Sunday, 4 October 2009

Ken's Guide to Books (more specifically, books about mountains and so forth)

I have, over the years, built up what now appears to be quite a collection of books about mountains, mountaineers, mountaineering and associated outdoor activities. I thought I would take a moment to share my considered opinion on these tomes. Here goes.

(Books are reviewed in the order they appear on my shelves, which has more to do with size than alphabetical order or subject. Sorry!)

The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson.

I think this is the best book Joe Simpson has written. It captures the addictive nature of high places, and the feelings that they stir. They are also dangerous places, and the loss of friends causes Joe to re-evaluate the time he spends there. And he climbs the Eiger (nearly), which is awesome!

Touching The Void, Joe Simpson.

The first book Joe Simpson wrote, and probably the most famous. Up an Ande with a badly bust leg, dropped in to a crevasse and left for dead, he crawls for four days back to camp. Incredibly inspirational.

This Game of Ghosts, Joe Simpson

Or, Simpson – The Early Years. When you read this book you wonder how Joe stayed alive long enough to break his leg in the Andes. Fascinating insight in to the mountaineer's mind.

Storms of Silence, Joe Simpson

I've got to be honest, this is an incredibly tough read. Although nominally a mountaineering book, it deals in some (gruesome) detail with the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I've read it, I'm not sure I'll read it again.

Dark Shadows Falling, Joe Simpson

The thing with Joe Simpson is that he doesn't just write a “we climbed peak x, we climbed peak y” type of book. Against his exploits in the mountains, he describes his feelings on a range of subjects, including here the change in ethics in high mountaineering.

The Flame of Adventure, Simon Yates.

Unfairly known as “the guy who cut the rope”, Simon Yates writes an OK account of his life as a mountaineer. I found it a little dry, “I went here, I went there” but with nothing really binding it all together.

The Hard Years, Joe Brown

The Godfather of British climbing! A really fascinating account of the early years of rock climbing in the UK. Joe and his friends were setting the standard because no-one else was doing it. Well worth a read.

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

The very famous account of the 1996 Everest Tragedy. JK was one of the survivors (obviously) and writes a very interesting account. Controversy surrounds it though, which leads us to...

The Climb, Anatoli Boukreev

Senior guide on a rival expedition, AB got a rough ride in “Into Thin Air” and this is his attempt to put his side of the story. Who's account do you believe? The experienced, high altitude mountaineer or the journalist comatose in his tent. Read this and ITA and make your own mind up!

I Chose To Climb/The Next Horizon, Chris Bonington.

Probably the most famous British Mountaineer, but these books reveal much more about CB. An explorer, journalist and expedition organiser. Interesting reads.

Tibet's Secret Mountain, Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke

First spotted when flying across Tibet on another expedition, Sepu Kangri is a remote and (at the time) unclimbed peak in Tibet. This book details three expeditions to reach and climb it. To be honest, getting there seems to have been harder than climbing it.

Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane

A really interesting study of our perception of mountains through the ages, from the “here be monsters” era, right through to the “Mountain as holiday destination” period that we now live in. A scholarly and well written book.

Touch the Top of the World, Eric Weihenmayer

EW suffers from a rare complaint that meant before he reached his teens he had lost his sight. Does that stop him? It hardly slows him down. This book is very moving, and at times absolutely hilarious. He eventually summits Everest (although you only get the build up in this book)!

Annapurna, Maurice Herzog

An account of the French Expedition to Annapurna, which, when they successfully summited, became the highest mountain climbed at that time. Lots of frostbite and arterial injections, and a slightly “official view, everything was wonderful” tone make it a less than compelling read.

The Mountains of England and Wales (Volumes 1 and 2), John and Anne Nuttall.

Do one of the routes contained in these books every weekend, and providing you've picked different routes each time, you will have covered all the mountains over 2000 feet in England and Wales in two years. And they're Cicerone Press books which are just so nice to use.

The Lakeland Fells Volumes 1-7, Alfred Wainwright

You can't surely need me to tell you about these? Awesome little volumes, beautifully illustrated. Everyone should have a set of these, even if they don't like hills!

Everest the Hard Way, Chris Bonington

Why you would want to make climbing Everest harder than it already is escapes me, but this the account of a team that did just that. Excellent insight, not just into the climbing, but also the organisation needed to make it happen (that particularly appeals to me!)

Dougal Haston – The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff Connor

One of the most iconic of all UK climbers, Dougal Haston was a very complex figure who tragically died in an avalanche whilst skiing. This is a really intriguing insight into a very driven climber.

Wainwright's Favourite Lakeland Mountains, A. Wainwright

A glossy hardback presentation of mountains described in his seven volume set, augmented with lots of lovely photos. Not a guidebook as such, more an inspiration to get out in to the hills.

The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, Irvine Butterfield

Pictures, maps, routes and descriptions, this book has the lot. A comprehensive summary of UK mountains.

Chris Bonington's Everest, Chris Bonington

This book is a summary of the various Everest expeditions that Chris Bonington has been involved in, presented in a very pleasing “firmback” cover with plenty of colour photos. If you only want one Bonington book, this wouldn't be a bad one to get!

The Munros, Cameron McNeish

The definitive book on the Scottish 3000ers? I think so. Beautifully presented and very well written, every keen mountain walker should have this inspirational volume on their shelf somewhere.

