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An enduring feature of mountaineering is that achievement and disaster
are closely linked; the triumph of an historic ascent can be painfully
affected by the perilious descent. As the conquering spirit of modern
man has taken mountaineers to faraway places to climb mountains by ever
more difficult means, one outstanding legacy is a rich narrative of
text for the collector. This is as true nowadays as it was during the
infancy of mountaineering. Another truism is that the book collecting
fraternity displays a finely honed ability to recognise those books
which combine both critical elements and those which, for various reasons,
The first prominent mountaineering book to scale the heights of literary
and mountaineering merit was Scramble
Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper. A troubled and intense person,
Whymper was inspired by the Matterhorn in 1860. For the next ten years
various expeditions were undertaken until Whymper completed the first
ascent in 1869, during the 'golden age of alpine mountaineering'. Disaster,
however, befell the party on their descent, when the rope snapped and
four of the seven mountaineers perished. Whymper took great care in
the retelling of the story; the narrative expressing the joys of alpinism
and the pain of losing fellow climbers. The book, in its various editions,
remains the most famous early mountaineering book of all. A first edition
would cost around £600.
Over time the key components of a good mountaineering story have remained
remarkably simple and similar. Fast becoming a classic is Touching
the Void by Joe Simpson, first published in 1988 and now a successful
film. In this adventure, unlike Whymper, the rope required cutting.
After surviving a fall into a crevasse on an Andean mountain, Simpson's
climbing partner was literally forced to break the bond between them,
leaving Simpson for dead. Remarkably, despite horrendous injuries Simpson
was able to crawl down the mountain to survival. The writing is lean,
understated and gripping. It is unwise to begin reading this book late
at night if you have an appointment the following morning. A first edition
is already scarce and would cost nearly £200. Both of these books
are remarkable in that they became bestsellers. A wealth of fine writing
remains, however, for the discerning collector as exploration and climbing
has taken place in every mountainous area of the world.
The intrepid British have been instrumental in conducting such activity.
Before Whymper's famous ascent in the Alps, others were busy. Charles
Fellows in 1827 made a daring early ascent of Mont Blanc. Audacious
as the climb was it could not be termed 'lightweight'. The record of
the ascent notes that the two climbers and ten guides took with them
'an adequate supply of provisions, consisting of eight joints of meat,
a dozen fowls, sausages
with forty-two bottles of wine'. A copy
of one of the limited edition of fifty copies of A
Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc would be
a worthy addition to any collection and would cost around £12,000-15,000.
Collecting books from the early Alpine period is for the serious collector.
By the 1850's the Alpine Club was already formed in London. From this
period onwards the Club's library has developed into one of the foremost
collections of mountaineering literature in the world, with over 25,000
books, journals, guidebooks, expedition reports and maps. It is a unique
record of the history of mountaineering. The Alpine Club has printed
continuously from 1863 as well as many guide books in various guises.
Following the 'golden age of alpine mountaineering' British mountaineers
were also to the fore in early Himalayan climbing. J. Norman Collie
on the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges in 1902 (estimate
£1100) which tells of his climbs on Nanga Parbat with Alfred Mummery.
Later, Everest became the major focus. Three expeditions in the 1920's
provide a fine record of the courage of early Everest attempts. The
records of these expeditions - Mount
Everest: the reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Howard-Bury, The
Assault on Mount Everest, 1922, by C.G Bruce and The
Fight for Everest, 1924, by E.F. Norton currently sell for around
£250-£400 each. On the last of the three expeditions Mallory
and Irvine disappeared at c27,000 ft, their bodies discovered again
some seventy-five years later. Less well known is that Norton climbed
to a height of c28,100 ft, without oxygen, a considerable achievement
which took him within a 1,000ft of the summit.
The British made two further Everest attempts in the 1930's. Both expeditions
were led by Hugh Ruttledge. His account is rather leaden by comparison
with the earlier Everest attempts. Hence, Everest,
1933 and Everest: The Unfinished Adventure can be found for
less than £100. Frank Smythe climbed on the first of these two
expeditions and his record of the climb is more vivid and would cost
Climbing on Everest has continued to present many new challenges and
at times some fine literature. Recently, the first Everest ascent without
oxygen assistance by Reinhold Messner Everest:
Expedition to the Ultimate, 1979, and Everest:
Kangshung Face, 1989, by Stephen Venables, which describes an
Everest ascent by a brave new route are interesting titles and cost
around £50. Inevitably, by comparison some other Everest books
are formulaic and dull.
There is a thin line between a feasible and a feckless attempt on a
mountain. It is important that misguided belief does not overtake rational
judgment. Poor Maurice Wilson in 1934 decided on a solo attempt on Everest.
His diary (and body) was later found. Subsequently, a book of the complex
background to the thinking behind this attempt titled I'll
Climb Mount Everest Alone by Dennis Roberts was published in
1957. It is now quite scarce and in a fine d/w would cost around £150.
Elsewhere in the Himalayas other countries were mounting expeditions,
most notably the Germans made a sustained attempt in the 1930's to climb
Nanga Parbat. The most famous book on this mountain though was by Hermann
Buhl, an Austrian, who in 1954 made an outstanding solo ascent. Nanga
Parbat Pilgrimage is action packed and lacks the wider philosophical
introspections that often fail to engage the reader and collector, and
to which some mountaineers are often prone.
There have been a number of major mountaineering book auctions in the
last decade and two in particular of outstanding quality, both by Bloomsbury
Book Auctions. In February 1994, the Louis Baume personal collection
was auctioned. Baume was born in London, but was part of the illustrious
Swiss watchmaking family of that name. A keen Alpinist, Baume decided
in mid life to set up Gaston's Alpine Books, based initially in Harrow
and later Bloxham (Oxfordshire). As befits the period, Baume scoured
the country for books and built up a selling stock and unmatched personal
collection. The prices realised at the auction appeared very high at
the time and signified a rapid rise in the desirability of fine mountaineering
books. A decade later the prices appear most reasonable. The aforementioned
Fellows was estimated at £300-£400 and achieved £2090,
a price that has itself risen fivefold in the last decade. Of the 458
lots virtually all doubled or tripled their estimate. Interest was strong
for all mountaineering areas; the Alps, Central Asia and the UK.
In October 1998, the Eugene Meckly collection was auctioned. Meckly,
was an American bibliophile and avid collected of Alpine climbing books
in general and on Mont Blanc in particular. Demand across the 557 lots
was again high and four of the fifty copies of Fellows work alone sold
in one afternoon.
No comparable auction of such size and significance has occurred since.
It will be interesting to assess prices when the next such auction occurs.
Evidence would suggest that quality will always sell well, and that
there is likely to be a slight cooling in demand for undistinguished
general mountaineering books and a sustained healthy interest for the
rare and collectable.
The books which appeared in the aforementioned auctions were mostly
written before the 1950's. Since then, however, many landmark mountaineering
books have been published and prices for fine copies in dustwrappers
are high. Whilst the British may have moved on from climbing at the
cutting edge in the Alps, many European mountaineers have completed
further technically challenging climbs. Walter Bonatti's autobiography
in 1961 On
The Heights is amongst the most prized and costs around £200
for a fine copy in wrapper. Gaston Rebuffat's 1956 Starlight
and Storm and The
White Spider 1958 by Heinrich Harrer are similarly significant
and would cost around £100 for copies in similar condition.
What has often characterised British mountaineering has been a desire
to merge mountaineering with pioneering exploration. Wm Cecil Slingsby
displayed these qualities and Norway:
The Northern Playground 1904 (£1500) is still highly regarded.
Two other climbers who personify this type of adventure are Eric Shipton
and H.W. Tilman. Their specialism was to roam around the Karakoram and
Nepal during the 1930-50's, making vast exploratory glacier journeys
and subsequent first ascents of difficult mountains, on a diet based
almost entirely of rice. This is lightweight mountaineering compared
with the early alpinists. Shipton and Tilman wrote many books and although
their writing is not the finest it has a romantic, nomadic, understated
'end of the empire' feel which is appealing. Some of their rarer titles
such as Snow
on the Equator by Tilman 1937 and Blank on the Map by Shipton
1938 would fetch around £300 and £500 respectively for attractive
copies in wrapper.
Fine writing does not necessarily require travelling to faraway places
and many collectable books have been written about our own hills. The
starting point for many collections would be the Jones-Abraham rock-climbing
trilogy from the turn of the twentieth century. Jones was a pioneering
rock climber and his talents dovetailed well with the photographic adventures
of the Abraham brothers. This trilogy includes Rock
Climbing in the English Lake District 1897 by Owen Glynne Jones,
Climbing in North Wales 1906 by G.D. Abraham and Rock
Climbing in Skye 1907 by A.P. Abraham. These books played a
significant role in popularising rock climbing in the UK. Each of the
books would cost from £300-£400.
The autobiographies of some UK climbers have drawn on their early climbing
adventures in the Peak and Lake District, North Wales and Scotland.
Amongst the most collectable is Undiscovered
Scotland, 1951, by W.H. Murray (£50), The Hard Years, 1967,
by Joe Brown (£80) and Portrait of a Mountaineer 1971 by Don
These prices for many of the books described could easily double or
triple for a signed copy. The provenance for signed mountaineering books
has increased in recent years. Again, collectors display a keen sense
for signatures, which relate to the book or climbing area in some coherent
way. There has been a disappointing tendency for some mountaineering
books to be signed by famous mountaineers even though the connectivity
required between book and signatures is missing. Such books are touted
for high process on the internet but rarely appear to sell.
Inevitably, many modern mountaineering books are unlikely ever to be
truly collectable. In addition, reading such epic tales of daring do
can make your own life can feel rather mundane and ordinary by comparison.
However, an inspiration of sorts can be found through the scarce Vertical
Pleasure: The Secret Life of a Taxman, 1995, (£100) by
Mick Fowler. In the best amateur traditions, Fowler planned his short
but considerable mountaineering adventures around family life and his
responsibilities as a North London tax officer. The book was written,
in draft form, whilst commuting on the tube. Hope for the mountaineer
and collector alike.
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