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The Best Mountain Book Ever Written

At Banff, an "irresponsible" panel, expected to flop, becomes a hit


Well, they asked for it, proposing a panel with such an ex cathedra title as "The Best Mountain Book Ever Written." So it wasn’t surprising when Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist and the panel’s moderator, launched the discussion by calling it “a utopian and elusive project.” Or when Bernadette MacDonald, whose recent book about the great Polish Himalayan mountaineers, Freedom Climbers, won multiple awards, chimed in: “It is irresponsible of us to do this.”

But then all five panelists eagerly rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The brilliant stroke was that none of the five was privy to the others’ choices beforehand. I was afraid that the panel was going to feel the need to wrangle the competition down to a single winner, leaving masterpieces strewn by the wayside, but no such mayhem ensued. Instead, each contributor named five or even eight favorite candidates, and only reluctantly bestowed a gold medal for number one.

Harry Vandervlist, the Canadian literature professor, turned his presentation into show-and-tell, pulling dog-eared paperbacks out of his daypack, starting with Dante’s Purgatorio (Wow, I thought, just which route did Dante and Vergil put up, and who led the crux pitch through the Gluttonous band into the Lustful summit plateau?) and ending, yep, with Wade Davis’s Into the Silence.

By the time the dust had settled after an hour and a half, we had a stellar reading list of no fewer than 35 excellent mountain books, some of which I’d never heard of (they happened to be written by Canadian authors). Only one of the 35 was a novel: James Salter’s Solo Faces, nominated by MacDonald. “Where is the great mountaineering novel?” Ives wondered out loud, prompting Canadian journalist Jon Popowich to scold the youngsters in the audience: “Hey, all of you, stop blogging and sit down and write the great North American climbing novel.”

In the audience, prepared to disapprove of the whole silly exercise, I found myself won over by each panelist’s thoughtful rationale as to how he or she devised a list of finalists. (Immodesty compels me to admit that I was mollified by three of the dignitaries nominating my own The Mountain of My Fear.) Stephen Venables, the crack British mountaineer and a writer who has won both the grand prize at Banff and England’s top prize, the Boardman-Tasker award, declared that he had restricted his choices to firsthand accounts of climbs. His hero was H. W. Tilman—“the Jane Austen of mountaineering literature,” as Venables dubbed him—and if he had to choose a single book, he’d settle on The Ascent of Nanda Devi, with its immortal line as Tilman and Noel Odell stood on the summit: “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.”

The debate sent my memory winging back to 2004, when National Geographic Adventure decided to proclaim the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. As a contributing editor, I tried to talk the staff out of their folly, and then grew downright indignant when I learned that the magazine was determined not only to find those hundred books but to rank them from one to 100. But when I realized that the gang was not about to relent, I plunged into the fray, sending little-known classics their way and vetoing impostors. And I felt a weird satisfaction when Adventure bestowed its highest honor on Apsley Cherry-Garrad’s The Worst Journey in the World, the single book that, if I had to choose, would be my own top pick.

I had expected that the two books that would dominate the Banff panel would be Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—far and away the two best-selling, most influential mountain books ever written. But only Geoff Powter, editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal and longtime Banff moderator, chose Annapurna, and not one of the five panelists had Into Thin Air on his or her short list. During the Q & A, I asked why not. Venables explained that Krakauer’s account was not the narrative of a great climb but rather of a “colossal cock-up.” Powter mused, “Yes, Into Thin Air is a great book, and it’s so well-written, but it’s kind of the Dragon Tattoo of mountaineering literature.” (This aside brought the house down.)

What surprised me most was the absence of agreement among the panelists. Only three books—classics all—claimed the barest preponderance among the five sages’ lists: Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, Gaston Rébuffat’s Starlight and Storm, and Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless. As a young beginning climber, I had read all three and been profoundly inspired by them—as well as by Herzog’s Annapurna.

In 1974, writing for Ascent, I had declared Conquistadors of the Useless the finest climbing autobiography ever written. Thirty-eight years later, I see no reason to revise that judgment. And in the days leading up to Banff, as I pondered the “utopian project” the panel had foolishly undertaken, I found myself wondering which book I would have chosen, had I been on the panel. My thoughts kept circling back to Terray.

Since the age of twenty, the man had been a personal hero of mine, along with his inseparable partner, Louis Lachenal. In college, my best friend Don Jensen and I so identified with the legendary French duo that we nicknamed each other “Louis” and “Lionel.”

More than three decades later, as I poked around France researching a book I called True Summit—a debunking of Herzog’s Annapurna as a dishonest, semi-fictionalized account of the breakthrough 1950 ascent of the first 8,000-meter peak ever climbed—I declared my esteem for Les Conquérants de l’Inutile (Terray’s original title) to many of the climbing cognoscenti in Paris and Chamonix. In return, some of them shattered my hero-worship.

Terray didn’t write his own book, several experts insisted. It was ghost-written by an editor named Roger Nimier. “Terray was a bit of a country bumpkin,” Françoise Rébuffat, Gaston’s widow, told me. “His writing, even in his letters, was only semiliterate.”

Terray had also been the boyhood hero of my French editor and climbing pal, Michel Guérin. And Michel knew Terray’s widow, Marianne, well. In 1965, Terray had been killed in a long fall from a moderate climb in the Vercors. The attic of his house in Grenoble had been locked up and left to gather dust ever since. Thirty-four years after the fatal accident, Michel and I entered the attic with a key Marianne had lent us. We searched for relics from the great man as if excavating a prehistoric site.

There was clutter everywhere. Speckled mirrors, a broken stereopticon, a crumbling bust of Beethoven. Unpaid bills addressed to Terray’s father, who had only grudgingly allowed his son to climb. Faded photos of Terray’s mother riding a horse in Brazil. We were about to leave when Michel found a bulging cardboard folder, labeled “COURSES EXPLOR BRESIL ATEURS.” We opened it to find a manuscript.

“My God,” said Michel. “That’s Terray’s handwriting.” We read on and on. “It’s the manuscript of Les Conquérants,” Michel whispered. Later we compared it to the published text. Not a word was different. So much for Roger Nimier.

We retrieved the manuscript and delivered it to Marianne, who in 1999 still talked to her dead husband every day, and prayed to him when things went wrong. I am no literary sleuth, but that moment in the attic in Grenoble was the most thrilling historiographical discovery I ever hope to make.

This November, I walked out of the Banff panel oddly exhilarated. There is, of course, no definitive greatest anything all-time, not even Tiger Woods or Babe Ruth. But as I left, I promised myself I’d reread Tilman and Rébuffat and Salter. And check out Gabrielle Roy and Mary Schaffer Warren—even if they were Canadian.

The Top Picks:

From Jon Popowich
Starlight and Storm by Gaston Rébuffat
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer
Beyond the Mountain by Steve House
The Seventh Grade by Reinhold Messner
A Hunter of Peace/Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T.S. Schäffer-Warren
Song of the Mountain by Gustavo Brillembourg

From Stephen Venables
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
That Untravelled World by Eric Shipton
One Man's Mountains by Tom Patey
Summits and Secrets by Kurt Diemberger
Sacred Summits by Peter Boardman
Thin Air by Greg Child

From Bernadette McDonald
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
Deep Play by Paul Pritchard
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Postcards from the Ledge by Greg Child
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by Maria Coffey
K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain by Jim Curran
Solo Faces by James Salter
Learning to Breathe by Andy Cave

From Geoff Powter
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
And One for the Crow by John Redhead
Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
The Totem Pole by Paul Pritchard
A Slender Thread by Stephen Venables
In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Galen Rowell
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

From Harry Vandervlist
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek by Sid Marty
Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald
The Hidden Mountain / La Montagne Secrète by Gabrielle Roy
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Purgatorio by Dante

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