Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing has been shortlisted for this years' Boardman-Tasker Prize. The winner is to be announced at this years' Kendal Mountain Festival. See the full shortlist at this UKClimbing.com News report Boardman Tasker Prize - The 2010 Shortlist
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Britain has a rich climbing literary tradition. Climbers and mountaineers love writing about what they have done, and we love reading about their adventures. If you were to try and recommend, perhaps to a new climber, just one book that would give them an overview of our history and a starting point to explore the hundreds of 'autobiographies, biographies, histories, memoirs and journals published since mountaineering's earliest days', you would be hard pressed to do so. This is what Simon Thompson with his book, Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing has attempted to do. Ed Douglas takes a critical look.
'History,' as Napoleon once said, 'is a myth that men agree to believe.' Gosh, that applies to climbing. We love our stories, the famous anecdotes that get handed down through the generations. They have a kind of totemic symbolism that captures what the game is all about – or what we'd like it to be. The question is, are they true? And does it matter if they're not?
Siegfried Herford and George Mallory at Pen y Pass, December 1913
Geoffrey Winthrop Young
© Alpine Club Photo Library
The working-class hero Joe Brown. © B.Manton
Simon Thompson's new history of British climbing Unjustifiable Risk? has all the great yarns. He says at the outset, quoting Flaubert, that writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful, and labouring through his bibliography I can sympathise. The philosopher Daniel Dennett said that a writer is just a library's way of making new books, and Thompson might agree, having been at the mercy of his gigantic collection of climbing literature.
What he hasn't done is any original research. We have instead a précis of many, perhaps most of the autobiographies, biographies, histories, memoirs and journals published since mountaineering's earliest days. If you've never read any climbing history before and you're looking for a snappy introduction that covers all the bases, then this is the book for you.
Thompson writes crisply, as you might expect from someone who runs ginormous companies for a living, and cracks through everything at a brisk pace. Imagine if the Economist wrote a climbing history and you'll have it about right. He mixes short sketches of the principal players, some shrewdly concise, others, like that of Leslie Stephen, less so, with social history and reports of significant ascents. The account really sings when he describes an individual's climbing style, as he does with Colin Kirkus.
The problem with only drawing on published sources is this: when we follow a mountain path laid down by all those who have gone before, we're presented with one view of things. Strike out on our own, however, and we see things from a fresh perspective, one that might reveal hidden crevasses or alternative routes. This, I think, is the fundamental problem that lies at the root of Thompson's interpretation.
His paradigm is a familiar one, perhaps too familiar. Posh and eccentric Englishmen with time to kill and enthused by a new appreciation for mountain landscapes invent a new sport, climb everything in sight, get a little complacent, fight a world war which kills a large number of them, get more complacent and resent the first stirrings of climbing's popular appeal, fight another war, get supplanted by the working classes, who in turn get overtaken by university students before growing consumerism allows a small cadre of professionals to take over. That's it, I think, in a nutshell.
The problem is that the published record can distort things. Most books on mountaineering are about Everest. True, Everest was important, but surely the time has come to take a broader view, because the picture behind the obscuring mass of Chomolungma is fascinating. First example: while we have yet another rehash of the imperialist attempts on the Big E between the wars, there is absolutely no mention of the 1938 Masherbrum expedition, when a small team making the first attempt almost reached the summit of this stunning peak of 7,821m. (It also cost Robin Hodgkin, one of the great figures of pre-war climbing his fingers and toes. He isn't mentioned either.)
Dougal Haston arriving at the summit of Everest © Doug Scott
It's not surprising, perhaps, that Thompson ignores it, because it's not mentioned in Walt Unsworth's Hold the Heights, or in a more recent history, Fallen Giants. Although it is in Abode of Snow, Kenneth Mason's now elderly Himalayan overview. Why avoid what was in many ways a landmark British effort? Thompson makes great play of the fact that the toffs at the Alpine Club were hopelessly out of touch by the 1930s – and many of them certainly were – but the truth is more complicated. There were several influential climbers – some of them from the hateful upper-middle classes – whose ethical position was very similar to that of Thompson's heroes in the late 1970s. In fact, there never was a break in lightweight Himalayan climbing, as Thompson insists.
Second example: the ascent of Everest in 1953 was unquestionably a throwback to the 1930s, and the Commonwealth team were certainly not in the premier league of world climbers, but it's wrong to suggest as Thompson does that it was simply good logistics and equipment that got Hillary and Tenzing to the top.
More frustrating is the glancing coverage he gives to the ascent of Kangchenjunga two years later, except to acknowledge the working-class hero Joe Brown for injecting some useful fresh blood. It still amazes me that proper regard isn't paid this outstanding effort. The team's route was hardly known, fraught with difficulties and they were only there to reconnoitre.
Being in his late 40s, it's perhaps hardly surprising that Thompson regards the late 1970s and early 1980s as a golden age in British climbing. I'm sure he's right, though. Looking at the depth of genuinely world-class talent and the range of important ascents they made, few would disagree. But the price paid was very heavy. With such a strong cohort encouraging each other on, it's not surprising that so many lives were lost. Thompson rightly mocks Edward Strutt for harrumphing while German and Austrian climbers surged ahead between the wars, but they paid an even heavier price in terms of lives lost.
I don't think Thompson ever truly gets to grips with what makes a great climber. He's very keen on grades, which didn't really mean much before the mid 1970s, and uses them to make awkward comparisons between different eras. Obviously, technical ability is important, but there's more to the sport than raw performance. British climbing has always prized exploration ahead of raw performance, and I think continues to do so. Although he does judge Mick Fowler's career thoughtfully, pointing out how Fowler swapped technical brilliance for a more fully realised way of climbing far richer than if he'd stayed on the dole in Sheffield.
Joe Tasker and Don Whillans at the BMC Buxton Conference in 1982 © Brian Cropper
But too often he reaches for the well-worn, clichéd version of this long and complex story. The Whillans' gags get trotted out approvingly, but they're wearing thin these days. Climbing in the 1970s, when Whillans' influence was at its greatest, was often a misogynist, intolerant place – it seems to me. But I guess that deadpan humour is one of the myths we agree on.
Thompson is generally very good on setting the social scene for each phase of climbing's development, but one or two aspects he sells short, particularly women's climbing. He misses, for instance, the links early women climbers had with the suffragette movement. And while he gives short sketches of the grander climbing clubs, there's nothing about the establishment of the British Mountaineering Council.
There are one or two errors, some small – Bill Tilman was 79 when he died, not 80 – some more significant, including the point that Tenzing Norgay was given the George Medal, not the more senior award the George Cross as Thompson has it. It speaks to the dismissive racism of the Foreign Office that Tenzing's role was belittled in this way.
Where Thompson gets things badly wrong, I think, is in his assessment of Chris Bonington. Of course, just because he's Britain's most famous climber is no reason to let him off the hook. Aspects of Bonington's career undoubtedly deserve a bit of a kicking. But Thompson's constant mockery becomes tedious after a while, and undermines the authority of what he says elsewhere. True, siege tactics aren't ideal, but in the early 1970s, when big Himalayan walls were first being tackled, they seemed appropriate. Bonington himself returned to lightweight and alpine style when it was clear such methods were outdated.
Thompson, however, sees Bonington as the antithesis of everything he admires about climbing. After speculating on whether George Mallory was a hero, he quotes Bonington as ridiculing the idea, making Bonington seem sour. But the footnote gives Thompson away. The quote is from Brian Blessed's delightful but wholly unreliable yarn about his uproarious trips to Everest. Why didn't Thompson just contact Bonington to check the provenance? Perhaps the answer wouldn't have suited his purpose.
Towards the end the shape and value of his generally sound analysis falls away, because, I rather suspect, his interest and understanding of modern climbing is weaker. Perhaps that's because the published sources he relies on aren't as good as those for the Victorian era. Yet a lot has happened since Thompson's youth, and there's a great deal to celebrate and reflect upon. Climbers now are socially more tolerant, fitter, safer and just as absorbed by it all; it's wrong to assume that climbing's glory days are all in the past.
Ed Douglas is a traveller, writer and mountaineer. His first book, about Everest, Chomolungma Sings The Blues, was published in 1997. Other books include Regions of the Heart, a biography of mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, who disappeared returning from the summit of K2 in 1995, and the first full-length biography of Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, published by National Geographic in 2003. He wrote with Ron Fawcett, Ron Fawcett, Rock Athlete which has been shortlisted for this years Boardman Tasker Prize. He was founder and editor of On The Edge magazine and Mountain Review, and writes for the outdoor press and the Guardian newspaper. A former editor of the Alpine Journal, Ed is an enthusiastic climber, with winter ascents in the Alps and Himalayas.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Ed Douglas: