BOOK REVIEW / Dancing within a step of death: Stephen Goodwin reviews three books by mountain climbers on why they take risks

THERE IS a dark painting of a sturdy mountaineer of a bygone era anxiously casting around on a steep slope while death, in the form of a skeleton, whispers in his ear. Nightfall, it seems, will not find the man telling of his epic over a beer in the warmth of an alpine refuge.

The picture is chilling, particularly for climbers. They are quite content to talk about the high risks of their pastime. After all, if it were not for those adrenalin- rich moments when an exposed move has to be flawlessly executed, they might as well take up golf. But death itself is a more uncomfortable subject and usually brushed aside with a touch of gallows humour.

Two books published this month push death directly under the nose. Robert Leonard Reid in The Great Blue Dream (Hutchinson pounds 12.99) claims a first in allowing the reader to enter the mind of mountaineers to understand what he believes to be their fascination with death.

Reid says he carried on a secret relationship with death for 20 years, and seems to think this is common. Mountaineers climb not just because they love mountains but because it allows them, year after year, to dance as close to death as possible - 'within in a single step'. This is not the usual stuff of gossip in the climber's bar. 'Countless times I have touched my tongue to the illicit brew,' he continues. Mixed with the joy of the return to life, for him, has been the unspeakable joy of looking into the darkness beyond. But as one progresses through Reid's modest adventures across North America this 'deep and sustained communion with death' begins to sound more like fear and thrill.

Regrettably, this thought-provoking retrospect on the climber's emotions ends after 29 pages. Reid settled in New Mexico with a new wife and baby and contented himself with bright rambles. The remaining 175 pages are mostly pedestrian.

Death stalked Jerzy Kukuczka for more than 20 years, but in My Vertical World (Hodder & Stoughton pounds 16.99) the sense is of honest grief, not fascination. By 1986, after fatal accidents to comrades on four successive Himalayan expeditions, the talk was that the indomitable climber from Katowice was bad news.

'Taking this logically, I shouldn't be going with you. All around you people seem to die,' said Artur Hajzer when he agreed to join Kukuczka for an ultimately successful attempt on the north-east face of Manaslu.

In 1987 Kukuczka became only the second man to conquer all 14 peaks more than 8,000 metres high. Reinhold Messner had completed his 'collection' a year earlier. All but one of Kukuczka's set were taken by new routes, and unlike his Sud Tyroler rival, he continued to go to the limits. With grim inevitability death took a step closer, finally whispering into his ear high on the south face of Lhotse in October 1989. He was 41. As Chris Bonington says in The Climbers (Hodder & Stoughton / BBC pounds 16.95): 'The statistics of risk had finally caught up with him as well.'

My Vertical World, has a postscript by Krzystof Wielicki, Kukuczka's partner on Kangchenjunga, which ends with a description of a Requiem Mass in Katowice cathedral when several hundred mourners bade farewell to 'Jurek'. The passage echoes two earlier chapters, in which Kukuczka confides his feelings of guilt at being alive as he visits the widows of his companions.

Wielicki says of Kukuczka: 'Physically he was unbreakable.' On his own admission, he had 'no interest in playing for low stakes'. The stakes are pretty high in Himalayan mountaineering at the best of times - perhaps a one in 10 chance of being killed. With avalanches pouring down on all sides on Manaslu in autumn 1986, one partner decided that Kukuczka was ignoring obvious dangers, and that the drive to capture all 14 of the 8,000s attacked the very essence of what is gained from mountaineering.

The business of launching an expedition (no small feat from Poland under martial law), getting established on the mountain, the days of bad weather and wading through deep snow, and then the summit bid, has a certain repetitiveness. What distinguishes My Vertical World from other expedition books is that it is by a Pole who had to scrape together enough zlotys for his early trips by painting factory chimneys from an abseil rope, wheedle permissions from bureaucrats in Warsaw and Islamabad, and generally operate on the slenderest of shoe strings.

Unlike hard currency climbers from the West, Kukuczka and his companions could not afford to be cheated by porters or suffer costly mishaps. After wrecking a truck they set up a bazaar in Gilgit selling pans, mess kits and sleeping bags, cutting their equipment to the minimum.

According to his friends, Kukuczka, an electrical engineer by training, was a quiet, sensitive, and deeply religious man. He was plainly a loving husband and father - he had two sons - but it is hard to believe on this evidence that they were his first love.

(Photograph omitted)