The Magician's Glass, by Ed Douglas Review

© Vertebrate

In this age of clickbait, catering for attention spans of mere seconds, long-form journalism seems to have suffered a decline in the British climbing media. The internet has undoubtedly played a huge part in this, as - at least to my mind - huge blocks of text don't tend to translate quite as well online. And perhaps this is why I found The Magician's Glass such a refreshing read. Articles of this calibre aren't something you come across every day.

Each of the eight 'essays' within plumb their chosen topic to unusual depths, exploring further than many of our own articles are able to in their shorter online format. Author Ed Douglas shows his true award winning colours here, as he unfolds an image on a complex canvas, be that the portrait of an individual or the exploration of a particular culture, to reveal something richer, deeper, warts and all. Many, if not all of the essays, are something of a bittersweet infusion. Douglas has himself confessed an attraction to "people who are a combination of brilliant and flawed" in his recent interview with Natalie Berry (click here to read the article).

The Magician's Glass  © Vertebrate Publishing
The Magician's Glass
© Vertebrate Publishing
The first essay, The Magician's Glass, begins with the juxtaposition of the author's own emotions with that of his climbing partner: man, myth and legend Nick Colton. During the 1970s Nick was responsible for putting up some of the hardest routes in the Alps, as well - the author goes on to explain - as making an impressive attempt on one of the last great problems of Himalayan mountaineering: the South East Ridge of Annapurna III. The author roots out Nick's idiosyncratic, deadpan style, which is so uncluttered by the great many worries that I - like the author - felt whilst in the big mountains. The essay provides background on Nick and his additude and approach not just to mountaineering, but to life. However, much like each of the other essays in the book, there's more than meets the eye, not least with the effect that the 1981 Annapurna Expedition had on the seemingly inscrutable Colton, who proceeded to step back from the world of mountaineering after his arrival home.

Stealing Toni Egger takes another look at the infamous Cerro Torre debate, but with specific focus on Toni Egger, the climbing partner of Ceastre Maestri, who died whilst the two were attempting to make the first ascent of the mountain. Initially this is done though the eyes of his sister, Stefanie Egger, but Douglas draws on other characters from world mountaineering too, such as Kelly Cordes and Rolando Garibotti, to help further explain the lies, deceit and betrayal of the memory of Egger. As with The Magician's Glass, you get a sense not only of the person, but their family, their friends, and background too. You get to know them, but not only that - you get an impression of what was robbed from both Toni's lasting memory and of the thoughts and feelings of his family when Maestri claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre. With the truth now out, and it being widely accepted that Maestri did not make the first ascent, the victory is still bittersweet due to his unwavering resolve that he did do it - and thus the memory can't quite be laid to rest.

Searching for Tomaz Humar explores the complex and confused character of Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar. During the 90's and early 00's Humar dominated the stage of greater range mountaineering, both in terms of the audacity of his ascents and his personality. Once again, the author not only provides an insight into the individual, but also other characters in the Slovenian climbing scene (including Marco Prezelj and Viki Groselj), plus the nation's great - and successful - tradition of Himalayan climbing. In a different way to Stealing Toni Egger, there is a great sense of tragedy, not least because of the constant sense of conflict about Humar's own motivations and character - something he himself seemed unable to escape from.

Big Guts (a name which makes me flinch each time I read it) is about the larger than life Bavarian powerhouse, Kurt Albert. In keeping with the essays above, there is an ongoing theme of loss owing to his sudden death back in 2010, but this sense of loss doesn't seem anywhere near as tragic - it's more a sense of bereavement from his passing and the void left as a result. As such, a great deal of warmth radiates from the page, with the reflection of a man huge of heart who lived life in a most brilliant way, energising those around him, never taking himself too seriously, yet constantly striving to improve in so many different walks of life. The most beautiful thing of all is that the author has captured this in such a way that has extended Kurt's electricity from beyond the grave, leaving the reader as affected as they might have been had they met him in person.

Kurt Albert gracing the cover of Boulder Magazine - the legendary magazine had only 3 issues  © Boulder Magazine
Kurt Albert gracing the cover of Boulder Magazine - the legendary magazine had only 3 issues
© Boulder Magazine

Patrick Edlinger on the cover of Vertical Magazine 5, solo in Joshua Tree  © Photo by: Gérard Kosicki
Patrick Edlinger on the cover of Vertical Magazine 5, solo in Joshua Tree
© Photo by: Gérard Kosicki

Crazy Wisdom takes you somewhere very different, journeying into Nepal and the challenges that lie ahead for both the Sherpa people and the nation as a whole. Whilst I personally have only visited/climbed in the country once, this piece resonated with me, as it vocalised many of my own observations (albeit in a far more eloquent way). If you have been, or are planning on visiting Nepal, I would highly recommend reading this essay, as it provides a background to the conflict that the nation is going through.

What's Eating Ueli Steck was notably written several years before Ueli's passing earlier this year, but there's no doubt that as a reader his death has put a certain spin on the piece in question. However, the piece itself focusses not just on Ueli, but mountaineering and the values it upholds. Exploring the controversy surrounding Ueli's solo ascent of the South Face of Annapurna, Douglas' approach is summarised in a single line: "If Ueli Steck is rotten, what does that say about alpinism?". The essay takes account of both sides of the argument, drawing from his previous ascents and experiences and hearing from people that have not only climbed with him, but also the partnership that climbed the route after him. I felt torn in two directions at many points, with it all boiling down to one thing: I, personally, wanted to believe him. This isn't to say that I didn't, haven't, and won't continue to question that belief - it is a very personal decision. That said, it transcends being a personal decision when something like the Piolet d'Or is involved, something that the author tackles head on.

Ueli Steck in front of Annapurna  © Ueli Steck Collection
Ueli Steck in front of Annapurna
© Ueli Steck Collection

By now I am going to sound like a broken record, as the next essay follows what will now seem like a recurring theme - death. However, whilst there are undoubtedly parallels to be drawn between Lone Wolf, Stealing Toni Egger, Searching for Tomaz Humar, and Big Guts, which could all, in a sense, be considered obituaries, Lone Wolf deals with it in a very different way, unique to the individual. Lone Wolf follows the troubled genius Patrick Edlinger, who's name is amongst the greats of the sport (and the key word here is indeed 'sport', as Edlinger was very much at the advent of sport climbing). The story is undoubtedly a sad one, with his early days being so footloose and fancy free, climbing wherever he wanted to, developing new cliffs, pushing new boundaries, and pioneering new frontiers. But all good things must come to end, and the unravelling that occurred within Edlinger's life, mostly as a result of alcohol and depression, is a sobering story finale.

Finally, Lines of Beauty: The Art of Climbing begins by characterising artist and climber Andy Parkin, then moves on to other artists including Jim Curran and Julian Heaton Cooper. The artforms he covers extend beyond the canvas though, and on towards the likes of Johnny Dawes, who's movement alone is an artform of sorts (or is it the rock, and the art is his interpretation of it?). For me the theme throughout was surrounding the level of appreciation for those small details: those rugostities that allowed Dawes to go where no-one else could tread, or the slender couloirs that Parkin is able to capture.

Andy Parkin at work on one of his sculptures  © Andy Parkin
Andy Parkin at work on one of his sculptures
© Andy Parkin


The Magician's Glass is a refreshing change of pace from many of the books I've read in recent years, being both a little different to your more standard autobiographical release, but also being different to itself, with the wide variety of topics and personalities that it explores. As such it's a diverse book that will - I hope - appeal to a great many people, and one that will most certainly be appearing in our Christmas Book Round-Up.

The Magician's Glass  © Vertebrate Publishing
Vertebrate Publishing say:

'The Magician's Glass by award-winning writer Ed Douglas is a collection of eight recent essays on some of the biggest stories and best-known personalities in the world of climbing.

In the title essay, he writes about failure on Annapurna III in 1981, one of the boldest attempts in Himalayan mountaineering on one of the most beautiful lines – a line that remains unclimbed to this day.

Douglas writes about bitter controversies, like that surrounding Ueli Steck's disputed solo ascent of the south face of Annapurna, the fate of Toni Egger on Cerro Torre in 1959 – when Cesare Maestri claimed the pair had made the first ascent, and the rise and fall of Slovenian ace Tomaz Humar. There are profiles of two stars of the 1980s: the much-loved German Kurt Albert, the father of the 'redpoint', and the enigmatic rock star Patrick Edlinger, a national hero in his native France who lost his way.

In Crazy Wisdom, Douglas offers fresh perspectives on the impact mountaineering has on local communities and the role climbers play in the developing world. The final essay explores the relationship between art and alpinism as a way of understanding why it is that people climb mountains.'

Kendal Mountain Festival  © KMF
Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.

We are delighted to be joined by award-winning writer Ed Douglas at the Festival, expect to be captivated by his exploration of the world's best known climbers. Ed will be discussing The Magician's Glass at an event on Sunday 19th November 10:30 - 12:00.


For more information visit Vertebrate Publishing

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30 Aug, 2017
Great review - it's a terrific book and a really good change of pace from the biographies or expedition write-ups that make up a lot of climbing lit. David.
It was quite an intimidating prospect writing this review, as it required something a little different from your standard 'product' review - hopefully I did it justice. For those that haven't read it I would highly recommend doing so...

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