The best books from the other side of the mountain

Who am I?

I was an under-employed Scottish poet hillwalker when I met a Himalayan mountaineer in a pub. Due to alcohol and a misunderstanding about the metaphorical nature of Poetry, Mal Duff asked me to join an attempt to climb the legendary 24,000ft  Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram. By the time I admitted I had no climbing experience whatsoever and was scared of heights, it was too late. Those Scottish winters’ apprenticeships and following Himalayan expeditions re-shaped my writing life, outlook, and friendships. My books have been shortlisted three times for the Boardman-Tasker Award for outstanding mountaineering literature, for Summit Fever; Kingdoms of Experience (Everest the Unclimbed Ridge); Electric Brae.

I wrote...

Summit Fever

By Andrew Greig,

Book cover of Summit Fever

What is my book about?

Mountaineering books are written by people who have been climbing for years, working their way up from local crags to their country’s hills, to ice climbing, winter climbing, then the Alps, and finally the Himalaya. As the result of a beer-fuelled misunderstanding, Andrew Greig, a writer non-climber with a deep aversion to heights and danger, found himself training in ice climbing for one Scottish winter before being part of the small team attempting the Mustagh Tower, a legendary peak in Baltistan, sometimes known as ‘the Himalayan Matterhorn’. Summit Fever is a unique adventure story of a novice’s induction into a mindset and a way of living, of an outsider becoming an insider. It is written for any armchair climber who wonders What would it be like for me? Never out of print since its publication in 1985, it has become a quiet classic, an outlier and one-of-a-kind. Stories of fear and climbing through fear, of deep friendship and novel experiences.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

By Nan Shepherd,

Book cover of The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

Why this book?

To my mind the finest meditation on the experience of walking among the hills, looking inward and out. Written in the Forties, this short book is at once timeless and decades ahead of its time. It is profoundly philosophical yet utterly rooted in experience - environmental, ecological, spiritual, the product of many years of wandering and musing in the Cairngorms. Hauntingly lovely and true, without ever being inflated or sentimental, it goes to the heart of our being, and the mountains’ being. I had the pleasure and privilege of recommending this long out-of-print book to Canongate for its series of Canongate Classics, since when it has become more widely read and treasured.

The Kangchenjunga Adventure: The 1930 Expedition to the Third Highest Mountain in the World

By Frank Smythe,

Book cover of The Kangchenjunga Adventure: The 1930 Expedition to the Third Highest Mountain in the World

Why this book?

I first read this among my father’s books as a child. I believe he had met Smythe in London in the early 30, thus his signed copy of The Valley of Flowers. This is the quintessential book of that era of passionate amateur climbing and exploration, the age of Shipton and Tilman, of highly knowledgeable and deeply eccentric personalities. The writing is lyrical, just this side of purple, earthed by Smythe’s passion for botany, photography, and close observation. In the true sense of amateur, Kanchenjunga is a great adventure expedition in a time that will not come again. This is the book that prompted me to accept an invitation to climb with an expedition on a serious Himalayan mountain with real mountaineers, despite my lack of experience and hardwired dislike of heights. It changed my life. I like to think Smythe would have approved.

Tents in the Clouds: The First Women's Himalayan Expedition

By Monica Jackson, Elizabeth Stark,

Book cover of Tents in the Clouds: The First Women's Himalayan Expedition

Why this book?

Betty Stark was the aunt of a friend of mine, and she was part of the first all women Himalayan expedition in 1955. It is an antidote to the very all-male outlook and structures of many climbs of that time. It had no leader, no ‘lead climbers’. Instead, they were a small team of friends, all experienced and capable, who wished only to explore, encounter, and climb as high and hard as they could. It is anti-heroic, recording the pains, sufferings, and losses and highs, quietly downplaying and yet the efforts and dangers come through. They were outliers and trailblazers. They made their point. They were the point.

Calculated Risk: Adventure and Romance in Scotland and the Alps

By Dougal Haston,

Book cover of Calculated Risk: Adventure and Romance in Scotland and the Alps

Why this book?

The sole novel left by legendary Scottish mountaineer Dougal Haston - prickly, opinionated, striking, not given to self-doubt, probably the finest all-around climber of his day. It has a great opening when an incensed young ambitious climber barrels his motorbike up the winding Loch Lubnaig road on his way to Glencoe, goes on to include a fictional version of his epic on the Eiger when the great American climber1966  John Harlin fell to his death beside him, and Haston helped rescue a stranded group of climbers and after a week-long drama finally summited the North Face. It is raw, emotional (has a classic climber’s love story), philosophical, full of impatience to climb, to live more. After finishing the first draft in Chamonix, Haston went to ski the same avalanche-prone gully where his central character in the book had been avalanched and miraculously survived – Haston did not. I saw him lecture at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh after the successful Everest the Hard Way expedition. His eyes were like blue searchlights. He died as he lived, right on the edge.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle

By W.E. Bowman,

Book cover of The Ascent of Rum Doodle

Why this book?

Probably the funniest and most inventive climbing expedition book ever written, loved by climbers who appreciate its satire, spoof, mickey-taking pastiche of Serious Mountaineering Expedition Books. It is Chris Bonnington turned Wodehouse, Jon Krakauer rendered by Spike Milligan. Its knowing self-mockery of all the tropes and self-important delusions of Climbing is sharp and accurate enough to raise it high above whimsy. Wildly creative, it is impossible to read without snorting in one’s sleeping bag. It is the comic, ridiculous side of the great pursuit of Getting Higher.

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