BOOK REVIEW / The high magical world behind the bobble hat: 'The High Mountains of the Alps' - Helmut Dulmer & Willi Burkhardt: Diadem, 30 pounds

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The Independent Online
PICTURE books on mountaineering come and go - too damn often, if you ask me. They sit on the shelves of remainder bookshops with 'reduced to' stickers plastered across their dull covers, hardly a moment after publication, or so it seems.

The contents, as often as not, are drearier than the covers. Poor writing, inaccurate research, bad photographs (as often as not abysmal black and white reproductions from indifferent colour transparencies) and half-hearted editing result in books that do not inspire. It's enough to give a genre a bad name.

Thank God there are exceptions to the rule. Hard Rock, Classic Rock, Extreme Rock and Cold Climbs have set many a climber to exploring far-flung parts of the British Isles, and seem sure to be still in print decades after their original publication. Each is the brain child of Ken Wilson, perfectionist editor extraordinaire. In the same format, his series Wild Walks, The Big Walks and The Long Walks have proved equally inspiring to a generation of mountain walkers.

So while to cognoscenti at least it is no surprise that The High Mountains of the Alps is superb, the sheer quality of what Wilson has produced still manages to take one's breath away. It is the photographs that hit you first. Most are the work of Willi Burkhardt: they are of a quality that can be achieved only through a lifelong dedication to the subject.

Many are large, and if you want a better answer to the question of why climb a mountain than Mallory's 'Because it's there', I suggest you open the book at the double- page spread of the Breithorn and drink deeply. If you still need to ask, then no one can ever tell you.

The original idea of climbing all the Alpine 4,000-metre peaks was achieved by the Austrian Karl Blodig, and the script is based on his classic work Die Viertausender Der Alpen, which was edited extensively by his fellow countryman Helmut Dulmer. Further editing by Wilson has introduced numerous anecdotes of particular interest to Britons, which enhance what might otherwise have been a somewhat repetitive list of peaks and the various routes up them. All this is improved still further by excellent line diagrams, maps and boxes containing vital information such as valley bases and huts, routes and guidebooks and maps. These last sections mean that the text is a delight to read, while all the essential information about a particular peak is to hand, ready for planning next summer's adventures.

Nor is this book purely for hairy men in bobble hats and britches. Women feature prominently - from Getrude Bell (perhaps the most famous of the early female alpinists) to the remarkable exploits of Mrs E P Jackson, who lost several toes following a winter traverse of the Jungfrau in the late 1880s, while at the other end of the spectrum, Queen Victoria inquired of Gladstone whether mountaineering could be banned after three serious accidents occurred among British parties in the summer of 1882.

As if that were not enough, this masterwork is subtitled 'Vol 1: The Four-Thousand Metre Peaks'. Vol 2 - Alpine peaks under 4,000 metres - is on the way, and equally illuminating volumes on the high mountains of the Andes and the Himalayas are distinct possibilities. It would be a shame if all the drab picture-book rubbish at pounds 15- pounds 20 were to put rightly wary purchasers off spending pounds 30 on this truly excellent work.

If you have any sort of mountaineer in your family, be he or she the most armchair-bound of them all, then look no farther for the ideal gift. The High Mountains of the Alps might well be the most authoritative and important work on Alpine mountaineering ever published in this country.