March 9, 6-8pm: Book Club Fight Club: Steve House’s Beyond The Mountain

Steve House’s book Beyond The Mountain is getting a lot of attention and great reviews.  Here’s one from the Daily Camera. And one from Denver Mountaineering Examiner Jilly Salva.

You can hear Steve’s  interview from the Friends of Banff Park Radio Alpine Authors series  here.

He’ll be speaking at Neptune’s this Thursday and rumor has it he might get on the phone with us at Book Club on Tuesday!

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Book Review: Himalayan Playground: Adventures on The Roof of the World, by Trevor Braham

Nicholas Clinch sends this book review for your perusal.  Please feel free to add your comments! (This book is currently on order and will be available in the library soon!)

Himalayan Playground: Adventures on The Roof of the World, 1942-72.  Trevor Braham.  Glasgow, In Pinn Press, 2008.  107 pages, colored plates.  Softcover.  $20.00 

A former editor of the Himalayan Journal and the Swiss Chronique Himalayenne, Trevor Braham’s knowledge of the Himalaya is unsurpassed.  Moreover, for over half a lifetime, he has traveled, climbed and explored those mountains from Chitral to Sikkim.  He related his adventures in 1974 in his book Himalayan Odyssey.  Although most of the stories in Himalayan Playground have been covered in his previous book, it is an augmentation and not just a duplication of the earlier work.

It is fascinating to read the two books side by side.  Himalayan Odyssey is a like a slide lecture, an accurate narrative of fresh events.  Himalayan Playground is a story told before a fire with a glass of wine; while accurate, it conveys a feeling of bygone days.  The tale is mellowed by the passing of years and the gaining of a greater perspective.  Braham’s descriptions reflect what it was like to go into those mountain regions at that time, the challenges of the terrain, the weather, and the relationship with the local people.  The book invokes memories in those who also have been there at that time. To others, it provides an insight about what it was like to go wandering in the Himalaya “in those days.”

Although Braham describes such expeditions such as the 1947 Swiss expedition to the Garhwal, the first European party to climb in the Himalaya after World War II, and an attempt on Minapin in the Karakoram in 1958 on which the two climbers disappeared during a summit attempt, most of the stories are about Shiptonian style trips to areas such as Spiti and Sikkim, which are still off the main mountaineering track.  

Braham begins by recounting a trip to the Garwhal in 1947 in the company of the Swiss expedition.  Then he takes us to Sikkim in 1949 when with one Western companion and four Sherpas led by Angtharkey he explores the glaciers and mountains in its northeast corner.  Next, he recounts his expedition to Minapin in 1958, followed by a light trip in 1962 to attempt Falek Ser, the highest peak in Swat.  Besides a few friends, he had six porters and an armed escort.  Swat was dangerous even then.  After relating some stories about excursions into the tribal country of the Northwest Frontier, he ends by describing three trips to the relatively unknown Kaghan Valley, between Kohistan and Kashmir.

It was a simpler time, but simple did not mean lack of adventure.  As the Swat trip showed, just getting into the mountains was exciting.  The lack of transportation and communications, not to mention the absence of helicopters, lent a spice of excitement to everything. There were a lot of charming as well as challenging peaks available to curious mountaineers, mountains one would like to have in one’s own backyard. The reader is taken into remote corners of little known regions, climbing peaks which seem to be little more than pyramid symbols on exotic maps.  Braham also conveys the flavor of what the inhabitants as well as the country were like.  From the Sherpas of Nepal to the Pathans of the Northwest Frontier, the diversified character of these people stands out.

As intriguing as the descriptions of travel and climbing in the remote Himalaya are, one of the most interesting parts of this modest book is about climbing in the Northwest Frontier.  Some of these stories did not appear in Himalayan Odyssey.  All of them are timely as this now is the land of the Taliban.  Much has been written about it, but these brief accounts gives one a feeling of the culture of these tribesman.  It is wild country.

While the maps in Himalayan Odyssey are better than the maps in Himalayan Playground, the latter are adequate to orient the reader.  On the other hand, the illustrations in this book are far superior to the pictures in the earlier one.  Although there is considerable history and facts in the book, it is best used not for information but for a pleasant and nostalgic read of distant lands in olden times.  Perhaps the good old days weren’t so bad after all.

Book Review: Snowstruck, Jill Fredston

Library Volunteer Adam McFarren has sent us this book review for your enjoyment and edification.  If you have a book review you’d like to submit, just shoot us an email at library@americanalpineclub.org

snowstruck

Here in Colorado the winter season will soon be upon us, and already the backcountry has seen a handful of avalanche accidents.  If you’re interested in reviewing the fundamentals of avalanche safety, but can’t quite bring yourself to pick up and read or re-read one of the standard textbooks, you might try Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck instead.

Snowstruck opens with an in-depth tale of an avalanche hitting the town of Cordova, Alaska.  The individual character’s stories are told with an emphasis on what they were thinking and feeling and how that impacted the decisions they made.  The style here mirrors the incident reporting in Laurence Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.

After the action-packed opening chapter, Fredston backs off the intensity level and tells the story of her own arrival in Alaska and initial involvement with avalanche studies.  Her future husband, Doug Fesler, is also introduced with his own background story.  Readers of Jill’s Rowing to Latitude will find most of this information familiar, possibly even redundant.

Doug’s research combing through the old newspapers of Alaska produces a solid history of avalanche paths in Alaska.  Skeptical whenever someone reports, after an accident, that this slope has never slid before his research often reveals just how short our collective memory is.  Those lessons unlearned lead naturally into describing the avalanche safety courses she and Doug teach to all the backcountry recreationalists, where the couple can “teach them enough to stay alive, but also warn plainly that attitude and overconfidence can kill. . .”  This section stands on its own as an excellent summary of a current avalanche level one course.

A chapter on risks and how people process and rank them might leave you wondering what chance we have of ever reducing avalanche accidents.  Especially after Jill relates the accident her own husband had caused by a bad choice in terrain management.

A needed chapter of levity follows as Jill describes her experiences with Hollywood.  Avalanches are set off by loud noises in silly plot devices and her husband works as a stunt double, wrestling a stuffed animal.  More seriously she discusses the logistics of capturing an oncoming avalanche with an armored camera loaded with only 2 minutes worth of film.  Timing is critical as explosive fuses and the egg- timer-and-rat-trap-triggered camera must be precisely coordinated to get the shot.

Fredston also covers the role of an avalanche forecaster in protecting transportation corridors and utilities, responsibilities the backcountry enthusiast probably doesn’t think much about when reading the daily condition reports.  Imagine the will required to convince construction crews that the slopes above them are safe since they’ve already ran, or alternately, telling their bosses the cost of this project just went up since the conditions are too dangerous to work today.  And after a long day of accident investigations you’ve got to try and explain the phenomena to a reporter looking for simple answers.

One of the more visceral tales concerns the aftermath of a snowmobile highmarking-triggered avalanche and the close knit family of the victim.  Emotions threaten control of the rescue as efforts are delayed due to new wind loading above the accident site.  The family seems ready for a vigilante-style attempt to save their brother, without understanding the danger.  In recounting the search, Fredston slips in a few lessons about the variable worth of search dogs and probe lines.

While Jill and Doug are forced to face their own morality after a helicopter crash, Jill refuses to limit the subject to their own incident.  Instead she discusses the rescuers who “may be imploding with denial, rage, depression, and grief.”  There’s some raw feelings here, about remembering someone better as a corpse than a living person, perceiving a relative’s questions as jabs and knowing that the death needn’t have happened.

Avalanches are inevitable, but humans don’t have to be in their destructive path.  There is little mystery behind why we might take risks just for a few hours on a bluebird powder day.  More perplexing is why we choose to live in known avalanche paths as the residents of portions of Juneau have done.  Jill Fredston doesn’t understand this behavior, but all her work has taught her not to be surprised by it.

Snowstruck doesn’t cover any new ground in terrain selection, group protocols or rescue techniques.  It’s decidedly not a text book.  What it is, is an excellent narrative that’ll likely stick in your mind and
remind you why you wear your beacon and back away from some slopes.
Lessons in humility should always be welcome, especially when written this well.