I have been dreaming of climbing the North face of the Eiger since I was sixteen and, browsing the mountaineering section at Waterstones (mostly full of 'Bear Grylls climbs to the moon' type nonsense), my eyes stuck on John Harlin's book.
Part mountaineering history, part autobiography and part philosophical journey, the book begins by documenting John Harlin's father's attempt on the Eiger, which ended in a fatal fall from high on the face.
Harlin covers the details of the ascent, told accurately and in depth, the way only an experienced climber could. Yet Harlin brings a unique perspective to the tragic story; that of a grieving son who has lost his father. He tells this more personal aspect with just as much accuracy and much more poignancy than anyone could ever describe a crampon step or a cold bivouac.
I was captivated by Harlin's factual style, blended with his emotional insights and the harsh reality of dealing with death in the mountains. The honesty with which he documents his father's character flaws, coupled with the long-lasting affect that his death had upon the Harlin family, struck a deep note with me. I was particularly engaged by Harlin's mother's insights in to the mind of her ever-maturing husband, who was clearly growing into himself and morphing from a young obsessive climber to a devoted family man, just as his life was cut short.
The book then moves on to family life after the Eiger, and it quickly becomes clear that John Harlin is a man living under two shadows, the shadow of his fallen father and the shadow of the Eiger itself.
The central part of the book, his teenage years in America, didn't strike me as having quite the passion I felt from the descriptions of Harlin's formative years in Europe, but perhaps this slackening of pace reflects a more relaxed period in Harlin's life, a period of emotional recovery.
Then Harlin becomes a man, heads to the hills and develops in to a well-rounded and able mountaineer, and we see him take on his first shadow, that of his father, and cast a light of self confidence over this difficult spectre, against whom he feels the need to measure his success as a climber and as a man.
A well-known climber asks John Harlin point-blank.
Whilst his ascent of the 1938 route on the Eiger with Robert and Daniela Jasper went smoothly, I sensed that having the climb filmed by an IMAX crew and having his wife and daughter at the foot of the face must have piled the pressure on to Harlin, and he alludes to some tension within the climbing team as they reach the film cameras part way up the route.
In a very subtle and simple, yet powerful way, John Harlin III unmasks his soft philosophy on climbing, and perhaps helps us to understand why we go up to the high mountains, and exactly what we risk when we do.
A powerful, honest book with engaging historical mountaineering insights and a unique emotional angle. Some slower central sections are more than compensated for by the heart-wrenching and thought provoking beginning and the shadow chasing finale. The book is as much about people as it is about climbing, and therein lies its strength.
The Eiger Obsession
John Harlin III
Arrow Books - 2009
Autobiography / Mountaineering History
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