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Elusive Summits

December 3, 2011

Let’s start well. Let’s begin with something great.

Climbing/mountaineering memoirs usually falls into one of three camps: the first is “how I survived tragedy, death and/or titanic struggles on the mountains”, the second “how I became the great man I’m now through character building experiences”. Both these first two have produced well known, even inspiring book – Walter Bonatti “Mountains of My Life” may be the most famous title of the first type (but you’ll be surprised to learn that, despite the inordinate amount of Wagnerian grandeur that seem to clutter Bonatti’s books, the Great Man itself had a lot of fun on the mountains. Well, maybe it was because of the Wagnerian grandeur). The second one it’s now more common nowadays, particularly if the author is American and he’s in love with the word “extreme” or any of its synonyms.

The third genre makes for much of my favourite literature (not just climbing literature, mind you) – the “fun” climbing book. It’s the kind of writing that’s becoming a lost art of sort, as people (particularly publishers) believe that’s impossible to put “fun” and “climbing” together in the same sentence without producing stuff no one wants to read. Baloney, I say. There’s an entire generation of climbers who grew up reading Gaston Rebuffat “Starlight and Storm”, and yes, if there’s someone who always had major good time climbing icy north faces was ‘ole Gaston. Part of the charm of his books (and one of the reasons they were hated so much by the valley crag elitist in the ‘70) was that he made places like the north face of the Grandes Jorasses great, unadulterated fun. Ok, maybe not the Monty Python type, more contemplative, relaxing good time, but you may get my point.

And, I mean, have you read Georges Livanos “Au-dela de la Verticale”? It’s one of the funniest books EVER, and we mean big laughs here, the kind of stuff that comes straight from the belly. Livanos (like Rebuffat, a Marseille resident who for some reason decided that mountains were more interesting than the sea) did like all good European climbers do, and went to Chamonix to climb all those big mandatory classics were you need to get up early in the morning, walk three hours before the real climbing starts, and the descent is the moment you REALLY risk being killed. After a while he decided this was not his cup of tea, so he went to the Dolomites, and made a career (a GREAT career, make no mistakes) climbing terrifying, overhanging limestone/dolomite walls where the approach takes 20 minutes, there’s always the sun, you may get up from bed at 8am if you really want to be thought as an early riser, and the descent is the moment you start REALLY thinking about the pasta waiting for you back in the hut down the valley.

Sound dull? Well, not in Georges’s book. I really don’t understand why it hasn’t yet been translated in English, as I believer his tall, sarcastic, good natured climbing tales would have an audience outside France (they already had in Italy). He’s (actually, he was – he died two years ago well past 80 years old) a great juggler of words, and makes a wonderful use of plenty of French (and particularly, Marseille-area) clichés: his Greek background, the Tartarine books, the whole “I boast thus I am” obsession so typical the French midi… big, big fun. I must translate something and put it here, so you may see for yourself.

But my vote for the best “fun” climbing memoir ever goes to “Elusive Summits” and “No Place To Fall”, the two books written by elusive (no pun intended) British climber (and now Chamonix resident)Victor Saunders. Victor is a Himalaya regular, the type of British climber saved mountaineering from extinction / dullness / total boredom back in the 80’s. With a small band of like-minded people, Victor moved the climbing world attention from the obsessive (and deadly) race to bag more and more 8000s that was making headlines back then, to more technical, more adventurous but – whatever this may make sense for you – more human pursuit on “smaller” peaks (if anything 6000 or 7000 metre high may be considered “small”). The result was a string of expeditions, mostly self-financed (or lightly sponsored) from 1982 to 1994, in the finest and cleanest tradition you may hope for.

Of course, “fine” and “clean” doesn’t’ always mean successful. But as you may learn reading those two nice books (long out of print, but still available on Ebay if you’re patient enough), “the best climbs are those who nearly succeed or nearly fail”. In the end, it’s all back to the “a fine trip with some top bloke” cliché of so many British mountaineering book, just that this time it’s not a cliché, it’s real. It’s the kind of book that makes you whish you’re out climbing instead of staying home reading. It’s writing that makes mountain going the exciting, brilliant, great pursuit it sometimes is.

I’ll be back to Victor’s book in some future entry of this blog. And I’ll also introduce you to “Downward Bound”, the funniest (and probably least useful) climbing manual EVER.

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