfilling her dream. There are worse ways of dying.”

Nanda Devi, the highest mountain wholly within India:


Nanda Devi Unsoeld with her father:


Below is another beautiful mountain: Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world— after Everest and K2. It’s on the border between Sikkim and Nepal, and I’ve seen it from Darjeeling, 50 miles away. This is the breathtaking view you get when it’s clear (I had to wait five days, climbing a nearby peak each morning, to finally get a good photo).  This is not my picture, but I have a great one on a slide.


Below is the “peak” of Kala Pattar I climbed (18,514 feet, or 5,545 m). It has the best view of Everest (see how large the adjacent mountains loom) and is an easy walkup, though the altitude makes it a bit harder. The second time I went up, I had rushed my ascent from Lukla and got cerebral edema, which made me want to lie down and nap (a deadly desire) and also made me unable to walk straight. It cleared up when I stumbled down to 15,000 feet.


Here’s the view of the Everest massif from halfway up Kala Pattar (again, none of these are my own shots). The classic “South Col” ascent proceeds by going up the glacier that you see debouching from the mountains, and then climbing up the south ridge of the mountain (to the right). You can see that route on the diagram of Hornbein and Unsoeld’s descent above.


Although I’m in my dotage, I still want to go back.  I’d like to visit the “Annapurna Sanctuary“, a short trek that puts you into a breathtaking amphitheater surrounded by mountains that include the Annapurnas. Even an old dude can do that trek. Here it is in April:


Here’s a vanity shot of Andrew in front of the Everest group. Like me, he’s a big Himalaya fan and has trekked there several times.



  1. Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    What magnificent pictures! Our Andean mountains are tame by comparison. But we do have one big one, Chimborazo, which is taller than Everest (by 7000 ft, says Wikipedia) if measured from the center of the earth. Maybe you climbed it when you were here in Ecuador? It is apparently not too difficult except for the extreme altitude. (I haven’t done it.)

  2. Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    If only my office had this view…

  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Once on a vacation in the Grand Tetons I was told a disproportionate number of mountain eers in America were theoretical physicists. I certainly fohnd the area conducive to reading Douglas Hofstader’s books on quantum physics and Godel’s theorem.

    • Harry
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I’ve actually been wondering about this at times. This is the first time I’ve seen someone mentioning this curiosity. Reading various popular books on science history I’ve noticed too that theoretical scientists seem to have a thing for climbing or hiking in the mountains. I’ve thought that it’s almost weird how they all seem to head to the mountains when they have a day off. Didn’t Bohr and Heisenberg use to go hiking together? And Oppenheimer was often on treks in the wild, I seem to recall, and others too.

      My cousin was a theoretical physicist but also a dedicated mountaineer. She even chose a lab to be near the mountains just to be able to climb. Sadly, just as with Nanda Devi, the mountains claimed her life too when she fell to her death in the Swiss alps a couple of years ago.

  4. Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    There is something so incredibly pure about mountain scenery – yes “spiritual” is a very good way to describe it. I’m a rather passionate skier myself, and I think that half my enjoyment of skiing comes from just stopping to look at the breathtaking scenery that this pastime affords.
    As for mountain climbing I sense that there is something in human nature that makes us seek adventure, and adventure that affords a certain risk of possible death. I will try to avoid leaping to any Evolutionary Psychology sort of explanation of this tendency. Anyhow, nothing makes a person feel more alive than when one challenges their own mortality in this sort of way.

    • Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Aleister Crowley’s attempt to climb Kangchenjunga Q.E.D.

      • Posted November 18, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink

        And while we’re on the subject of “why do we do it?” and many excellent mountaineering books have already been mentioned, let’s not forget “This Game of Ghosts” by Joe Simpson which I personally think comes as close as any to exploring the “why”.

  5. Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    So why do mountains evoke such spiritual feelings? I think its because on most of the flat bland earth the features we notice are human constructions, but with mountains you get a visceral jolt when you realize how small we really are. I don’t get to the mountains, so the only time I get that feeling is when I’m in the country. At night the Milky Way is a palpable object and I know I’m standing on a speck looking at something thats 400 light years in diameter.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      So called spiritual events are very frequently associated with seeing something we know is both profound and infrequent. If you were a guide to lead people up and down the Grand Canyon for ten years the feeling you would get by looking at the Grand Canyon is vastly different than someone who has never seen it. So it can be with seeing an opera for the first time or performing it for the two hundred time, etc.

    • Posted November 18, 2013 at 3:25 am | Permalink

      Typo: The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter.

  6. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I’m curious about this:

    If anything on this planet gives me an experience that I’d characterize as “spiritual,” it’s seeing the Himalaya. I don’t know why big mountains evoke this feeling, but I’m not alone in reacting that way.

    As an old dude myself I’ve found that my attitudes have changed. Now whether this is down to hormone levels, amount of life experiences, or “cultivating the transcendent function” as Jungians would say – I don’t know. It does seem that older people, especially men, undergo this attitudinal change.

    Some adopt a politically extreme stance, some (re)join a religion, some leave a religion or community, and some just go plain weird. There are even some that become downright wise and nice. Is this a common observation, and if so, why?

    • Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      Well JAC seemed to appreciate these things early on..in the 70s, but generally I think you’re right. I valued things less when I was young- mountains, the Milky Way, friendships etc. Maybe its because when you’re young life seems open-ended. With an ‘infinite’ number of new experiences to look forward to the past and present are devalued.
      I’ve always thought this ‘deepening’ happens to everyone as they get older, not just men! I’ve noticed it mostly in men but I think that’s just because women express it differently, or maybe women are just wise from the start.

      • darrelle
        Posted November 18, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        I am not so sure about that. I wonder if this has as much to do with memory as anything else. I vividly remember many “spiritual” experiences I had in my younger years. As powerful as any in my later years. Perhaps as we get older we think more of our mortality, and that we have not really all that much time left to experience such things. This may add a certain extra wistfulness to such experiences, but I don’t think I appreciated them any less in my younger years.

  7. marksolock
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog and commented:
    Where Jamie is.

  8. Kurt Helf
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Did they also build a bridge between Kilimanjaro’s two peaks?

    • Kurt Helf
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      I’ve only read one book on mountaineering, “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, and found it riveting. I recommend all his books; especially “Under the Banner of Heaven”.

      • gravityfly
        Posted November 17, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Yes, Krakauer’s book is the only one on mountaineering I’ve read too. Magnificent!…is all I can say. Got me thinking about going climbing myself.

        “Into The Wild” was superb too. Very moving.

      • George Martin
        Posted November 17, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        If you can find it, David Breashears’s autobiography, “High Exposure”. It descibes his climbing and film making career. Breashears was the person filmed the IMAX movie, “Everest”.

        As people who have seen the movie know, the 1996 tragedy occurred during the filming. Breashears’s IMAX team helped survivors get down from the South Col. The book gives the details of that.


      • Posted November 17, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        I guarantee you’ll want to read Anatoli Boukreev’s account of that same expedition in The Climb. I think Krakauer unfairly maligned Anatoli who, quite frankly, executed one of the most astonishing rescues in mountaineering history BECAUSE he was not on supplemental oxygen. Krakauer paints it like an aloof Anatoli was showing off and putting other lives at risk in doing so.

        The Maurice Herzog book “Annapurna” is also quite astonishing. Also one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history, followed by one hell of a train ride.

        • gravityfly
          Posted November 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Krakauer is not very kind to Boukreev in his book. In fact, the two had a back-and-forth in the press a while back.

          Been meaning to read Boukreev’s book to get a better idea of what really happened…

        • gravityfly
          Posted November 17, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Krakauer in his book is not very kind to Boukreev. In fact, the two had a back-and-forth in the press a while back.

          Been meaning to read Boukreev’s book to get a better idea of what really happened…

    Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Magnificent post.
    Breathtaking images of the splendid scenery.
    The love of mountains is exhilarating, and can become a genuine life obsession.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I like mountains, but I don’t like climbing them especially now with all my geek injuries to the neck and back. The highest up I’ve been is Mauna Kea on Big Island in Hawaii at 14,000 ft & a guide group drove us up there in a van.

    I was stressed that I would end up not being able to tolerate the oxygen levels at that height but I did well & had no problems. Some people had a hard time – one had to stay in the van on oxygen & another crouched for a long time. The views were great & we went up at sunset so I was able to take a lot of nice pictures above the clouds while the sun was going down.

