BOOKS / Solitary hellebores: Stephen Goodwin looks for gratuitous idiocy in the new range of books about mountains

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The Independent Culture
DERMOT SOMERS lives dangerously. He is, in one guise, a climber whose ascents include the six great North faces of the Alps. But as an author and a storyteller, the 45-year-old Irishman takes bigger risks. Those present at the International Festival of Mountaineering Literature last November watched him gamble with a deep draught of Irish mysticism. It was the closing reading of a day which had explored the darker side of mountaineering and had drawn a long and anguished groan the next day from one publishing insider. But I found it enthralling.

Stoneboat is set on an isle west of Ireland. It concerns a tormented priest who obsessively swims the Atlantic rollers. Hardly the predictable stuff of expedition books, but 15 minutes into the story, Somers's audience was split between the entranced, the dozing and the bemused.

The breadth of the collection - all fiction except for 'Dru North Face' - is impressive. Johann, a novella, tells of a leader of nationalist partisans resisting Soviet expansion in the 1940s. Tortured in his relationship with Anna, he watches through the telescopic sights of his loaded rifle as she and his rival attempt the great ice face that thwarted his own climbing drive before he devoted himself to the Movement. In The Fox, a fugitive makes a last stand in the Wicklow mountains - where Somers lives. Somers is seldom a comfortable read.

This year's Boardman Tasker winner was In Monte Viso's Horizon (Ernest Press, pounds 16.95) a serendipitous account by Will McLewin of climbing all 75 of the 4,000-metre peaks in the Alps. Undertaken without any idea of writing a book, this rare feat for a Briton took 22 years. Once a mathematics lecturer, now a nurseryman and a specialist in hellebores, McLewin appeared at the festival, but his ill-considered readings made a very fine book sound even less interesting than the refectory menu at Bretton Hall, the arts wing of Leeds University, where the event was held.

In a beautifully produced volume, he intersperses personal accounts of the ascents with reflections on diverse issues such as diminishing wilderness, food and equipment, and soloing: 'Climbing becomes an activity shared with the mountain, whereas with other people you never entirely lose the component of combining with them to defeat it.'

Wrestling with the contradiction at the heart of all climbing literature - that the activity is essentially 'indescribable' - McLewin probably speaks for most alpinists when he declares his days in the Alps to be those when he feels most alive.

There are also some fine straight expedition accounts in the 1992-93 Alpine Journal (Hutchinson in association with the Alpine Club, pounds 17.99). Here, in the 350 pages, are the doings of the British climbing aristocracy. Expedition books are much disparaged, but reduced to 3,000-word reports they become both readbale and useful. Why, unless you're keen on the pictures, spend pounds 15.99 on Chris Bonington and Robin Knox Johnston's Sea, Ice and Rock (Hodder and Stoughton) - a somewhat laboured account of their sail to Greenland and attempt on unclimbed Cathedral Peak (2,660m) - when the AJ contains a crisp Bonington version of the hazardous approach through the ice. After 14 hours of climbing, some of it hard and exposed, Bonington and Jim Lowther came within 100 metres of the summit, but on a separate pinnacle, and with the weather closing in.

Besides the worldwide area notes, reviews and obituaries - some, regrettably, before their due time - the AJ includes a section on relevant environmental issues. Most disturbing is a piece by the mountain guide Rob Collister entitled 'Trench Warfare on Makalu'. He paints a dismal picture of the filth by the trail, an overcrowded base camp and the unconcealed antagonism between and within the different parties. Collister concludes he will not be going back to the 8,000-metre peaks and that perhaps Ruskin was correct when he wrote in 1865 that climbers view mountains as 'soaped poles in a bear garden'.

Students of mountaineering controversies will be fascinated by K2: The 1939 Tragedy (Diadem pounds 14.99), which reassesses the chain of errors which led to the deaths of a bumbling, wealthy American socialite, Dudley Wolfe, and three Sherpas who tried to rescue him, high on the world's second highest mountain. The tragedy provoked a row within the US climbing fraternity which festered for decades. It may be no coincidence that the diary on which this book by Andrew Kauffman and William Putman is based did not become available until after the death in 1988 of the expedition leader, German-born Fritz Wiessner.

The enterprise was ill-conceived from the outset. Though Wiessner was a brilliant climber, his companions were woefully inexperienced for an attempt on what remains the most respected of the 8,000-metre peaks. Wolfe and Wiessner spent far longer in the high altitude 'death zone' than would now be even contemplated. Neither could have been thinking clearly. When Wolfe was last seen he had gone to pieces, lying in his tent surrounded by his own excrement. Faced with such grim tales of the personal animosity that can develop on long expeditions, you warm to the McLewin approach, soloing in the Alps. Or is this just another facet of what Somers calls 'the gratuitous idiocy of mountaineering'?

(Photograph omitted)