A Basic Course Outline and Reading List in the History of Mountaineering and Climbing

A Basic Course Outline and Reading List in the History of Mountaineering and Climbing

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Aid Climbing, Big Wall

Why this Artical Exists:

AbruzziThe Duke of Abruzzi

In late 2007 I was talking with a group of climbers and aspiring mountaineers and made an off-handed comment about one of them climbing “Abruzzi Style” after he mentioned a fondness for packing an inflatable camp chair and iron skillet for pan frying trout. The entire group looked at me blankly as if I had absentmindedly switched from speaking English to Swahili. I explained the reference and realized none of them had any clue of climbing history. It got me thinking about how to educate someone new to the mountains and rocks with an overview of mountaineering and climbing history through a few choice books - a literary course of sorts outlining the basic personalities, dates, achievements and failures that have weaved their way into this world of snow, rock, ice, and ropes.

My hope is that after reading the outlined materials one will have a proper base of knowledge to answer questions like; who exactly is Joe Brown, why is Messner considered so great when he is also loathed, why is there a mountain named after Norman Clyde, What is the legacy of Joe Tasker. etc... I also hope that it will inspire them to both read more about this life and to go out and make epic journeys of their own.

Book List

Beatrice Tomasson and her guide, Arcangelo Siorpaes, in the Cortina Dolomites, 1898Beatrice Tomasson and her guide, Arcangelo Siorpaes, in the Cortina Dolomites, 1898

WhymperEdward Whymper after his return to England after climbing the Matterhorn in 1865

MalloryGeorge Mallory

Norman CyldeNorman Clyde - The grandfather of Californain Mountaineering

Tenzing and HillaryHillary and Tensing

I have outlined below a list of 21 books (and a couple of films) that I feel would give someone a basic understanding of the history of mountaineering and rock climbing - Mountaineering and Climbing History 101. Once the fundamental events and personalities are understood, one could then go on to read about and study topics such as obscure Slovenian mountaineers, the first Chinese Everest expedition, ascents and climbers of Patagonia, the world of pre-1941 ascents, the evolving ethics of “by fair means,” big wall pioneers, the mystery of Av-gas soaked weed in the Valley, Colorado Mountains, German alpine specialists, etc… etc…

In the order in which I recommend that they be read:

Mountain Men - A History of the climbers who first scaled or attempted the world's most famous peaks from the Alps to K2.
Killing Dragons - Further exploration of early climbing and conquests in the Alps
Mountain Men - An Early History of Rock-climbing in North Wales by Alan Hankinson
The Wildest Dream - A biography of George Mallory by Peter and Leni Gillman
Ghosts of Everest - The Search for Mallory and Irvine
Into the Unknown - The Remarkable Life of Hans Kraus - A bio of the influential Gunks climber and mountaineer
The Villain: - A Portrait of Don Whillans
Climbing in North America by Chris Jones
Norman Clyde of the Sierra Nevada: famous tales from the father of California mountaineering
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer
Camp 4 - One general history of the Yosemite Valley from the 1930s to 1970
Downward Bound - Warren Harding Autobiography and full of Yos personalities and legends (lots of wine too)
K2 by Ridgeway
Bridwell Bio coming out in 2008 (Mentioned in Alpinist 17)
Hangdogs and Wallrats - Yosemite in the seventies and early eighties
Climbing Free by Lynn Hill - Climbing and Yosemite in the 70's and 80's
Reinhold Messner, Free Spirit: A Climber's Life - A really dry but good Messner overview, at least from his point of view... further reading should include Messner's The Naked Mountain
The Boardman-Tasker Omnibus
Seven Summits - The story of the men who tried to be the first to climb the highest peak on each continent
Into Thin Air:
The Climb: Boukreev's account of the 1996 Everest disaster

Films and Visual Media:

Arranged in no particular order:

Mountain Men - A three part BBC two series that is a compendium to the Conefrey/Jordan book of the same name (Researching a source for this as it is currently HARD to find)
Touching the Void - The story of Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 and the disaster that found them both on the descent.
Farther Than The Eye Can See - A film that captures the emotion, humor, and drama of blind climber Erik Weihenmayer’s historic ascent as well as four other remarkable ‘firsts’ on Everest.
MASTERS OF STONE - Classic rock climbing video with interviews and footage from Kauk, Bachar, Skinner, Osman, Karn, Blanchard, and others.
Everest - Filmed for IMAX release by David Breashears, this film was shot during the same before, during and after the events chronicled in Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air.
Vertical Frontier - A History of the Art, Sport, and Philosophy of Rock Climbing in Yosemite - Narrated by Tom Brokaw. Includes interviews with all Roper, Robbins, Chouinard, etc
Front Range Freaks - a truely classic Colorado Climbing film.
Blood, Sweat & Bagels - Personal journey of two British climbers attempting to free climb The Salathe Wall
The Climb - The story of Hermann Buhl's climb of Nanga Parbat
The Dark Glow of the Mountains - Werner Herzog's film about Messner and a partner on an attempt to climb Gasherbrum I and II back-to-back. Also recorded on film is Messner's tale of the death of his brother.

A hundred or so worthwhile Mountaineering books for further reading:

Included in this list are those covered above as well as many additional volumes. As this is a list that is updated, please IM me with your recommendations. Thanks.

By Title:

A Fine Kind of Madness by Laura and Guy Waterman
A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond by Jim Whittaker
A Night On the Ground A Day in the Open by Doug Robinson
Above the Clouds by Anatoli Boukreev
Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2003 - 2006
All Fourteen Eight-Thousanders by Messner.
Annapurna by Maurice Herzog - take with a grain of salt…
Annapurna South Face by Bonington
Below Another Sky by Rick Ridgeway
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Between Heaven and Earth by by Gaston Rebuffat and Pierre Tairraz
Big Open by Rick Ridgeway
Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber - Steve Roper
Camp Six by Smythe.
Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World by Lynn Hill
Climbing High: by Lene Gammelgaard
Climbing Ice by Chouinard
Climbing: Expedition Planning - Clyde Soles
Conquistadors of the Useless by Terray.
Deborah and The Mountain of my Fear by David Roberts
Downward Bound by Warren Harding
Duke of the Abruzzi, An Explorer's Life by Tenderini and Shandrick
Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer
Eiger: The Vertical Arena by Daniel Anker
Enduring Patagonia by Gregory Crouch
Everest : Mountain Without Mercy by Broughton Coburn
Everest the Hard Way Chris Bonington
Everest The West Ridge by Hombein
Feeding the Rat by Alvarez (a bio of Mo Antonie)
Forever on the Mountain by James M. Tabor
Fragile Edge: by Maria Coffey
From the Ocean to The Sky by Sir Edmund Hillary.
Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb
Glen Denny: Yosemite in the Sixties by Glen Denny
High and Wild by Galen Rowell-
High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places by David F. Breashears
In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Rowell.
Into the Unknown : The Remarkable Life of Hans Kraus - Susan E.B. Schwartz
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
K2 The Savage Mountain by Houston & Bates.
Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps by Fergus Fleming
Kiss or Kill: Mark Twight wade through the alpha Male flexing
Left for Dead by Beck Weathers
Life and Death on Mt. Everest: by Sherry B. Ortner 1999
Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide by Lou Whittaker
Men Against The Clouds by Burdsall
Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson
Mountain Men: A History of the Climbers … and Famous Peaks by Conefrey & Jordan
Mountain Men: An Early History of Rock-climbing in North Wales by Alan Hankinson
My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus by Albert Mummery
Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage -The Lonely Challenge by Hermann Buhl
No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Benuzzi.
No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs
Norman Clyde of the High Sierra: 29 Essays - Norman Clyde 1970
On The Heights by Bonatti.
One Man's Mountains by Tom Patey
Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing by Steve Roper
Postcards From the Ledge by Gregg Child
Ridge Between Life and Death by David Roberts
Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs by John Long
Sacred Summits by Peter Boardman
Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs
Seven Summits by Bass, Wells, Ridgeway
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrier
Sheer Will by Michael Groom
Snow on the Equator by Tilman.
Soul of Nowhere by Craig Childs
Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest by Tashi Tenzing
Tenzing of Everest by Yves Malartic 1954
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Tilman.
The Boardman Tasker Omnibus
The Burgess Book of Lies by The Burgess brothers (very funny!)
The Challenge by Messner:
The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev
The Climbers-A History of Mountaineering by Chris Bonnington
The Hard Years by Brown
The High Lonesome: Epic Solo Climbing Stories by John Long
The Kurt Diemberger Omnibus by Diemberger
The Last Step by Ridgeway.
The Lost Explorer by Conrad Anker and David Roberts
The Mountain of My Fear by Roberts.
The Naked Mountain by Messner
The Other Side of Everest: by Matt Dickinson
The Savage Arena by Tasker.
The Seventh Grade by Reinhold Messner
The Shadow of Kilimanjaro by Rick Ridgeway
The Shining Mountain by Boardman.
The Throne of the Gods by Heim & Gansser.
The Vertical World of Yosemite by Rowell.
The Villain: A Portrait of Don Whillans by Jim Perrin
The White Spider by Harrer.
The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory by Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman
Thin Air by Greg Child
This Game of Ghosts by Joe Simpson
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (not 100% mountain related, but a great book)
Tiger of the Snows by James Ramsey Ullman 1955
Touch the Top of the World by Erik Weihenmayer
Touching My Father's Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay 2001
Touching the Void by Simpson.
True Summit by David Roberts
Twenty Years in the Himalaya by Bruce
Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey by Goran Kropp
Vertical Pleasures by Mick Fowler
Walking Up and Down in the World By Somke Blanchard
White Mountain and Tawny Plain by Hauser.
Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer by Patrick French

MessnerA Young Reinhold Messner (center) on Nanga Parbat.

Web Resources

This is an on-going list. Please IM me with additional links or let me know if one dies. Thanks.

John Gill's website
which has an excellent history of early climbing in the English Lake District, as well as a comprehensive history of bouldering.

Dick Williams and The Vulgarians


Post a Comment
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DrJonnie - Mar 2, 2008 11:02 am - Voted 10/10

Good coverage

well done, I tried to find a missing book but failed, you have all the clasics there, good work. My favourite for what it is worth is "The White Spider" by Harrer.
cheers Dr Johnnie


Nanuls - Mar 13, 2008 9:15 am - Voted 10/10

Great page

I really like this page it's come on a long way since you created it, although you could still add a lot to the visual media section. In the 1920s and 1930s, back in the days of silent cinema, Germany had a genre known as ‘Bergfilms’ which were essentially dramas set around mountaineering, climbing and skiing. Directors such as Odo Deodatus Tauern, Bernhard Villinger and Rolf Bauer were churning out dozens of films during this period, most of them rubbish, but all set around the theme of mountain sports.

The most famous of these films is probably Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) by Dr Arnold Fanck which has some fantastic early climbing scenes, and is notable as having the first screen appearance of Leni Riefenstahl, a skilled climber herself (and she used to do it barefoot!) as an actress. Leni Riefenstahl is of course the german director who went on to create the famous Nazi propoganda films Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Fanck also created several other early mountain films including The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Stürme über dem Montblanc, and S.O.S. Eisberg (which was filmed off Greenland).

What makes these films so remarkable is that the actors and actresses were all accomplished climbers in their own right and did all their own stunts and action shots away from sets and in the mountains (mostly the Alps). In The White Hell of Pitz Palu the production team purposly started a proper avalanche which drops onto Riefenstahl. In an interview Riefenstahl says "We didn't know how to fake it then, so we really did it". Essentially these early german films are the forrunners of all subsequent mountain movies, and have been a major influence on films such as Touching the Void and The Dark Glow of the Mountains, as well as countless populist films such as The Eiger Sanction, Vertical Limit and Cliffhanger.

Cookie Addict

Cookie Addict - May 19, 2009 5:15 pm - Hasn't voted


Clarence King/James Todd was a funny little man, but his classic about Sierra Mountaineering is good. There are a couple of biographies about him that are great as well.

Send me a list of the titles and I will take a look


adventuretactical - Jul 31, 2009 10:30 pm - Voted 10/10

Thank You!

After a 12 year absence from climbing, this post has inspired me to get out and at it again.

Cookie Addict

Cookie Addict - Aug 14, 2009 11:35 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thank You!

Glad you liked it. I will be updating it soon as there are some books and movies/documentaries from the BBC on old hardmen that are now available and I want to tweak the top list a bit.

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