The Mountaineering Culture Studies Group is made possible through the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop programme at the Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan. It is also generously supported as a Special Interest Group by the university's Department of English.

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Below you'll find a series of topical book reviews written by MCSG members as part of our summer 2013 reading project. A few more will be added in the coming months. To learn more about the MCSG member authors of these reviews, visit our members page.

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Reviewer: Neale S. Batra, University of Michigan 2009-2012
Book: Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (Ecco, 2011)

Philip Connors’ account of ten summers spent looking for fires in New Mexico’s mountainous Gila Wilderness follows a pattern of observational nature writing reminiscent of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. The routine duties of a US Forest Service field employee are carried out in the midst of fierce storms, personal encounters, and philosophical epiphanies. Where Connors departs from the mold is in his focus on history and conservationism. The scenic panoramas and Connors’ encounters with animals, hikers, and family are conduits for his description of the inter-related histories of land management, fire suppression, ranching, and efforts towards the protection of endangered species in the American southwest. In his recitation, Connors uses his everyday experiences to bring home to us how the societal and environmental movements of the last century have led to his airy appointment in the mountains.

As the nation’s first federally designated wilderness area—since 1924—and the stomping grounds of legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness allows Connors ample opportunity to discuss the history of wilderness conservation and its manifestation in western lands today. This vast tract of western New Mexico was once overrun by cattle and grazing livestock, leading to severe erosion and endangering rare species. The designation of the Gila as Wilderness meant that no new roads could be built and no motorized or mechanized vehicles could be used within its boundaries. The bureaucratic upheaval that this concept wrought was only slightly more significant than the mental transformation Leopold underwent to introduce it. Leopold’s conversion from an industry-supporting Forest Service supervisor to a leader of the wilderness conservation movement somewhat mirrors Connors’ own journey from salaried Wall Street reporter to free-lance writer. This comparison deepens as Connors frames himself and his job as a product of Leopold’s legal and philosophical legacy.

If ranching, logging, and mining were viewed in the 1920s as integral to the efficient utilization of public lands, wildfire was seen as the scourge to the same. Fire sent potential profit (forest) up in smoke and the tragedies of lost lives and incinerated assets captivated the nation’s psyche. Connors artfully summarizes the decade-long military-style campaign to combat wildfire, in which helicopters returned from war in Korea only to fight another red menace. The ecological damage borne by this strategy of total fire suppression was only realized later, when fires fueled by accumulated underbrush burned more fiercely and dangerously. Connors neatly ties his thoughts together by noting that Leopold’s vision of a less-managed wilderness laid the groundwork for the awareness of fire’s ecological importance and the relaxation of absolutist fire suppression tactics.
Connors’ lectures are pleasantly mixed with his stories of life as a lookout. He writes of the time spent with his dog, of visits from his wife, of meetings with quirky hikers traversing the Continental Divide Trail, and of encounters with animals. These stories shine light on his mental state, personal life, and character. The pace is laid back, almost sleepy, until the reader gets the same jolt of excitement as Connors does when he spots a smoke tendril rising feebly above the mountains—wildfire!

Compared to the rich historical passages, parts of the narrative about Connor’s family can seem somewhat unfulfilling. Connors’ choice to annually isolate himself from his wife for five months seems a major decision, but why he does it and how the couple overcomes this challenge to their relationship is not sufficiently explored. One is left with the feeling that more psychological depth exists, but was not addressed in this book; perhaps it will be in another.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book is the degree to which Connors understands the trajectory of the socio-economic and cultural forces that led to his appointment as a mountain-top lookout. The descriptions of parachuting, “smoke-jumper” firefighters, rancher-conservationist angst, and his constant search for wildfire flow into and build on each other. Critics could claim that not much happens in this book, but that would be missing the point. The depth of narrative comes from the wandering of the mind, recognition of patterns, and rare moments of unanticipated excitement. These are the tales of people posted high above, paid to look for smoke, who live by the sunrise and sunset. Connors’ presence as the iconic, lone, mountain man is no random accident of history, but rather the confluence of the nation’s wilderness movement, fire management obsession, and economic rollercoaster.
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Reviewer: George Hoffman, Faculty, University of Michigan Department of Romance Languages and Literatures
Book: Gregory Crouch, End
uring Patagonia (New York: Random House, 2001)

“Wealthy dilettantes cannot buy their way onto these exclusive summits,” warns Gregory Crouch in a swipe at Himalayan expeditions. One senses that this exclusivity is one part of what, for him, makes Patagonia worth enduring. Its peaks are inaccessible, intimidating, and suffer the most inclement weather conditions on the planet. Most of what happens during a Patagonian expedition consists of waiting in base camp weeks on end for a break in storm clouds. He does well to speak eloquently of the “dignity of persistence,” for there can be little else most days on which to pin one’s honor. The wind howls, space is cramped and smoke-filled, the cold bears down. The food is monotonous at best. Even life here, however, beats having to struggle on peaks themselves. Yet, Patagonia is worth enduring.

All climbing books grapple with some version of the same paradox: only a fool would attempt to climb X; there is no more worthy aspiration than climbing X. The conundrum’s solution has nothing to do with the mountain and everything to do with the person. Crouch brings an exuberant personality to his answer, full of the same extremes that characterize Patagonia itself. He began as a surfer in Goleta, and he still speaks in an inflected, drawn-out southern California accent. Next, he graduated from West Point and then went on to complete the US Army’s elite Ranger School. He recounts these accomplishments with particular modesty, preferring to focus on his already growing obsession with climbing, in which he seems to have engaged on every weekend and leave open to him.

Once in the mountains, fear takes over, and Crouch is unusually candid in portraying the mind games, the subtle shifts and self-deceptions that climbers use to put off testing themselves on the climb. But once on a difficult pitch, instinct takes over. Much of the more challenging ascents he describes have to do simply with trying not to die. “Mountains aren’t worth dying for, but they are worth risking dying for.” After some of the more harrowing pages that he spends dangling from ropes in the middle of storms, the reader may well wonder whether it really was worth the trouble.

Fortunately, Crouch’s poetry proves up to the task of capturing the quiet glory and crystalline perfection of the summit moment. Otherworldly sunsets and sunrises illuminate a mostly interior landscape, one of having reached peace with the world and one’s self. The rarified altitudes and inhuman extremes, in the end, do not serve to impose exclusivity so much as express the inner hardness and manic drive that lie behind most human accomplishments. But while he makes clear the solitary, anti-social nature of the climber’s single-minded ambition, Crouch draws generous portraits of his fellow climbers, unstinting in his praise and admiration for their achievements and sacrifices. Climbing is a story of personalities struggling with themselves, and Crouch captures these inner clashes as finely as anyone since Jon Krakauer.

That said, place does matter, and Crouch renders exceedingly well the special qualities of Southern hemisphere climbing. In Patagonia, climbs have more to do with the weather than the rock: “The worst kind of ‘good spell,’” he observes, “is the thirty-hour variety, as it lasts just long enough for the alpinist to climb high up a peak and get caught there by the next storm.” He explains the hemispheric conditions that make this so. Shifts in weather, the dreaded appearance of lenticular clouds, and the deafening shriek of gale winds: these compose the meteorological show of horrors that attend each Patagonian ascent.

Even more impressive, Crouch conveys a sharp sense of the space through which he climbs. Crevasses, couloirs, cirques and cols are more than just technical terms borrowed from the French: one sees clearly where he is at each stage of the climb. Although one might think this would count as a standard skill in mountaineering literature, it proves rarer than one would suspect. In many a book, one can page dozens of times to maps and diagrams yet still be unable to picture exactly where the climbers in the account are.

Crouch was a climber who took risks, and he takes ones as a writer, too. Sometimes, he fails: a couple of pages on what makes a “good ascent” and what a bad one seem heavy-handed. Girlfriends left behind are expedited in such summary fashion that one wonders at what story they might tell, given a chance to respond. But mostly, in page after page, he captures the high-adrenaline excitement of climbs free from false drama and delineated in a vivid, take-no-prisoners style that resembles the gutsy ascents he pioneered in Patagonia. Bookended by two ascents of Cerro Torre, the second a first winter ascent, Enduring Patagonia asks again the eternal question of why risk one’s life to climb a mountain and ends with a candid confession that there might be no answer.
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Reviewer: Amrita Dhar, Ph.D. Student, University of Michigan Department of English
Book: Antony Decaneas, ed., Bradford Washburn Mountain Photography (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999)

My first and most abiding impression of this book of photographs is that it has a way of brilliantly leading the eye—that it invites into play a kind of close reading, an intensely pleasant visual labour. The landscape opens up and I fall into it even as I am looking at a photograph and think that I can already see the whole picture because I can see the entire photograph at once. Not a whit. Take After the Storm, Climbers on the Doldenhorn, Switzerland (1960), for instance. What first stopped me at this one was the wild balance of snow on the mountainside, rising in incredible cornices and rumps under a sharp ridge above a sheer wall of snow and ice. Washburn must have been paying close attention to a lesson learnt in the mid-1930s from Ansel Adams—‘to expose for the shadows and then to develop for the highlights’ (p. 24; emphasis in the original)—for in the cross-sections of the cornices, the very layers of yearly ice are visible. As are visible the effects of sun and wind on the face, because gentle flutings come into view where sharp cracks or breaks cannot be seen on the ice. But when the fantastic arches of ice and snow release my sight a little, I unexpectedly find six little dots on the crest of the ridge—I know at once, with a shiver, that those are six little people striding the horizon! Precipitously now, the landscape falls into vertiginous space below them and soars high above into a rare sky. A far mountain springs into relief behind the climbers and on their left, and immediately behind the climbers, the rising clouds that silhouette them for us seem to catch a swirl of movement. And as if this were not enough, I see too that two of the figures, the two foremost in the little line of six, have shadows long enough to reach the first of the massive snow steps below the ridge. For half a moment, it becomes easy for me to imagine what it must be like to be walking on that ridge, with my shadow casting into relief the huge snow curl beneath me and on my right. The dizzying scope of the landscape and the sharp fall of the earth on both sides of me makes me close my eyes. When I reopen them, I am sitting with a book on my lap, and looking at a photograph. But it is a photograph like several others in the book, in that it has made me leave my head and come back inside it with high air in my lungs.

I browsed the magnificent—and elegantly reproduced—photographs in the book for several days before I actually read it, and it wasn’t until then that I found out that Washburn had been fond of the Dolderhorn photograph himself. In an interview by the editor of this book, Antony Decaneas, Washburn’s remarks on it say volumes about the photographer’s understanding of composition, light, photographic technology, landscape, and indeed, about negotiating that landscape by the then revolutionarily new medium of air. ‘Some of my best pictures were accidents or just plain good luck. My negative 4481, After the Storm, Climbers on the Doldenhorn, is just such an example. I was on my way to photograph the Jungfrau on a beautiful sunny morning after a snowstorm when we passed over a group of climbers working their way up a long, sharp ridge. I told the pilot to make a very tight turn, and I got the shot, one of the best I’ve ever made’ (p. 27). This is by no means the only place in which the viewer/reader senses the excitement and affection that went into the making of the work showcased in the book. Through expert editing and a superb eye, Antony Decaneas foregrounds, in this slim volume, the many-layered genius of Bradford Washburn: that he was man of exploration and science, but also a mountaineer, and also a cartographer, and also a pilot, and finally, that he had a veritable gift of understanding of the mechanics of photographic technology and a farsighted appreciation of the aesthetics of the medium. For that is what this book is ultimately about: some of the most wonderful mountainscapes of the world, seen in monochrome and often from a point of view that only high birds usually command. The result is a terrific range of images—from abstract and absorbing patterns of snow and ice and rock (Ruth Glacier Crevasses, Alaska, 1978, p. 6; Tokositna Gravel Bars, Alaska, 1979, p. 10) to vast panoramas of entire ranges (Sunset at 41,000 feet, Mount McKinley, Alaska, 1978, p. 44; Ice Front of the Nunatak Glacier from over Nunatak Fjord, Alaska, 1938, p. 61), to absolute geometric configurations acted out by, for instance, a glacier turning a bend and moulding a moraine (A Glacier Turns A Corner, Bend of Shoup Glacier, Alaska, 1938, p. 48; Marble Cake Moraines in the Great Malaspina Glacier, Alaska, 1966, p. 52), to frightening close-ups of sheer ice or rock formations (Mount Huntington’s Incredible North Face, Alaska, 1978, p. 36; Summit of the Matterhorn from the West-Southwest, in A Windstorm above Clouds, Italy/Switzerland, 1958, p. 74), to eccentric pathways of wind or water on the surface of the earth (Eroded Upland near Portage Creek, Alaska, 1940, p. 88; Braided Stream, Muddy River, Alaska, 1949, p. 89), to minuscule human beings nearly invisible in their gigantic settings, but when visible, making those settings the more exquisite and magnificent for their being in them (The Chain of the Aiguille Verte from the Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, France, 1957, p. 77; Liliputians in the Great Gorge of Ruth Glacier, Alaska, 1955, p. 122).

Decaneas winds up the book with a timeline of Washburn’s life. It is an illustrious life, lived long and full and shared with his wife Barbara, who seems to have had a crucially significant role in the lifework of Bradford. But it is the photographs I keep coming back to. I get a sense of a life gorgeously travelled, and of eyes feasted into ever further appetite and exploration. I only wish this were a bigger book, and there were many more pages of photographs.
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Reviewer: Alice Tsay, Graduate Student, University of Michigan Department of English
Book: Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012)

Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet traces his journey to the foot of Mount Kailas, a Himalayan mountain that has never been climbed because of its sacredness to the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. The veteran travel writer makes this trip partly as a form of secular pilgrimage, an unbeliever’s exploration of religion and the way it has pressed meaning upon the landscape. At the same time, it serves as a trail of personal mourning following the death of his mother; fittingly, he notes that “going to Kailas,” for Hindus, is a euphemism for death. As Thubron puts it three-fifths of the way through the book, “I am doing this on account of the dead. Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts not long ago, in a hospital ward, as the last of my family dies.” Throughout, observations about daily encounters with his local guides and hosts mingle with historical facts, musings on religion, and recollections of his parents’ lives and his mother’s last breaths.

In the work, Thubron’s prose frequently takes on an elegiac tone, a product of his approach to the trip as both a spiritual and physical path. For example, he describes Tibet as “the land of yearning” and the way a Sherpa’s call “echoes down the river like a broken secret[,]…the noise of somewhere imagined or hopelessly far away.” Tracing the imprint of Western influence, he refers to travelers such as Sven Hedin, Freya Stark, and Ippolito Desideri as well as the writers Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This interweaving of literary, mythical, and historical visions of Tibet is echoed in the slide between his journey as it is experienced and as it is written. At one point, reading over his notes, Thubron sees “only words blurring like cuneiform into the damp from sleet or streaming nostrils….The wider landscape too—the shapes of surrounding peaks—has wandered into gibberish.” He combines this with a precise eye for description, both of the local flora and fauna, as well as of incongruities such as the “little teddy bear pendants and animal heads with Disney smiles” sold at tourist stalls and the Manchester United-loving monks he hears about at one monastery. Altogether, these details give the book a rich, lyrical texture.

Occasionally, however, To a Mountain in Tibet veers into glossy versions of racist tropes. At one point, Thubron describes a man as having a face with “the lemony blandness of a sumo wrestler’s.” At another, he observes a man with Down syndrome dancing, “his Mongoloid features subsumed among the Tamang faces around him,” replicating outdated nineteenth-century theories of ethnicity and disability. Lines such as these undercut the way Thubron has framed the narrative as a questing, reflective, and informed account. Like Kailas itself, these goals offer an objective that he approaches but cannot surmount.
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Reviewer: Marina Maricus, Orthotic Resident, University of Michigan Health System, 2012-2013
Book: Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan, Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day (New York: Norton, 2012)

The scene is one you may have heard of before, a classic panorama of the tragedies that too often befall high altitude mountaineers; cold, exertion, bravery, death, far away from the comforts of home and the voices of loved ones. However, the story that plays out in Peter Zuckerman’s and Amanda Padoan’s 2012 book is told in a slightly different light, focusing not only on the heroic efforts and gruesome deaths of the international climbers on K2 that fateful day, but also on the Sherpas who had a hand to play in the saving (and dooming) of the characters. Disjointed as the story may be, it is a complete one, with a strongly written cast and obvious attention to detail.

The story begins with a discussion of the early life of two very different Sherpa climbers: Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Lama. Born in different countries, from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and with wildly contrasting personalities, the two climbers are similar in their addictions to high altitude mountaineering. To the more ‘sane’ individual, the profession leaves much to be desired: death and disability are common outcomes.  And yet, there is something magical (and monetarily rewarding) that keeps these two men coming back, expedition after expedition. The book features a satisfying discussion of the history of the term ‘Sherpa’, from its cultural beginnings to the more catch-all term used today to describe any mountaineer from the Himalayan region. For Chhiring and Pasang, the term referred to very different things. Chhiring came from the group recognized as the first cultural Sherpa tribe. Pasang was born to a lower class of Pakistani society and was forced to change his name to even be considered as a HAP, or high altitude porter. Regardless of societal standing, they were both hired for the fated 2008 K2 expedition. Here, on the mountain, their stories intertwined as they worked together to save the lives of their fellow mountaineers.

From the villages and cities of the Himalayas, the story transitions to the mountain itself and the setting of the scene of the summit attempt. Perhaps the accidents that occurred in the summer of 2008 on K2 were, as Chirring suspected, due to the wrath of the mountain gods. Perhaps, as the writers speculate, a series of unfortunate circumstances--including language barriers, high-altitude cerebral edema, and inexperience--involving the group of Sherpas and high-altitude porters hired for the climb caused the eventual deaths of 11 people. As the writers describe the climb in great detail from base camp to the summit, and then back down, from many character perspectives and with helpful maps, diagrams, and details of medical conditions, the book begins to resemble a horror movie. One by one, climbers are killed in increasingly gruesome and improbable accidents, described in such detail so as to evoke a physical reaction from the reader (maybe I’m overly sensitive? Maybe not…). Many characters emerge as improbable heroes and unwitting villains. The stories of Chhiring and Pasang, while exemplary in isolation, are lost in the stupefying magnitude of the events playing out on the mountain.

Ultimately, the main point of the book, of the heroics of these two men, is lost in the overwhelming tragedy and overshadowed by the mistakes of their companions The reader is left unsatisfied and somewhat sick, unsure what role fate had to play in the events that day, and convinced only that nature is the true winner in whatever battle was, and continues to be, waged each season on one of the world’s deadliest peaks.
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  Last updated June 2, 2014.