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Essential Knowledge
Mountaineering
Malcolm Thorburn

Courtesy of Rarebookreview - the magazine to open up the world of rare books.


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, do not.

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 a journal 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 published Climbing 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 around £150-£200.

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, Rock 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 Whillans (£150).

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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