Yukio Mishima – Sun and Steel
In June 2000, whilst climbing Denali - North America's highest mountain – by perhaps its hardest route – the Slovak Direct – Steve House, Mark Twight and Scott Backes experienced just such a dissolution of individuality. First climbed in 1984 over eleven days, the trio made the third ascent in a continuous single push of just sixty hours. To do so required them not only to surrender their egos, but to push to a place where survival, not success, became their only driving force.
For Twight and Backes, it was the culmination of their alpine careers. For House, ten years their junior, it was a beginning. Although a brilliant individual climber, and exceptional soloist, he came to understand the potential of the perfect team; how much stronger they could become than the sum of their parts. It is the search for such partnerships, and the forging or failure of them in extremis, that is at the core of Beyond The Mountain.
In the ten years since the Slovak direct, House has made a series of climbs - including an alpine-style ascent of Nanga Parbat's Rupal face – that have seen him acknowledged as perhaps the best mountaineer in the world. Along the way we follow the journey that has made him; his gap year in Slovenia, climbs in Alaska, Canada, Pakistan, through the tragic deaths of several friends, and his struggles to relate to partners outside climbing.
As such the book treads familiar territory; what sets it apart is both the magnitude of House's achievements and the quality of his writing. The understatement and light humour familiar to British readers is absent, instead House's writing reflects his climbing; well-crafted, deeply honest, and serious. Error and fortune are dealt with equally, but most impressively perhaps he manages to convey both difficulty and his own climbing mastery without arrogance, or resorting to flippancy. Whilst the key events are in loose order, the narrative is rarely linear. Some may find the frequent leaps in time disorientating, though the technique works well enough for the most part, mirroring the jumbled snapshots our memories hold, and the ways in which motivation may grow. Elsewhere, as with the Nanga Parbat climb which dominates the book, it powerfully allows House to paint both summit and safe return with deservedly equal triumph.
“This is not only a brilliant book, it is an important one, and deserves to be widely read.”
Throughout House considers carefully the worth of his climbs. They have shaped the path of his life, but for what? “I wonder if I am running away, or doing what is necessary to achieve something great, to transcend? One question nags: How will I know the difference?” Like Mishima, he seeks proof of his existence through pushing his limits. On Nanga Parbat he almost goes too far, drugged by altitude and summit fever, but is saved, against his wishes, by his partner. His conclusions are tentative, but ultimately, he says, “The sum of our actions is zero”. We go up to come down, and “in the instant I achieve my objective, and discover my true self, both are lost”. But this is not nihilism; House knows “I am most connected the moment I minimise my contact with the earth”. To do so we only have to engage – “to go simply, and to climb well”. Action is his message, and “success is found in the process”.
It was no surprise then that Beyond The Mountain won the 2009 Boardman Tasker award*.
In the award's twenty-five years perhaps no other book has so closely matched both Pete and Joe's literary skills, and their vision of daring, fast-and-light alpinism. This is not only a brilliant book, it is an important one, and deserves to be widely read.
*Except perhaps to runner-up Jerry Moffatt, who quipped in an interview with Rock & Ice; “it's always a great surprise to me not to win, being a winner and all”.
Beyond the Mountain was first published by Patagonia. Only two hundred or so, rather expensive hardback copies made it over to the UK, and were soon sold. Thankfully, since the book won the Boardman-Tasker award, Vertebrate Publishing have issued a UK paperback edition (and at half the price of the original!).
More Info: v-outdoor.co.uk
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