Monday, August 24, 2009

Beyond the Mountain

Steve House's first book, Beyond the Mountain, may not be a masterpiece, but it's the rare climbing book that I felt compelled to read cover to cover in just a few sittings, and it's certainly the best work about modern extreme alpinism in many years. And unlike some recent books on the subject, Beyond the Mountain is not just a collection of previously published articles but an entirely new work. The result is a revealing—but ultimately inconclusive—look into the life and mind of an extraordinary climber.

I used the word "extreme" above deliberately, as House is one of the rare American climbers whose feats—solo and with various partners—deserve the term, and because his uncompromising approach has often appeared extreme to other climbers. The book is framed by House's three attempts on Nanga Parbat spanning most of his adult life. Although he begins his prologue by writing "I've never been a storyteller," he is, in fact, a skillful writer. His accounts are rich with detail, and he is good with dialogue, capturing the distinctive voices of his willful partners. I'd read or edited accounts of many of the climbs covered in Beyond the Mountain, but the stories of his new routes in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, and Pakistan still felt fresh. And some of them were entirely unfamiliar: House's teenage exposure to hard-core European alpinism during a school exchange to Slovenia, his first expedition to Nanga Parbat, a terrifying solo crevasse epic in the Mont Blanc massif.

The book's epigraph is the Bonatti quote, "What is there, beyond the mountain, if not the man?" For House and his peers, they are one and the same: The style and difficulty of one's climbs distills the essence of the climber himself. With their exceedingly high standards, House and his partners have been faulted for their elitist attitude toward climbs and climbers that don't measure up. However, I found less of the alpine "Brotherhood" in Beyond the Mountain and more humility and self-deprecation. House recognizes that whatever exalted state he may find at the crux of a hard climb is fleeting, that "success is empty," as he writes in his prologue. "When I climb, I know I will descend. When I grow to love my partners I know that they may die.... The sum is zero, and so the goals become the plotlines to our lives." Is such a plot meaningful enough to sustain a man, to complete a life? Are the sacrifices—the failed marriage, the meager material rewards—worth those gossamer successes, those few transcendent moments in the mountains? Such questions may be unanswerable, and perhaps wisely, House doesn't try to give us a firm answer.

(He is also honest, and not too apologetic, about the taints of his chosen super-light style of alpinism: the littering of excess gear abandoned on summit pushes, the climbs "completed" without summits.)

House's storytelling didn't always work for me (particularly in the chronological back-and-forth of the final Nanga Parbat tale), and the book could have used another proofreading. But on the whole Beyond the Mountain is a richly rewarding work. Above all, House succeeds in humanizing an activity—an extreme—that few humans will ever experience.

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