An enduring feature of mountaineering is that achievement and disaster are closely linked. The triumph of an historic ascent can be painfully affected by the perilous descent. As the conquering spirit of modern man has taken mountaineers to faraway places to climb mountains by ever more difficult means, one outstanding legacy is a rich narrative of text for the collector. This is as true nowadays as it was during the infancy of mountaineering.
The first prominent mountaineering book to scale the heights of literary was Scramble Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper. A troubled and intense person, Whymper was inspired by the Matterhorn in 1860. For the next 10 years various expeditions were undertaken until Whymper completed the first ascent in 1869, during the ‘golden age of alpine mountaineering’. Disaster befell the party on their descent, when a rope snapped and four of the seven mountaineers perished. Whymper took great care in the retelling of the story; the narrative expressing the joys of alpinism and the pain of losing fellow climbers. The book, in its various editions, remains the most famous early mountaineering book of all.
Over time the key components of a good mountaineering story have remained remarkably simple and similar. Fast becoming a classic is Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, first published in 1988 and also a successful film. In this adventure, unlike Whymper, the rope required cutting. After surviving a fall into a crevasse on an Andean mountain, Simpson’s climbing partner was literally forced to break the bond between them, leaving Simpson for dead. Remarkably, despite horrendous injuries Simpson was able to crawl down the mountain to survival. The writing is lean, understated and gripping. It is unwise to begin reading this book late at night if you have an appointment the following morning. A first edition is already scarce and would cost nearly £190 if signed.
Both of these mountaineering books are remarkable in that they became popular bestsellers. A wealth of fine writing remains, however, for the discerning collector.
The intrepid British have been instrumental in mountaineering literature. Before Whymper's famous ascent in the Alps, Charles Fellows in 1827 made a daring early ascent of Mont Blanc. Audacious as the climb was, it could not be termed 'lightweight'. The record of the ascent notes that the two climbers and 10 guides took with them ‘an adequate supply of provisions, consisting of eight joints of meat, a dozen fowls, sausages …with 42 bottles of wine’. The book has been reprinted a number of times but a copy of one of the limited edition of 50 copies of A Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc would be a worthy addition to any collection and would cost around £11,500 to £14,750.
By the 1850s the Alpine Club was already formed in London. This was one of the first mountaineering clubs in the world and it has developed one of the foremost collections of mountaineering literature, with over 25,000 books, journals, guidebooks, expedition reports and maps. It is a unique record of the history of mountaineering. The Alpine Club has printed a fascinating journal continuously from 1863 as well as many guide books in various guises.
Following the ‘golden age of alpine mountaineering’ British mountaineers were also to the fore in early Himalayan climbing. J. Norman Collie published Climbing on the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges in 1902 which tells of his climbs on Nanga Parbat with Alfred Mummery.
Later, Everest became the major focus. Three expeditions in the 1920s provide a fine record of the courage of early Everest attempts. The records of these expeditions - Mount Everest: the reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Howard-Bury, The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922, by C.G Bruce and The Fight for Everest, 1924, by E.F. Norton - currently sell for around £190 to £385 each. On the last of the three expeditions Mallory and Irvine disappeared at about 27,000 ft, their bodies discovered again some 75 years later. Less well known is that Norton climbed to a height near 28,100 ft, without oxygen, a considerable achievement which took him within a 1,000ft of the summit.
The British made two further Everest attempts in the 1930s. Both expeditions were led by Hugh Ruttledge. His account is rather leaden by comparison with the earlier Everest attempts. Hence, Everest, 1933 and Everest: The Unfinished Adventure, both can usually be picked up for around £95. Frank Smythe climbed on the first of these two expeditions and his record of the climb is more vivid and would cost around £130 to £190.
Climbing on Everest has continued to present many new challenges and at times some fine literature. Recently, the first Everest ascent without oxygen assistance by Reinhold Messner Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, 1979, and Everest: Kangshung Face, 1989, by Stephen Venables, which describes an Everest ascent by a brave new route are interesting titles and can be had fairly cheaply. Inevitably, by comparison some other Everest books are formulaic and dull.
There is a thin line between a feasible and a feckless attempt on a mountain. It is important that misguided belief does not overtake rational judgment. Poor Maurice Wilson in 1934 decided on a solo attempt on Everest. His diary (and body) was later found. Subsequently, a book of the complex background to the thinking behind this attempt titled I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone by Dennis Roberts was published in 1957. It is now quite scarce and, in a fine dust jacket, would cost around £160.
Elsewhere in the Himalayas, other countries were mounting expeditions - notably the Germans made a sustained attempt in the 1930s to climb Nanga Parbat. The most famous book on this mountain though was by Hermann Buhl, an Austrian, who in 1954 made an outstanding solo ascent. Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage is action packed and lacks the wider philosophical introspections that often fail to engage the reader and collector, and to which some mountaineers are often prone.
What has often characterised British mountaineering has been a desire to merge mountaineering with pioneering exploration. William Cecil Slingsby displayed these qualities, and Norway: The Northern Playground 1904 is still highly regarded. Two other climbers who personify this type of adventure are Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman. Their specialism was to roam around the Karakoram and Nepal during the 1930 to the 1950s, making vast exploratory glacier journeys and subsequent first ascents of difficult mountains, on a diet based almost entirely of rice. This is lightweight mountaineering compared with the early alpinists. Shipton and Tilman wrote many books and although their writing is not the finest it has a romantic, nomadic, understated ‘end of the empire’ feel which is appealing. Some of their rarer titles such as Snow on the Equator by Tilman 1937 and Blank on the Map by Shipton 1938 would fetch between £450 and £750 attractive copies in a dust jacket.
Much has also been said about the hills of England and the starting point for many collections would be the Jones-Abraham rock-climbing trilogy from the turn of the 20 century. Jones was a pioneering rock climber and his talents dovetailed well with the photographic adventures of the Abraham brothers. This trilogy includes Rock Climbing in the English Lake District 1897 by Owen Glynne Jones, Rock Climbing in North Wales 1906 by G.D. Abraham and Rock Climbing in Skye 1907 by A.P. Abraham. These books played a significant role in popularising rock climbing in the UK. Each of the books would cost from £450 to £600.
The autobiographies of some UK climbers have drawn on their early climbing adventures in the Peak and Lake District, North Wales and Scotland. Amongst the most collectable is Undiscovered Scotland, 1951, by W.H. Murray, The Hard Years, 1967, by Joe Brown and Portrait of a Mountaineer 1971 by Don Whillans.
These prices for many of the books described could easily double or triple for a signed copy. The provenance for signed mountaineering books has increased in recent years. Again, collectors display a keen sense for signatures, which relate to the book or climbing area in some coherent way.