Mont Blanc and The Seven Valleys, Frison-Roche and Tairraz

Quite rare apparently, my mum-in-law saw this and thought I might like it. I do! A description of the seven valleys that radiate from the hub of Mont Blanc, this is a really interesting read. Written in the early fifties, before tourism swamped the area, it has a time warp quality. The brilliant black-and-white photographs throughout make this a fantastic addition to my collection.

Ascent of Everest, John Hunt

The account of the 1953 Everest expedition that resulted in getting Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary to the top of the world, told by the man who organised it. A little formal in style perhaps, but very much of it's time, this is a fascinating account which shows just how effort it took to get two men to the top.

Quest for Adventure, Chris Bonington

A compendium of accounts ranging from sailing to moon landing, which show what humans are prepared too do in their search for adventure. A great book, covering twenty one different stories, which really keep your attention.

The Faber Book of Exploration, ed. Benedict Allen

Containing dozens and dozens of accounts, from 480 BC to today, that describe Man's exploration in it's many forms. Easy to dip into, harder to put down!

Mountaincraft and Leadership, Eric Langmuir

THE definitive handbook for all hill and mountain walkers. If you love high and wild places there is no excuse for not owning, reading and re-reading this book. A vital book that everyone should have on their shelf.

Weather for Hillwalkers and Climbers, Malcolm Thomas

Not the best presented book in the world, but a very informative volume covering a subject that all outdoors enthusiasts should be familiar with.

Land Navigation – Route Finding with Map and Compass, Wally Keay

What can be a “Dark” art is explained clearly and logically. Used by DoE Awards, another very useful book for walkers to have to hand.

Two Degrees West, Nicholas Crane

This is an excellent book that describes a walk from Northumberland to Dorset along the Two Degree West meridian. I think because the route is an artificial one, not following a river or range of hills say, it provides a real cross-section of England. Difficult to replicate unless you have contacts in the British Army, RAF and Royal Marines, it is still a motivational read, and a book I re-read before Spa2Summit.

Clear Waters Rising, Nicholas Crane

A walk from the NW tip of Spain to Istanbul by way of a continuous chain of mountains, 10000km long! Although at times it can feel like the author is almost deliberately making things difficult for himself, nonetheless this is an astonishing journey across some of Europe's wildest places. I'd love to do it!

The Ascent of Rum Doodle, W.E. Bowman

Ascent of Everest meets Three Men in a Boat. A hilarious spoof of mountaineering books, well worth a read.

Switzerland, pub. Lonely Planet

A Lonely Planet guide to Switzerland. Simples! (I would live there...)

Walking In Switzerland, pub. Lonely Planet

A Lonely Planet guide to walking in Switzerland. Simples!

Tour of Mont Blanc, Kev Reynolds

One of the classic long distance walks in Europe, this Cicerone guide describes the route clockwise and anti-clockwise. Let's do it!

Wye Valley, Climbing Club

The guide to climbing in the Wye Valley, Forest of Dean and on Cleeve Hill. The definitive handbook.

Hillwalking in Snowdonia, Steve Ashton

I really like this neat little guidebook that covers all the main hill and mountain groups in Snowdonia. Brief descriptions of the areas with walks for all levels of experience. Seek a copy out if you want to get the best out of your time in North Wales.

West Highlands, Nick Williams

A pocket mountain guide that contains forty circular walks in the west Highlands. All the Munros and a load of other great hills are included in this full colour guide.

Mountaineer, Chris Bonington

A large format book that covers CBs career from the early days to big mountain expeditioning. Brief descriptions of each trip accompany loads of fantastic photography. A lot of highs, but the loss of many friends in the mountains adds a bleak note at times.

Bushcraft, Ray Mears

Who hasn't got this? Come on, put your hands up! A great book full of stuff that most of us will never try but dream about nonetheless!

Everest, Roberto Mantovani

A “Coffee Table” book that contains a lot of information and some stunning pictures but that somehow doesn't feel like it's giving you the full skinny on the Himalayan giant. I guess I feel it skirts around a lot of the controversy that has been debated in the last fifteen years; the ethical debate about climbing in the “Death Zone”, the environmental impact at base camp and the South Col, the tragedies. Still, it's nice to look at!

To The Summit, Joseph Poindexter

Another coffee table book, that discusses mountains that “lure, inspire and challenge”. Great photos, and interesting text that not only covers the mountains but also contains biographies of many of the great climbers. One complaint is that is a little North American-centric; seven mountains from the Himalaya compared to 17 from North America (including the well-known South Maroon!). Lovely book despite that!


  1. I used to think you talked about mountains to much... now I'm surprised you talk about anything else! your head (massive as it is) must be totally packed with all this material! can't help thinking it may be a bit like a junkie reading
    'Isn't Smack awesome'
    'Chasing the Dragon, the early years'
    'top 10 places to sell a stolen telly'
    your enthusiasm is infectious Mr K!
    you need a hook to write your own book,cooking atop britains highest mountains, plump ginger Tom sumit snaps...

  2. That's a lot of books. You could stack them all up and climb the stack. It would be like The Old Man of Hoy!

  3. Could I write a book about climbing my climbing books?