The Best Books From The Other Side Of The Mountain

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Nan Shepherd

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.


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

By Frank Smythe

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.


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

By Monica Jackson, Elizabeth Stark

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.


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Calculated Risk: Adventure and Romance in Scotland and the Alps

By Dougal Haston

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.


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The Ascent of Rum Doodle

By W.E. Bowman

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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