Mick Conefrey’s The Ghosts of K2, a book our reviewer called “must-read” for fans of books about climbing, publishes today, November 10. We asked the author to share some of his own favorite books about mountaineering and exploration, and he was happy to oblige.
Books and movies about mountaineering have always appealed to a niche audience, but increasingly they are crossing over into the mainstream. Almost two decades past its release, John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) still sells by the thousand, and Everest, the recent blockbuster action film also based on the same terrible events of 1996, is a global hit.
Though the climbing community may be relatively small, there are millions of armchair mountaineers and explorers who love nothing better than to curl up on a cold winter’s night with tales of high adventure and extreme exposure. There are many classic books out there, from Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider (1998), the story of how he conquered the vertiginous North Face of the Eiger, to Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna (1951) and more recently, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void (1988), both searing tales of the sacrifices mountaineers make to reach their goals. There are also other lesser-known books that are equally exciting and insightful and offer a more unique perspective on the men and women who roam the world searching for a death-defying challenge simply “because it’s there,” as the English mountaineer George Mallory said.
A Slender Thread, by Stephen Venables
Stephen Venables was the only Brit on the American team who climbed Everest’s notoriously steep Kangshung Face in 1988, one of the greatest challenges in world mountaineering. A compelling public speaker, Venables is also the author of 12 books. A Slender Thread is perhaps his best, the chronicle of an attempt on Panchu Chuli V, a little-visited mountain in the Eastern Himalayas, which cost him two broken legs and almost his life. The narrative is gripping and dramatic but what makes this book so special is its introspective quality, a self-questioning approach which sets it apart from the sensationalism and “painography” of so many other survival stories.
Breaking Trail, by Arlene Blum
The American climber Arlene Blum was one of the leading female mountaineers of her generation. She led the first all-female expedition to Denali and a groundbreaking women’s expedition to Annapurna in 1978. Breaking Trail is much more than a climbing memoir, though. It’s the story of a very determined and gifted young woman, finding herself in two very masculine worlds, mountaineering and research science, and having to fight battle after battle to be accepted as a leader. Interwoven in this rich mix are tales from her childhood with her very supportive Orthodox Jewish family who enabled her to take on the world and triumph.
K2, The Savage Mountain, by Robert Bates and Charles Houston
Having just spent the last two years writing a history of K2, I have consulted this book many times and never ceased to be amazed by what it offers. The prose is elegant, simple, and concise but the story is quite extraordinary. A small party of seven Americans and one British climber aim to make the first ascent of the world’s toughest mountain. Their teamwork is exemplary and, after a month of hard climbing, they are poised below summit. Then everything goes wrong. In the midst of a ferocious storm, one of the youngest members develops a mysterious illness, never previously reported on a mountain. Their bid for glory is transformed into a desperate rescue attempt and battle for survival. The title, The Savage Mountain, says it all and has given K2 its defining epithet.
Forbidden Journey, by Ella Maillart
Swiss author Ella Maillart is one of the most compelling figures in twentieth-century exploration. An Olympic-class athlete, she turned to journalism and travel writing in the 1930s and made a series of extraordinary journeys through central Asia. All her books are great but this one is particularly interesting because of the parallel account written by her traveling companion, Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming’s brother and one of the models for James Bond. In 1935 Maillart and Fleming made an epic 3,500-mile journey from Peking to Kashmir, much of it by horse. The contrast between Fleming’s book, News from Tartary, and Maillart’s Forbidden Journey is utterly fascinating. Both are very sophisticated travelers and observers, but Fleming seems to want to get the journey done as quickly as possible and Maillart is much more interested in the people she meets and land she passes through.
That Untravelled World, by Eric Shipton
Eric Shipton was known as “Mr. Everest” and was the greatest British mountaineer of his generation. This autobiography covers a lot of ground. It begins with his early days as a tea planter in Africa and moves on to his decade climbing and mapping of the Himalayas, which he did before WWII when he was appointed the British Consul to the remote Chinese provinces of Kashgar and Kunming. Then his life falls apart. He is thrown out of China and sacked from the leadership of the successful 1953 Everest expeditions. He loses his job, his wife, and his self-respect before rediscovering his passion for exploration during a series of groundbreaking expeditions to Patagonia. Though he suffered from dyslexia as a child, Shipton is a great writer: thoughtful, unpretentious, and witty. His life was not easy, but aspiring explorers can’t help but envy his adventures in a time when so much of the world really was still unspoiled and unexplored.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle, by W. E. Bowman
From its foreword (when the legendary mountaineer O. Totter advises that this book should be read by every school boy “at least twice”) to its climax (in which the expedition leader, Binder, gets to the top of the wrong mountain), W. E. Bowman’s comic novel announces itself as the parody par eminence of all those stiff-upper-lipped climbing memoirs published in the 1950s (and regularly repeated since then). It tells the story of an attempt on the mythical Rum Doodle, a 40,000-and-a-half-foot giant, by a team of pukka British chaps, supported by 3,000 local porters and 75 boys to carry their lunches. Though unappreciated at the time, it has now become a cult classic and there’s even a real mountain named Rum Doodle in Antarctica.
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Mick Conefrey is the author of The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent and the award-winning Everest 1953. A documentary filmmaker who worked for the BBC for two decades, he specializes in mountaineering and exploration and has filmed all over the world, from Greenland to Cambodia to the Himalayas. Find him at www.mickconefrey.co.uk or on Twitter at @mickulus.