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Blind Descent by James M. TaborBlind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, James M. Tabor (Random House 2010)

When men climb mountains, they confront their own minds. There are psychological barriers to conquer as much as physical ones: fear, uncertainty, mental fatigue. But all those barriers, psychological and physical, are bigger in caving – and particularly in the caving described in this book. It’s about the quest to explore super-caves, the deepest and most dangerous places on earth.

As a result, they’re also the most challenging. Climbing a mountain doesn’t cut you off from the sun, stars and sky or from easy communication with the rest of the world. Super-caving does and that isolation alone is difficult to endure as days underground stretch into weeks and months. It isn’t alone, of course: there are also wet, cold, dirt and constant danger down there. Sometimes deafening noise too, as underground rivers pour over waterfalls or churn through huge tunnels. But super-caving won’t make you famous: it isn’t as photogenic as mountaineering and the two great cavers discussed here, the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk and the American Bill Stone, aren’t household names.

Perhaps they never wanted to be. Mountaineers move towards the sun, higher and higher into the light. Cavers move away from the sun, deeper and deeper into the dark. It would be interesting to compare the psychology of the two groups. Some people belong to both, of course, and Tabor points out that exploring a super-cave is like climbing Everest in reverse. Except that Everest doesn’t drown people. Super-caves do, because to explore them cavers often have to don scuba-gear and swim through flooded tunnels and highly dangerous sumps. In that setting, mistakes and accidents that mean little in open water often become deadly. Like motorcyclists and heroin-addicts, cave-divers will tend to know a lot of people who died young.

And fear of dying can cause it: it’s easy to panic when the risks are so high and the pressures so great. Cave-diving is one of the biggest psychological challenges that a human being can face. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone beat the odds, but only one of them could win the race Tabor describes here: reaching the lowest point on earth. Stone sought it in Mexico, Klimchouk in the Republic of Georgia. According to Tabor, Klimchouk won the race, but I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of that. The highest point on earth is easy to identify, but how can anyone be sure where the lowest point is?

Geoscopes may eventually answer that question, but by the time we can peer deep into the earth using instruments, the depth-record set by Klimchouk’s expedition – 6,825 feet deep in Krubera Super-Cave – may have been far surpassed by a subterrene, or earth-invading equivalent of a submarine. If that happens, earth-explorers will face a new problem: not cold, but heat. Rocks are still solid at 6,825 feet and we still know very little about molten depths of the earth. That’s why earthquakes are still impossible to predict. Klimchouk and Stone haven’t made great advances in geology, but they wanted to be seen as scientist-explorers, not as explorer-adventurers.

They found adventure all the same and Tabor points out that they stand in the tradition of men like Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. That tradition is coming to an end: up till now, technology has assisted minds and muscles. In future, it will re-shape them. Humans will turn into superhumans. And perhaps that will mean the end of exploration and adventure. Blind Descent may be a record of one of the last great triumphs of the old human race. If so, it’s an appropriate record: intelligent, well-written and vivid. There are some breathlessness and journalistic licence too, but Blind Descent is a good book about great feats.

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Extreme Eiger by Peter and Leni GillmanExtreme Eiger: The Race to Climb the Direct Route up the North Face of the Eiger, Peter and Leni Gillman, with Jochen Hemmleb (Simon & Schuster 2015)

A book that’s easy to read about a climb that’s hard to imagine: the north face of the Eiger by the direttissima, the most direct route. That first attempt in 1966 was like taking the Ogre by his throat and daring him to bite. For John Harlin, the “blond Greek god” who led the English-speaking half of the climb, the dare didn’t come off. He died when a rope snapped and he fell hundreds of feet to his death.

For the other climbers, the tragedy either strengthened or shattered their resolve. Harlin’s team had consisted of Layton Kor, a fellow American, and the Scot Dougal Haston. Kor abandoned the climb; Haston joined forces with the larger German team also making the attempt. He made it to the top, but he too could easily have died. In mountaineering, skill is no guarantee of survival. Nothing is a guarantee: you need luck when you pit yourself against stone, snow and ice. Haston’s luck ran out in 1977, when he was killed by an avalanche while skiing.

He was only thirty-six, but he had taken a lot out of his time on earth. When you risk your life, you experience it more intensely. On level ground, fetching a portable stove that’s a hundred metres off isn’t a memorable event. Half-way up a mountain, it can be very memorable:

Their trials were not over. So far they had brought over two rucksacks, which meant that two were at the far end of the 100-metre traverse. The missing equipment included their stove. Neither [Chris] Bonington nor Kor appeared keen to fetch it. Bonington pointed out that he was there to take photographs; Kor said his feet were cold and he was worried about frostbite. Without saying a word, Haston departed into the snowstorm with the one functioning head torch. (ch. 10, “Parallel Lines”, pg. 202)

Next comes one of the moments that will make you hold your breath: Haston “lost his footing and slid on his back towards the drop above the second icefield, only too aware how insecure the rope anchors were.” The ropes held and he made it back with the stove:

He had been gone for more than an hour and his colleagues’ relief was clear when he arrived. He later described the traverse as the wildest he had ever done, all the more memorable for taking place on the North Face of the Eiger in darkness and a storm. ‘As an experience it was total.’ (Ibid.)

If Chris Bonington declined to take a risk over a stove, he took big risks elsewhere. He was indeed only there to take photographs, but he ended up leading part of the climb when Kor, expert on rock but inexperienced with ice, was defeated by an icy gully leading to the top of the Central Pillar. Bonington took over, made good progress and then got worried: the “veneer of ice” became “ever thinner” and he “imagined it shearing away, most likely carrying both him and Kor to the bottom of the face” (ch. 12, “The Turning Point”, pg. 232). His judgment in 2014 was: “It is the hairiest thing I have ever done.” (pg. 233)

Peter Gilman covered the climb in 1966 for the Daily Telegraph, but has re-interviewed the surviving members of both teams for this re-assessment of one of the most famous stories in mountaineering. Harlin is still a controversial figure. “Complex” is one way of summing him up. He was a poseur and fantasist, but he could inspire love, loyalty and respect too. Not in Don Whillans, though. The Mancunian maestro thought Harlin was a bullshitter.

Whillans also had a complex personality. Alcoholics often do. He doesn’t play much part in this book, but as one of the great figures of post-war mountaineering it’s appropriate that he appears. The war itself has an important part, because it was one of the obstacles that the German team had to overcome. Men like Peter Haag, Jörg Lehne and Günther Strobel were too young to have fought in the war, but they all experienced the poverty that followed Germany’s defeat. Mountaineering was not the cheapest or safest sport and by the time they set out to challenge the Eiger they had all proved their dedication and determination.

And while they were the bigger team, they also had the poorer equipment. Not that anyone in 1966 had good equipment by today’s standards: “The climbing equipment historians Mike Parsons and Mary Rose offered a startling metaphor for the comparison between the two eras: it was as if the 1966 climbers were in a ‘bare-knuckle fight’.” (ch. 8, “The Opposition Has Started”, pg. 154) Clothing got wet and didn’t dry; ice axes and boots were primitive; ropes frayed and broke. The direttissima still isn’t easy, but it was a lot harder in 1966.

There was also the psychological barrier: it had never been done before. Harlin hadn’t expected competition, but his own smaller team might not have succeeded without German help, even if he had survived. But “German” isn’t the most exact word. Apart from Lehne, Haag and Co were from the distinct region of Swabia, whose inhabitants were typecast by the rest of Germany as “penny-pinching Scrooges who needed to get a life”. In response:

They are given to a self-deprecating humour that mocks the stereotypes, referring to Swabian intelligence, Swabian humour and Swabian workmanship. They delight in confusing non-Swabians with the formulation ‘Janoi’, which means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. In 2009 the world ‘Muggeseggele’ was chosen by a group of Stuttgart newspaper readers as the most beautiful Swabian word. It denotes a tiny unit of measurement and means, literally, the scrotum of a male housefly. (ch. 7, “The Unknowns”, pg. 123)

There is much more than mountaineering in this book: it’s about a confrontation not just between men and mountain, but between different cultures, nationalities and personalities. And it follows the climbers not just up the Eiger, but into the rest of their lives, which were sometimes cut short. Like bikers and drug-addicts, mountaineers tend to know a lot of people who died young.

Haston died young and so did some of the German team, pursuing the same thing: adventure in high places. The Nordwand – “north wall” – of the Eiger has been the scene of some of the greatest adventures of all and has claimed more than its share of young lives. As the Gillmans explain, Eiger doesn’t really mean “Ogre” in German (pg. 20), but the urban legend is easy to understand. The Eiger can fling you or freeze you to death. It never sleeps and never gives up and the Mordwand – “murder wall” – was still trying to kill Dougal Haston during the last few metres of the climb:

Below him, Hupfauer and Votteler were watching in trepidation, as aware as Haston that they had only a poor belay and one slip by Haston could kill them all. ‘He scraped his way up,’ Votteler said in 2014. ‘It was more than a masterpiece.’ (pg. 306)

By then, Haston didn’t have an “ice axe or functioning crampons”, and, to reach a rope, he had to set up on a “tension traverse” by driving an ice dagger into hard ice. As he himself put it in his book Eiger Direct, co-written with Peter Gillman, it was “Three lives on an inch of metal.”

Life itself is like climbing a mountain and we all fall off in the end. Mountaineers risk falling off sooner than most, but they play with high stakes for great rewards. This is a book about extraordinary men, extraordinary experiences and an extraordinary achievement. If you want to understand mountains and the men who challenge them, it’s an excellent place to start.

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Front cover of The Swiss Alps by Kev Reynolds

The Swiss Alps, Kev Reynolds (Cicerone, World Mountain Range series, 2012)

The Matterhorn is probably the most photogenic mountain in the world. That’s why it sits on the front cover of this book, a giant fang of icy black rock biting at the blue palate of heaven. It looks fearsome and formidable, eager to kill anyone who challenges its freezing heights. But its looks are deceptive. The Swiss Alps offer much more dangerous climbs, like the Eigerwand, or north face of the Eiger:

Between August 1935 and June 1938, four separate attempts by German, Austrian and Italian climbers were made to scale the Eigerwand, resulting in no less than eight casualties. The deaths brought the mountain a savage notoriety which resulted in a decree by the Swiss government that banned all climbing on the wall. (ch. 5, sec. 8, “The Bernese Alps: Grindelwald and the Lütschental”, pg. 331-2)

The Eiger is probably the world’s third-most famous mountain, after Everest and the Matterhorn. Human beings have been gazing in awe at all three for millennia, but began trying to climb them only in the past two centuries. That’s interesting both historically and culturally. Psychologically too: it took serious courage to challenge the Eigerwand and climbers didn’t let the ban stop them trying. The first ascent was finally made by two Austrians and two Germans, who spent four days on freezing, avalanche-prone vertical rock to reach the summit on 24th July, 1938: “As Walt Unsworth says in Hold the Heights, ‘It was a breakthrough as profound as the first ascent of the Matterhorn had been or the Brenva Spur but much more wide-reaching because it became the cornerstone of all modern mountaineering.’” (pg. 332) This book is full of interesting mountain-lore and mountain-history like that, devoting more than 400 pages to almost every aspect of climbing and tramping in the Swiss Alps. That’s a lot of orology (Greek oros, mountain), but it raises an interesting question about biology (Greek bios, life). Why is climbing mountains so important to human beings? Or rather, why is it so important to white male Europeans? That group has dominated mountaineering since pioneering it in the nineteenth century.

The Englishman Edward Whymper started things with a bang in 1865, when he was the first to climb the Matterhorn. The ascent was more important psychologically than orologically: as pointed out above, the Matterhorn looks more formidable than it is. If Whymper had climbed a tougher mountain that looked easier, his feat wouldn’t have been so widely reported or been so inspiring to others. There’s a lot of mens in conquest of a mons: it’s mind over matter in a particularly spectacular and satisfying way. But that mens has had particular characteristics: it’s been overwhelmingly white, male and European. Recall that the Eigerwand was first climbed by Austrians and Germans. A year later, members of the same demonic demographic would set out on a different kind of conquest and start the Second World War. Was that a coincidence? I don’t think it was. I think there’s a connexion between war and mountaineering, because both are about power, will, and domination. Austrians, Germans, and Italians all risked death and mutilation to challenge the Eigerwand, and those races were part of the Axis during the war. So were the Japanese, another pale-skinned race with wilful and war-like traditions, and the Japanese have been important in modern mountaineering too. It’s a Faustian endeavour: climbers seek to challenge and conquer nature, to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, to win fame and glory or die in the attempt.

Even easy mountains can kill you and even the most skilful climbers can die there. You don’t just push your mind and body in climbing: you push your luck. Ropes broke a lot in the early days; rocks fall a lot nowadays:

When Whymper was here the Matterhorn still had “a cordon drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no further”. Today Zermatt [the district of the Matterhorn] is the epitome of Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe. And yet, despite it all, even in the height of summer it remains possible to find solitude amidst impeccable scenery, and one can still climb routes on the most popular of peaks without the fear of being bombarded by rocks dislodged by other parties above, and experience again the mystique that made the pioneers gasp in awe. Zermatt may be bursting at the seams, its slopes tunnelled through and laced with cableways, but all is not yet lost. (ch. 2, sec. 10, “The Mattertal”, pg. 157)

Rocks also fall because of “glacial recession”: the famous White Spider, an arachnoid snow-patch near the top of the Eigerwand, disappeared in “the hot summer of 2003… and the ice-fields were reduced to gravel, making it even more dangerous than normal” (pg. 332). Global warming is at work in the Alps, you see, but that may be another way white male Europeans have made their mark on the world. Mountaineering is connected, sometimes literally, to their invention of and continuing domination of science and technology, with strong support from other pale-skinned, highly intelligent groups like the Chinese and Japanese. While white males like Edward Whymper were climbing literal peaks in the nineteenth century, white males like Faraday and Darwin were climbing metaphorical ones, seeking to conquer nature through observation and reason. It’s all connected and it’s no coincidence that the first human being to set foot on the moon was a white male. After scaling the heights of the earth and plumbing the depths of the ocean, white males needed a new challenge and found it in outer space. This book isn’t a conscious celebration of the white male’s Faustian quest, but the evil-intentioned can certainly read it that way. But decent people will enjoy it too. There’s not just orology, hydrology, and climatology here: you’ll also find linguistics and Swiss history:

Valle di Bosco is shorter than its neighbour, and at 1503m its only true village, Bosco Gurin, is the highest in Ticino. Settled in the 13th century by German-speaking Walsters from the upper Rhône valley, the inhabitants today still speak a form of Schwyzerdütsch [Swiss German], rather than Italian. (ch. 3, sec. 6, “Lepontine and Adula Alps: Valle Maggia and Its Tributaries”, pg. 211)

If you write about the Swiss Alps, you also have to write about Switzerland, and Switzerland is an interesting place. One interesting thing is its demographics, which means that its genetics will be interesting too. Living among mountains has effects on the body and brain, so Swiss geography has been written into Swiss genomes, as genetics is now discovering. But it’s interesting that the Swiss didn’t pioneer climbing in the Swiss Alps. Brits did, and Britain isn’t rich in mountains. Brits had to seek them out, first in Europe, later in the Himalayas, where you can find the most dangerous climbs and the most awe-inspiring landscapes. But Switzerland can sound Himalayan too:

Rising steeply from a riot of sub-tropical vegetation, where ferns grow as high as man’s shoulder, to a headwall of granite teeth, soaring slab walls and a necklace of scree and glacial moraine, Bondasca’s reputation is assured. The “flamelike” Scioras, Pizzi Gemelli, Cengalo and Badile are compelling features in Christian Klucker’s famous “land of granite”, where several chapters of Alpine history were written: the unhappy but productive partnership in the 1890s of Klucker and the Russian Anton von Rydzewski; the inspired leadership of Riccardo Cassin on the first tragic ascent of Piz Badile’s NE face over three days in 1937; Rébuffet’s account (in Starlight and Storm) of the second ascent of the wall 11 years later; and Herman Buhl’s astonishing 4½hr solo climb of the same route in 1951 – all these have given the valley a romantic appeal, and made it a magnet not only for climbers of ambition, but for all who love wild and uncompromising landscapes. (ch. 4, sec. 3, “Bernina, Bregaglia and Albula Alps: Val Bregaglia”, pg. 261)

This book should be a magnet for anyone interested in men, minds, and mountains. It’s got an interesting text, attractive photographs, and easy-to-follow maps. And, as a further recommendation, it’s published by a small company called Cicerone based in Milnethorpe in Cumbria. Cicerone is Italian for “tourist-guide” and is derived from Cicero, the Latin orator who wrote about the Faustian feats of ancient Rome. Two millennia later, Kev Reynolds is another white male writing about further Faustian feats. There’s a satisfying symmetry there, as there is in the location of the publisher: Milnethorpe is a small place, Switzerland is a small country. There’s a satisfying a-symmetry in mountains, but their visual appeal is still mathematical. Like the clouds that float above them and the trees (and ferns) that grow on them, mountains are fractals, or shapes in which the parts reflect the whole. You don’t have to see the maths to savour books like this, but I think it helps. Maths is inseparable from mountains, whether you recognize it or not. So are white men. Vivant Alpes, vivant Albi!

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