  11. Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Hornbein and Unsoeld’s climb was one of the most impressive achievements in Alpinism. I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Hornbein talk about it at a conference. His description of the headwall: “It wasn’t so bad; at any time you had your choice of holds. If you didn’t like the one you had, you just tossed it away and grabbed another one.”
    Never fear, altitude is easier on the elderly. I plan on reverting to high altitude mountaineering myself when I become a bit more decrepit, knees and bank account permitting of course.:)

  12. AdamK
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Mountains are for looking up at.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      I endorse this statement.

      But, I do admire people who enjoy climbing them.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      I sort of agree though I have a metabolism that makes me run up them…though I tend to crawl down them.

  13. Darth Dog
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post. I agree about the Himalaya. I’ve done three trips there as well. The Annapurna Sanctuary trip is great. I am hoping to get back to Nepal again. Not only is the scenery fantastic but the mountain people are wonderful as well.

    On my first trip to the Himalayas I was lucky enough to spend two months there. One experience has stuck with me even though it was over twenty years ago. Walking down the trail someone asked me what day of the week it was. I thought, and thought, and realized that I had no idea. That’s the only time in my life that ever happened. It was a liberating feeling!

    While I’ve read the other books you mentioned I have already put Fallen Giants on my Christmas list. Two of my all time favorites are Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (also made into a good film but read the book first) and Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (not in print anymore but you can find used copies).

  14. Nwalsh
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I live equidistant Calgary and Vancouver, whenever I fly to either destination it’s a lot more spectacular in a little dash 8 as opposed to a 737. The little guy flies at 12,000 ft. Almost helicopterish over the mountains – Most spectacular –

  15. cremnomaniac
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry,

    You have just now covered all three of my great loves; cats, science, and mountains.

    I’ve been a climber since the mid 80s, technical climbing mostly, and many summits of Sierra Nevada peaks. Like any climber, I’ve read many books of the genre. The book you mention is a good one.

    For the uninitiated I would recommend reading “Nanda Devi” which is recounting of the expedition that Unsoeld lost Nanda on. It is a great read but sad.
    I might also mention a book by Joe Simpson, “Touching the Void”. If you haven’t time to read it, the movie of the same title is probably one of the best depictions of a true mountaineering epic ever done.

    I have yet to venture in the Himalaya but it is a dream of mine. I’ve followed Everest climbing seasons for many years. Much info about Everest (routes, photos, gear, links) and climbing it can be found on Alan Arnette’s web site.
    He’s a doctor and advocate for Alzheimer’s patients, and its a great site full of Himalayan mountaineering information for the layman.

    I’ll try to link it below, but there is a 2 billion pixel image of Everest taken by David Breashears during the spring of 2012. It may be panned and zoomed. It’s the closest thing to being there you’ll ever see. Climbers can be found in the Khumbu Icefall, approaching the bergschrund below the Lhotse face, and ascending the Lhotse face itself. The scale is incredible, and puts things in some perspective. I have spent hours scanning around, and made some great desktop images!

    Everest panning image Follow this to a link for the panning image of Everest, and be sure to use FULLSCREEN 🙂

    • cremnomaniac
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I should add that the website hosting this incredible image is primarily dedicated to raising awareness of global warming and the dramatic effect it is having on Himalayan glaciers.

      The site is http://more.glacierworks.org/

      GlacierWorks is a non-profit organization that vividly illustrates the changes to Himalayan glaciers through art, science, and adventure. Since 2007, GlacierWorks has undertaken twelve expeditions to document the current state of the glaciers, retracing the steps of pioneering mountain photographers in order to capture new images that precisely match the early photographic records. Over the past five years, they have recorded losses and changes to glaciers that are inaccessible to all but the most skilled climbers.

  16. Maurice Isserman
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry:

    Haven’t read your blog before, but this entry was forwarded to me by the Hamilton College p.r. folks, and I think I’ll become a regular reader. Thanks for the kind words about Fallen Giants.

    • Posted November 17, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      For those who haven’t read carefully, Maurice is one of the authors of this great book. For Maurice, thanks for commenting, and thanks even more for such a wonderful history. It makes me want to go back.

      • gravityfly
        Posted November 17, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        Great to hear from the author himself! I’m definitely reading this book, sir.

  17. Posted November 17, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    May appreciate this shot that I took of Mount Rainier while on top of Mount Burroughs:


    I was quite struck by how superbly the colors of the hiker’s umbrella matched the colors of the glaciers on the mountain, the sun, and sky. Was an incredible day.

  18. aspidoscelis
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    IMO, mountains are interesting insofar as they are habitats for plants. So once you’re up in the realm of glaciers and whatnot, what’s the point? Just a sterile pile of rock and ice. 🙂

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted November 17, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      The best mountaineering book, therefore, is “Plant Hunters In The Andes”, Thomas Harper Goodspeed.

    • Posted November 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I hate to admit it, especially after this wonderful post, but I have devolved into the same attitude. Once the biology runs out, it gets a lot less interesting up there.

      • cremnomaniac
        Posted November 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        It baffles to read posts that declare such a limited sense of the mountain experience. I understand that each individual has preferences, but to miss the experience (as expressed by JC) of awe and wonder that mountains, great mountains, provide mystifies me.

        I might also add that life is abundant at the most desperate elevations (as I hope you know), like Yellow-bellied marmots on the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,496ft) to “Euophrys omnisuperstes, a minute black jumping spider, has been found at elevations as high as 6,700 metres (22,000 ft)”(from Wikipedia).

        I can get the same sense of awe sitting in the middle of Death Valley, looks lifeless, but far from it.


        • aspidoscelis
          Posted November 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Death Valley is a tropical rainforest compared to Everest. 🙂

          I like biodiversity. I prefer to visit places that combine lots of biodiversity with, you know, not feeling like you’re going to die. Everest doesn’t fulfill either of these criteria so, in my worldview, it is a pretty backdrop and that’s it. Most parking lots are more biologically interesting and amenable to human existence, if not as pretty.

  19. ChrisK
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just finished reading Ed Viester’s latest book on Everest. His previous books have been about Annapurna and K2. I love how he alternates chapters about his personal experiences on each mountain with the history of the previous expeditions (Herzog’s count of Annapurna was what fueled his interest in mountaineering).

  20. David Lloyd
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    I love mountains so thanks for the book recommendations Gerry. I intend to buy the three books you endorsed.

    I am spending a week at Aoraki-Mt Cook in early December tramping and taking photographs. This is the area that Sir Ed Hilary learnt the techniques he used for his successful ascent of Mt Everest with Sherpa Tensing Norgay.

    A good movie has just been released about the first successful ascent of Mt Everest. “Beyond the Edge”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md-EHh2mf_w, is a docudrama about the ascent. I went to the 3D version on Saturday and it was brilliant. I don’t know if the movie has been released in the U.S. but it is well worth seeing for anyone who loves mountains.

  21. Jay Lonner
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for the post. I share your love of the mountains, and once you get around to converting your slides to an ephoto format I hope you post them here.

    I actually met Tom Hornbein a few times when I was a student at the University of Washington in the late 90’s. He’s the former department chair in anesthesiology (my specialty) and he gave a lecture in acid-base physiology during my 2nd year of medical school. I’ve also seen him give a non-medical talk about his ascent of Everest through The Mountaineers in Seattle. He’s a very approachable and self-effacing man, and I look forward to reading more about his remarkable accomplishment climbing Everest via the West Ridge.

    I’m troubled by the industry has sprung up around climbing Everest, both in terms of lives lost and the ecological impact of all the garbage left behind by climbers. Like you, being in the mountains is about the closest I have come to having a sense of the transcendant, and I like to think of places like the Himalaya as almost sacred, and perhaps best appreciated from a respectful distance.

    Jay Lonner
    Bellingham, WA

  22. Patricia Stambor
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    “Nanda Devi – The Tragic Expedition” by John Roskelly. Perhaps one of the most honest and profound psychological accounts of what really happened on Nanda Devi to Devi – and who was really responsible for her death.

  23. Kevin
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Mountaineers, like astronauts can be admired. Like exploration into space or to great depths of the ocean, I think these things should be done, but not by me. Thankfully there are people who like to do these things and, in general, make humanity better for going going somewhere it had not gone before.

  24. Diane G.
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating and moving post, pictures, and comments.

  25. Joe
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this wonderful review/recommendation; also good to know Viesturs’ new Everest book is out; two more for my reading list.
    I recommend (from wikipedia):”In October 2006, Viesturs published No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the Worlds 14 Highest Peaks, an autobiography that documented his 16-year journey summitting all fourteen eight-thousanders.” All done without bottled oxygen.
    Also recommend Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] A superb book on mountaineering (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

%d bloggers like this: