By Marcia Allen
Technical Services and Collections Manager
Dorling Kindersley Publishing has long enjoyed a respected reputation for high quality books, particularly those with beautiful photography and interactive layout. Each title seems to be an engrossing, all-encompassing tour of its topic, one which treats the reader to a visual feast. Local readers may well be familiar with the lovely Eyewitness books that so many children love, or the Eyewitness travel books for adults that do so much more than simply describe a destination.
Fairly new to the library is one of the nicest books I have seen in the last year. Mountaineers, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, was written by Ed Douglas and polished by a team of consultants. I invite you to browse this wonderful book; though you may have little interest in mountaineering, you will be stunned by the audacity and determination of the central characters.
There are excellent references to climbers of ancient times. In 1991, for example, German hiker Helmut Simon was exploring the Italian-Austrian border with a friend. To the dismay of the two men, they discovered a skull protruding from a shelf of ice. They reported what they thought were recent remains of a lost hiker, but further research indicated the man to have lived during the Neolithic Age, some 5000 years earlier. The man, called “Otzi the Iceman” by scientists, had died as the result of an arrow wound that caused massive internal bleeding.
The Japanese monk Kukai, born in 774, is one of the more unusual climbers mentioned in the book. He ascended Mount Koya located near Osaka in 818 to begin work on a monastery designed for meditation. Avid followers brought about a permanent Buddhist refuge that is still in use today.
Albert Frederick Mummery was an avid pioneer of alpinism during the 19th century. Though dogged by childhood ailments, this determined Englishman climbed the Matterhorn at the age of eighteen and went on to espouse unguided climbing. He even wrote a seminal memoir about climbing, entitled My Climbs in the Alps of Caucasus. Like so many other enthusiasts of the sport, he disappeared during a climb, probably the victim of an avalanche.
Another equally famous climber, Charles Houston, is featured in the book. Houston, a 20th century American physician, was involved with several climbs, among them two tries at scaling K2. His failed attempts nearly caused his death, but they also brought about a greater good. Houston wrote a book entitled Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains, that has been a valuable resource for other climbers, particularly on the subject of altitude sickness.
Women climbers are also prominently featured in this book. Lucy Walker, for example, was the 19th century daughter of Francis Walker, a British advocate of the adventure of climbing. Lucy suffered from rheumatism and sought relief from it by joining her father and brother in a trek through the Alps. Taken by the beauty of her new sport, she went on to become the first woman to scale the Matterhorn.
Lest you think the book omits the most famous of the climbers, rest assured that George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, and Reinhold Messner are not forgotten. Their stories, along with those of the many other successful , as well as tragic, climbers are highlighted by drawings, photographs and maps that make each venture a treat for the reader.
Mountaineering gear featured in the book is absolutely fascinating. The ergonomically designed 20th century crampons that replicate the shape of the foot are now standards for serious climbers. But 16th century wood and rope boot attachments, designed to steady steps in the snow, are also pictured. The climbing rope, another vital component of a successful ascent, is also explained. Hawser ropes from the 17th century, as well as highly specialized ropes from the 21st century, are featured along a timeline that illustrates clever uses by famed explorers.
Beyond hiking up a couple of the Colorado Fourteeners with my family several years ago, I have never climbed a mountain. Nor do I intend to. But the breathtaking photographs and thrilling adventures stories will bring me back to this book again and again. It’s that good.