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10 Must-Reads for Active (or Armchair) Alpinists

IStock_000002640423XSmallConsider this your syllabus for Mountaineering 101. Below, we've collected a literary canon with tales of adventure, miraculous survival, spiritual journeys, heart-wrenching losses, and timeless instruction on how best to sneak up on a summit and live to tell the tale. These authors — ranging from beatniks to bestsellers, celebrated climbers to average Joes — take you on an eloquent trek through moraines, into (yes, into) crevasses, up headwalls, all the way to the top and back. These books vary from sobering nonfiction and to vivid yarns; however, they each give glimpses into the zeitgeist of modern-day mountaineering: romance and bleak reality, heroism and cowardice, triumph and failure, death and survival.    

1. Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition, Ed. Ronald C. Eng (The Mountaineers, 2010)

Before even lacing your boots and breaking out the ice axe, read this book! Most of the world's greatest climbers, alpinists, and mountaineers — from Dean Potter to Conrad Anker and Ed Viesturs — all maintain a biblical reverence for this book, having read earlier editions back when they were young, spry climbers. Indeed, in its 600 pages of climbing fundamentals, knot diagrams, belaying techniques, survival tips, and much, much more, Freedom of the Hills contains a scripture-like truth: "The quest of the mountaineer, in simplest terms, is for the freedom of the hills..."

2. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac (The Viking Press, 1958) 

Following up on his previous classic, On the Road, Jack Kerouac once again takes the reader on a beleaguered, ecstatic, and esoteric journey of the soul through 1960's America. This time Kerouac, fueled by an infatuation (and perhaps Benzedrine) for adventure in fulfilling his dharma, climbs California's Matterhorn Peak (12,009 ft.). The book follows the tradition of John Muir, finding self-discovery not just through writing but in exploration.

3. Annapurna, Maurice Herzog, (Lyons Press, 1997)

In 1950, French climber Maurice Herzog accomplished what was then the world's highest summit success, reaching Annapurna I's summit (26,545 ft.) — after which he wrote a classic piece of mountain lore that has since sold over 11 million copies. Creating a snapshot of high-altitude mountaineering before the advent of bottled oxygen, satellite-precision maps, and hi-tech gear, Herzog illuminates the hardships and romance of early mountaineering. Like Freedom of the Hills, his book would go on to inspire several generations of climbers with a particularly famous quote: "There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."

4. The Ascent of Rum Doodle, W.E. Bowman (Max Perrish & Co. Ltd., 1956)

Written five years after Annapurna's publication, the story takes place in "Yogistan," narrated by "Binder," and involves an absurd attempt to overtake a 40,000-foot mountain, Rum Doodle. This fictional narrative lampoons the ever-growing genre of mountaineering literature, satirizing strongman stock characters, bleeding heart romantics, and the gravity of climbing accidents (one particular character spends his last moments in a crevasse drinking champagne). 

5.  Savage Summit: Life and Death of the First Women of K2, Jennifer Jordan (HarperCollins, 2005)

A gripping account of the first five women who attempted the treacherous summit of K2, Savage Summit is as much an ode to these women — risking their lives to summit one of the world's highest and most deadly peaks — as it is an elegy for their groundbreaking presence in the climbing world. But the challenges these women wrestled with weren't only relentless avalanches and exposed slopes on the Abruzzi Spur; these accomplished female climbers, like Wanda Rutkiewicz, who became the first of the five women to summit K2 in 1986, faced constant discrimination and venom from a male-dominated climbing community. 

6. Into Thin Air, John Krakauer (Villard Books, 1997)

A book that has sold over 1.8 million copies (second only to Annapurna), Krakauer's harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster stands as one of the most important mountaineering books of all time. Krakauer, a journalist and seasoned mountaineer, undercuts the poetic allure of Everest all while detailing one hellish night that would change our understanding of the mountain forever: high-altitude sacrifice, death, and the overwhelming truths of a mountain-turned-circus.

7. The Climb, Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt (St. Martin's Press, 1997)

As a rebuttal to Krakauer's scathing criticism published in Into Thin Air, Boukreev gave his side of the story about what really happened the night of the '96 Everest disaster. Boukreev, renowned more for his mountaineering prowess than his skill as a writer, attempts to save face for his decision to forgo bottled oxygen and argues for his status as a hero who indeed saved three people from the storm on the South Col, along with other truths about the ill-fated expedition.

8. High Crimes, Michael Kodas (Hyperion, 2008)

Fraudulent guides, thieving climbers, prostitution, spousal abuse, even murder threats with an ice axe — all present on the encampments of Everest in the 2000's. Indeed, this book melts away whatever sentimental feelings that remained from Into Thin Air, and portrays a sacred mountain tarnished by endless trash, unregulated guiding practices, and one sociopathic guide named "Romanian George." 

9. Touching the Void, Joe Simpson (Vintage, 2004)

After summiting the 21,000-foot peak of Siula Grande, disaster struck on the descent. Joe Simpson's detailed and gut-wrenching three-day struggle to make it from the bowels of a crevasse to base camp (he was left for dead with a broken leg) remains one of the greatest survival narratives ever written, and has been portrayed as a documentary with IFC. 

10. Accidents in North American Mountaineering: 2013, Ed. Jed Williamson (The American Alpine Club, 2012)

Since 1947, the American Alpine Club (AAC) has published a yearly collection of first-person and rescuer accident reports, ranging from near-death encounters to horrific tumbles — most of them caused by bad anchors, knots, and rappel systems. These accidents happen to veterans and greenhorns alike. And if you are a mountaineer, climber, skier, or alpinist, regardless of your ability level: learn from others' mistakes! When reading this book you might wince, squirm, or maybe chuckle with a little schadenfreude — but you'll definitely think about triple-checking your rappel.

Read More:

World's Toughest Peaks? Ed Viesturs Compares Climbs

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--photo by iStockphoto/abooyeung

J. Scott DonahueJ. Scott Donahue is an editorial intern at Sierra. He was a freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp. 

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