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In addition to those sections already mentioned, Professors Bruno Messerli and Jack Ives contribute a chapter on mountain environments; and in addition to the writing of Huw Lewis Jones, Colin Wells' practiced hand is obvious in many of the essays accompanying the pictures. Indeed, this is Wells at his knowledgeable best, without the somewhat puerile humour that dogged Who's Who in British Climbing. The vignettes are in fact perfectly crafted mini-obituaries; which must give rather strange reading to those of their subjects still living.
Thus far, thus good, but what lifts this volume into the realms of the sublime is a trawl through the archives of the Alpine Club which, together with numerous other stunning colour plates, has resulted in a wonderful collection of photographic esoterica of the mountaineering world, the slides and negatives that we all have lurking in a cupboard somewhere, the ones that never see the light of day again after we have picked the best few out, except in this case they are Hillary's of Everest that bracket that familiar summit shot of Tenzing – which of course is also in here – or numerous contact prints of Sherpas from the 1936 attempt – or four previously unpublished portraits of alpine guides from the 19th Century...
"...what lifts this volume into the realms of the sublime is a wonderful collection of photographic esoterica of the mountaineering world..."
However, I would not be a good reviewer if I did not mention a few minor quibbles. The title Mountain Heroes itself is peculiar. Many of those included may be brave, but few of them are true heroes – and in fact, as the book itself points out, “in an age when words like these [hero] are so easily bandied around they lose their currency and true meaning.” Lewis-Jones attempts to get round this mismatch between title and contents by claiming that people can be heroes “in different and surprising ways”, but the list of so-called 'heroes' is eclectic to say the least.
Nearly half those included are British, whilst North Americans make up a considerable chunk of the rest, and many mountaineering nations (Japan for instance) do not get a look in at all. Many are top notch climbers and mountaineers and anyone who has been climbing for a while should have no difficulty in recognising at least half the names on the list. Equally though, it shouldn't take that same person long to come up with several names that should have been included and aren't: Haskett Smith, Mick Fowler, Walter Bonatti, Gaston Rébuffat and Heinrich Harrer spring immediately to mind – compile your own list.
"There are a number of questionable entries ... however, on the plus side, Bear Grylls and Rebecca Stephens have not made the final cut..."
Likewise, there are a number of questionable entries. Elizabeth Hawley, that doyen of the Himalayan mountaineering record admits to having never climbed a mountain in her life and this makes it tricky to see how she merits inclusion in a list of 'mountain heroes', interesting though she may be as a character. Similarly Bert Bissell's feat of ascending Ben Nevis over a hundred times must one feels have been equalled by many a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team – an odd choice for inclusion.
However, on the plus side, we should perhaps be grateful that Bear Grylls and Rebecca Stephens have not made the final cut and it has to be a work with a hidden sense of humour that can conjure John Ruskin and Paul Pritchard onto the same list. Less arguably, considering it is a book devoted to portraits, it would have been good to know a little more about the photographers and the equipment they used and indeed to have the name of each photographer next to their photo.
But as I say, these are small quibbles. The portraits are full page and by and large superb, with a great many I had not seen before, and many taken specifically for this book. And if it is not necessarily everyone's list of heroes, it is at least a collection of very interesting people with some connection to mountains, most of whom are climbers and mountaineers and many of whom deserve to be better known to other climbers and mountaineers. Indeed it is perhaps more interesting to read about people one has never heard of than to read about those that one is already familiar with.
The writing too (despite a few irritating typos) is excellent throughout and the whole is as full of good things and as richly flavoured as a brandy-laced Fortnum's Christmas Pudding. And, just like a Christmas pudding, it is probably best devoured in small nibbles over a period of time. This is certainly a book to recommend, and if you are lucky enough to have some Christmas money still burning a hole in your pocket, then I'd recommend that you buy a copy before it becomes a collector's item changing hands for twice the price on Ebay.
Sample Pages from Mountain Heroes - Portraits of Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones:
About Stephen Reid
Stephen Reid is old enough to know better and has been climbing long enough to have shaken the hand of someone who once shook the hand of Haskett Smith. He has been running Needle Sports in Keswick for over twenty years now so you would have thought he should have long since realised that any amount of shiny new climbing kit won't improve his ability one jot, but he never learns.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Stephen Reid: