Top 10 Most Thrilling Mountain Survival Books
My writing of Summit was inspired by many literary categories—history, adventure, travel—but, above all, by the great mountain stories that accompanied my climbing days.
The ten most important, in chronological order relating to the epoch they refer to, are as follows:
- Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper
The race to summit the Matterhorn was as furious in the 19th century as it was for Mount Everest in the 20th. Edward Whymper’s book, first published in June 1871, recounts his long road to a fleeting moment of success, only to then dissect the reasons for the tragedy that befell his party on their descent as forensically and vividly as any modern-day release. The last paragraph still cautions nearly 150 years later:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste: look well to each step: and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
- Into the Silence by Wade Davis
The British quest to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s is the stuff of legend, anchored always by the ill-fated George Leigh Mallory and his often-quoted line—“Because it’s there.”
Wade Davis, who once held the enviable title of explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, combines the stories of these expeditions with a visceral analysis of the horrors the participants had survived in the trenches of World War I before they ever went to the great mountain. “Because of what we have seen” may have been the real reason.
- No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
A cult classic that tells the true story of Benuzzi breaking out of an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Kenya in 1943. With two companions and using stolen prisoner’s rations and camp-made equipment, Benuzzi then undertook a harrowing climb of Mount Kenya for the hell of it before the trio handed themselves over to the British authorities: the climbers’ “Great Escape.”
- Annapurna by Maurice Herzog
There are fourteen peaks over 8000 metres (26,000 feet) in the Himalayas and the first to be climbed was Annapurna in 1950—still today, statistically the most dangerous of them all.
Herzog, who reached the top with Louis Lachenal, dictated this work, one of the greatest mountaineering books of all time, from his hospital bed, recounting a hazardous climb to the top, followed by a traumatic survival story that still turns the stomach, however many times you have read it. Red-bellied fly maggots to clean out the dead frost-bitten flesh, anyone??
- Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage by Hermann Buhl
The German quest to be the first to climb Nanga Parbat commenced in 1932. With five expeditions and the cumulative loss of eleven Germans and fifteen Sherpa and porters, it, at times, resembled a blood feud between a nation and a mountain more than a climbing endeavor.
The Austrian climber Hermann Buhl finally conquered it in 1953, thirty-six days after Everest had finally been climbed by Hillary and Tenzing, but very much in his own style—a way of climbing that still influences the toughest and best climbers today.
Although part of a larger siege-style expedition, Buhl soloed the final section to the summit without supplemental oxygen and then, on his descent, bivouacked for a night, standing up, at over 8000 meters before returning alive.
- The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis
I grew up in England in the late sixties and seventies watching black-and-white televisions that etched David Bowie, the Apollo missions, and English climber Chris Bonington doing repeated battle with Everest into my youthful brain.
Organizing a series of high-risk expeditions up routes that most avoid today, Bonington assembled climbing groups that were hard-core, fearless, and fully prepared to risk everything for a summit.
Epic, heroic, and ultimately fatal for most of them as this book shows.
- The Crystal Horizon by Reinhold Messner
In 1980, Reinhold Messner proved why he is rightly considered the greatest climber of all time by soloing Mount Everest from the north, during the heavier snow conditions of the monsoon, and without supplemental oxygen.
The Crystal Horizon tells the story of a climb that many considered impossible and by achieving it, Messner made his legacy unassailable.
A study in outrageous audacity.
- Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
The great mountain survival story.
When Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’s climb of the 21,000-foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Alps unravels, an epic of mental and physical suffering begins.
Makes you continually ask yourself, “Would you? Could you?” just like other excruciating survival tales such as Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place and Piers Paul Reid’s Alive.
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
The book that introduced the world to the new realities of Everest climbing of the 1990s.
Still an outstanding, electric read but best partnered with Weston de Walt’s The Climb—Tragic Ambitions on Everest to get a fuller picture of what happened during the 1996 Everest disaster and Beck Weathers’s Left for Dead to understand the human consequences.
The doctored first edition copy shown in my photographs was given to me by my groomsmen in recognition of the fact that I was writing an “Everest story” and suggesting a suitable title for it.
- Kiss of Kill—Confessions of a Serial Climber by Mark Twight
Punk-rock attitude collides with climbing in a series of raw and unfiltered essays that dissect the author’s mountain experiences.
I was no Steve House as a climber and always struggled to listen to Skinny Puppy, but Twight’s other, more technical book, Extreme Alpinism— Climbing Light, Fast & High, was the manual for my years living and climbing in the Alps and was inspired by the great Hermann Buhl.
The chapter Down the Rupal Face is still one of my favorite mountain survival tales but then again, I didn’t have to live it!
And finally, as a bonus…
The Ascent of the Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman
Comedy fiction about an imaginary group of eccentric British mountaineers who attempt to summit the Rum Doodle, the “highest mountain in the world” at forty thousand and a half feet tall.
A parody of a number of books by the early British Himalayan explorers written by a quiet structural engineer called W.E. Bowman in the 1950s that has since obtained a loyal audience among the very people it set out to make fun of: the mountaineers.
A silly diversion perhaps but a good antidote to the intensity and drama of the ten preceding reads and, at the very least, you will understand how the famous restaurant in Kathmandu got its name.