Whether your bones are past their prime, you’re suffering from injury and unable to leave the house, hunkering down to avoid the zombie apocalypse, or like me just an avid reader and mountaineering lover, you can escape your four walls by getting lost in books.
What better way to spend your downtime, than escaping to the mountains of Peru, Switzerland or Alaska. Become an armchair mountaineer and join me on a few journeys with 10 of the best mountaineering books.
Into Thin Air – Mount Everest, Nepal
In 1996 Mountaineer and journalist Jon Krakauer was sent to Nepal by Outside magazine to cover an ascent of Mount Everest. The expedition was led by an experienced mountain guide named Rob Hall.
Despite the expertise of Hall and the other team leaders, by the end of the summit day, eight people were dead. Three groups of climbers were caught in a storm, which ended in the worst seasonal death toll in the peak’s history.
Krakauer on a tight writing schedule had to get the article promised to Outside magazine. With facts being obscured by blurry memories under extreme altitude conditions, he wasn’t happy with his 17,000 word published piece.
In an attempt to get as much detail about the expedition, the harrowing moments they all suffered and a real account of what happened, he published Into Thin Air.
For those of you who have seen and enjoyed the movie Everest, this is a must-read. Jon Krakauer’s account of these true events will give you an insight into the thoughts, feelings and emotions of dealing with such a tragedy.
From The Book:
“I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment. I wanted my account to have raw, ruthless sort of honesty that seemed in danger of leaching away with the passage of time and the dissipation of anguish.”
Touching the Void – Siula Grande, Peru
In the summer of 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set off to the Peruvian Andes to climb the West Face of the Siula Grande, an unclimbed route. After reaching the summit Simon staggered into Base Camp, traumatised, frostbitten, exhausted and with news that Joe was dead.
The events leading up to the summit, the decisions made and how they both dealt with the psychological trauma that resulted in Simon cutting the rope, makes this a jaw-dropping tale of survival.
Joe Simpson is one of the best mountaineering authors. This recount of his ascent of Siula Grande, the mistakes made, the pain, fear, anguish and difficult decisions, by both him and his climbing partner Simon Yates, will have you on the edge of your seat.
I couldn’t put this book down (literally, I read it within 24 hours). This is without a doubt one of the best mountaineering books out there.
From The Book:
“To Simon Yates, for a debt I can never repay. And to those friends who have gone into the mountains and not returned”
I tweeted Joe Simpson about how much I enjoyed Touching The Void, this was his response.
The Day The Rope Broke – Matterhorn, Switzerland
The first ascent of the Matterhorn in July 1865 is one of the key events in the history of mountaineering. It was the climax of five years struggle by the English mountaineer Edward Whymper in competition with Jean Antonie-Carrel, the Italian mountain guide who had grown up in the mountain’s shadow.
It also produced perhaps the most famous mountaineering accidents of the 19th century, bringing to an end the ‘Golden Age of Alpine climbing’. This is the story of the events leading up to this remarkable ascent and its terrible aftermath. This is a gripping classic.
If you have ever gawped at the Matterhorn in amazement, take yourself on this journey about the controversial circumstances surrounding the first ascent.
From The Book:
“There was the age old story of a man conquering nature and paying a fearful price for success. There was the strange series of coincidences which, as we have appreciated only in recent years, brought three separate parties to Zermatt on the same summer day, intent on the same spectacular ascent.”
The Worst Journey In The World – Antarctica
Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s team and one of three men to make and survive the notorious Winter Journey, draws on his firsthand experiences as well as the diaries of his compatriots to create a stirring and detailed account of Scott’s legendary expedition.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, whom Scott lauded as a tough, efficient member of the team, tells of the journey from England to South Africa and southward to the ice floes. From there began the unforgettable polar journey across a forbidding and inhospitable region.
On November 12, 1912, in arctic temperatures, Cherry himself would be among the search party that discovered the corpses of Scott and his men, who had long since perished from starvation and brutal cold.
It is through Cherry’s insightful narrative and keen descriptions that Scott and the other members of the expedition are fully memorialized.
From The Book:
“And if the worst, or best, happens, and Death comes for you in the snow, he comes disguised as Sleep, and you greet him rather as a welcome friend than a gruesome foe.”
Into The Wild – Mt McKinley, Alaska
In April 1992, Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man from a wealthy family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.
Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
Immediately after graduating from college in 1991, McCandless roamed through the West and Southwest on a vision quest like those made by his heroes Jack London and John Muir.
In the Mojave Desert, he abandoned his car, stripped it of its license plates, and burned all of his cash. He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented.
Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw away the maps. Leaving behind his desperate parents and sister, he vanished into the wild.
From The Book:
“I spent more than a year retracing the convoluted path that led to his death in the Alaska taiga, chasing down details of his peregrinations with an interest that bordered on obsession. In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons. The result of this meandering inquiry is the book now before you.”
Mountains Of The Mind
Why do people climb mountains despite the obvious danger to their life and limb? This book attempts to answer that question.
Robert Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination.
The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering–glaciers, summits, unknown ranges–and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration.
The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity.
Mountains of the mind climaxes with an account of Mallory’s fateful ascent to Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares.
From The Book:
“Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion.”
The Beckoning Silence – Eiger, Switzerland
Marking the climax of his climbing career, Joe Simpson confronts his fears and mountaineering history in an assault on the North Face of the Eiger. Since his epic battle for survival in the Andes, recounted in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson has experienced a life filled with adventure but marred by death.
He has endured the painful attrition of climbing friends in accidents which call into question the perilously exhilarating activity to which he has devoted his whole life. Probability is inexorably closing in.
The tragic loss of a close friend forces a momentous decision. It is time to turn his back on the mountains that he has loved. Never more alive than when most at risk, he has come to see a last climb on the mile-high North Face of the Eiger as the cathartic finale to his climbing career.
In a narrative that takes the reader through extreme experiences from an avalanche in Bolivia, ice-climbing in the Alps and Colorado and paragliding in Spain. Before his final confrontation with the Eiger. Simpson reveals the inner truth of climbing, exploring the power of the mind and the frailties of the body through intensely lived accounts of exhilaration and despair.
Following advice from Joe Simpson himself, I already had The Beckoning Silence sat on my bookshelf. And so began the Joe Simpson marathon.
From The Book:
“I had to stand there and watch while the rest of my life was determined by the shaky adhesion of a few millimetres of fractured ice and the dubious friction of a tiny point of metal in a hairline crack in a rock wall…”
The Living Mountain – Cairngorms, Scotland
Nan Shepherd describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. There she encounters a world that can be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others. Her intense, poetic prose explores and records the rocks, rivers, creatures and hidden aspects of this remarkable landscape.
Shepherd spent a lifetime in search of the ‘essential nature’ of the Cairngorms; her quest led her to write this classic meditation on the magnificence of mountains, and on our imaginative relationship with the wild world around us. Composed during the Second World War, the manuscript of The Living Mountain lay untouched for more than 30 years before it was finally published.
Drawing on different perspectives of the mountain environment, Shepherd makes the familiar strange and the strange awe-inspiring. Her sensitivity and powers of observation put her into the front rank of nature writing.
From The Book:
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
Alone On The Ice – Antarctica
On January 17, 1913, alone and near starvation, Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was hauling a sledge to get back to base camp. The dogs were gone. Now Mawson himself plunged through a snow bridge, dangling over an abyss by the sledge harness. A line of poetry gave him the will to haul himself back to the surface.
Mawson was sometimes reduced to crawling, and one night he discovered that the soles of his feet had completely detached from the flesh beneath. On February 8, when he staggered back to base, his features unrecognizably skeletal, the first teammate to reach him blurted out, “Which one are you?”
This thrilling and almost unbelievable account establishes Mawson in his rightful place as one of the greatest polar explorers and expedition leaders.
From The Book
“Just have one more try—it’s dead easy to die, It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”
The Wild Places – Britain & Ireland
Are there any genuinely wild places left in Britain and Ireland?
That is the question that Robert Macfarlane poses to himself as he embarks on a series of breathtaking journeys through some of the archipelago’s most remarkable landscapes.
He climbs, walks, and swims by day and spends his nights sleeping on cliff-tops and in ancient meadows and wildwoods. With elegance and passion, he entwines history, memory, and landscape in a bewitching evocation of wildness and its vital importance.
From The Book
“Our disenchantment of the night through artificial lighting may appear, if it is noticed at all, as a regrettable but eventually trivial side effect of contemporary life. That winter hour, though, up on the summit ridge with the stars falling plainly far above, it seemed to me that our estrangement from the dark was a great and serious loss. We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it.”
The Wrap Up: 10 Best Mountaineering Books
These are in my opinion 10 of the best mountaineering books. If you love any more epic journeys, amazing summits or harrowing tales of perseverance in the wilderness, please get in touch and let me know.
Planning a micro expedition?
If you want to start planning your own little adventure, read some of these inspiring mountaineering books, or check out this little series on how to get started: