Andy Cave was born into a mining family and is now a cutting-edge Alpinist with several formidable first ascents to his credit. Learning to Breathe, his first book, was joint winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize 2005. His new book, Thin White Line, is a journey into the mind of an ‘extreme mountaineer’.
For me, the best books on Alpinism describe those who have genuinely pushed the boundaries of what is possible. Successful mountaineering literature, however, must do more than just transport the reader to an alien, frozen world through evocative prose and original metaphor. The best have emotional depth, allowing the reader to engage with the protagonists’ internal thoughts and motives. Done well, the common theme of courage overcoming adversity can inspire us to seek new challenges in our own lives.
1 Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
After pioneering a difficult new route up Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson breaks his leg. Simon Yates, his partner, begins lowering him down the immense face. Almost on the glacier, in a raging storm, Yates’ belay begins to disintegrate and in a moment of utter desperation he cuts the rope between them. What follows is astonishing. One of the greatest survival stories ever written, this compelling narrative forces the reader to wonder how they might have acted in the same circumstances.
2 Starlight and Storm by Gaston Rébuffat
In lively, flowing prose Rébuffat recounts climbing the six classic alpine north faces: the Matterhorn, Eiger, Grandes Jorrasses, Cima Grande, Piz Badile and Dru. His stunning images evoke the tense drama of such long and serious climbs. I first read this book as a teenager, when I was working underground as a coalminer in South Yorkshire. “A dream that comes true leads to other dreams,” Rébuffat wrote. His words inspired me and gave me the courage to follow my own dreams. In 1986, aged just 20, I quit my job at the pit, went out to the Alps, climbed the Eiger north face and then returned to education.
3 Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage by Herman Buhl
The memoir of post-war, visionary, Austrian mountaineer Herman Buhl culminates in a gripping finale when, in 1953, aged 29, he climbed alone to the 8,126m summit of Nanga Parbat. The feat is considered by most climbers to be more impressive than the first ascent of Everest, and his tale of determination and commitment to the lightweight climbing ethic is stirring. The grainy portrait of Buhl taken immediately after his epic ascent reveals the suffering he had endured. To me and my friends stuck in Barnsley during the early 1980s, dreaming of visiting the Himalayas, Buhl was the true hero. He showed that with passion and the mastery of craft, the possibilities are limitless.
4 The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti was undoubtedly one of the most driven, audacious and successful mountaineers of the post-war period, perhaps of all time. Forty years on, young alpinists still aspire to climb his routes and the descriptions of his battle with the mountains and his “self” are enthralling. This meaty, recent translation of the Italian’s best writing is a treasure and includes a new perspective on the bitter 1954 K2 controversy, a dispute that eventually led to Bonatti turning his back on the mountaineering community.
5 Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
Terray’s book is a whirlwind tour of his impressive climbing life in Patagonia, Alaska, Nepal and the French Alps. The chapter War in the Alps gives a remarkable insight into his work with the mountain troops on the border of Nazi-occupied territory in 1944. The writing is lyrical, transporting the reader (climber and non-climber) to extraordinarily beautiful places. This, combined with Terray’s sharp observation of the people and customs he meets along the way, is what makes it one of my favourite mountaineering autobiographies.
6 Savage Arena by Joe Tasker
A frequent criticism levelled at mountaineering literature is that it lacks human depth; not so here. Tasker’s candid recounting of his internal struggles and the difficulty of getting strong-minded individuals to work as a harmonious unit, on and off the mountain, are superb. The reader is drawn into the world of pioneering alpinism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the British in particular were showing the way forward. The book was published posthumously in 1982; Tasker disappeared on the unclimbed north-east ridge of Everest with Pete Boardman earlier that year. His riveting prose continues to inspire.
7 The Shining Mountain by Pete Boardman
This book gives a poignant, inspirational account of Boardman and Tasker’s ground-breaking journey up the west wall of Changabang. It is a wonderful book for the armchair mountaineer too, providing a glimpse into the minds of extreme climbers; from the training in a giant freezer in Manchester and their climbing peers telling them they would fail, to the journey through India and up the stupendous wall of ice and granite itself. As a young alpinist I never imagined that one day, I too would climb on Changabang and that the tragedy on that stage would kick start my own writing career.
8 Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Reaching the summit of Everest has never been easier for anyone half decent on the gym treadmill and with spare cash. a road leads to base camp where giant tents have mini-bars and wide screen TVs showing movies, whilst sherpas and western guides carry oxygen, tents and food up on to the mountain for you and fix lines of rope from top to bottom – an infrastructure that doesn’t exist on the more difficult giant peaks such as K2, Kanchenjunga and Gashebrum IV. However, Krakauer’s gripping tale describes how a ferocious storm up high on Everest can be catastrophic to all players, making no distinction between “Sunday League” or “Premier League” credentials. Compulsive stuff. For a different angle on the same events do read The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev.
9 A Slender Thread by Stephen Venables
This is a superb, nailbiting account of a British alpinist’s narrow escape from death during an expedition to the Indian Himalayas. An exceptional mountaineer, Venables was the first Briton to ascend Everest without oxygen, and did so by a new route. But he is also a gifted writer willing to depict the fraught tensions among the disparate group of talented, determined individuals with whom he is climbing. Venables’ vivid descriptions of the earth’s high and wild places combined with the gripping action make this a must-read.
10 Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mt Kenya
I love this preposterous story of three Italian prisoners of war who escape the boredom of an East African prison camp and set off to try and make the first ascent of Mount Kenya, using ice axes and crampons fashioned from a rubbish dump and bits of the barbed wire fence imprisoning them. Deeply moving, this beautifully written book almost reads like a novel and provides a unique perspective on the effects of war and the power of imagination.