Doctor of Climbology: 33 Must-Read Climbing Books
DOUGALD MACDONALD UPDATED ONFEB 13, 2018
Doctor of Climbology is your shortcut to becoming cultured in climbing. An imperfect, unscientific guide to 55 must-read, must-see, must-hear climbing stories from masters of the art.
We’re in a new age of media, and we are bombarded by it 24/7. But whether it’s a heady new memoir or a short video clip of an expedition on Instagram, quality is defined by storytelling. To find out which stories are really worth reading—or watching or hearing—we asked more than 35 writers, publishers, and filmmakers, plus Climbing readers, for their favorites.
This isn’t an end-all, be-all “best ever” ranking (and we ignored magazines—how could we be unbiased there?). Our only claim is this: If you love a good story, then you’ll love the ones highlighted in this series. Click here to see our picks in digital and film.
33 Must-Read Classics
If you’re new to climbing literature, start with these definitive tales of adventure. Note: We only considered books written in or translated into English.
No Picnic on Mount Kenyaby Felice Benuzzi (1947)
Freedom of the hills! In 1943 three Italian POWs, imprisoned in East Africa at the height of World War II, escape the monotony of prison life by breaking out and attempting 17,057-foot Mount Kenya, using only a drawing of the peak on a food tin to plan their route. After 18 days of epicing, they break back into camp and turn themselves in.
Starlight and Storm: The Ascent of the Six Great North Faces of the Alpsby Gaston Rébuffat (1954)
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The man for whom the gaston climbing hold is named (though he died in 1985 and likely never heard the term), Rébuffat epitomized French alpine climbing in the postwar era: fast, bold, stylish. His book is an elegant celebration of the joys of climbing: “In this modern age, very little remains that is real. Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars. They have all been neutralized: the rhythm of life itself is obscured…. What a strange encounter then is that between man and the high places of his planet! Up there he is surrounded by the silence of forgetfulness.”
If you love this book, don’t miss Conquistadors of the Useless, a memoir of the extraordinary French climber Lionel Terray (first ascents of Makalu, Fitz Roy, and Mt. Huntington, among others).
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kushby Eric Newby (1958)
Eric Newby, an English travel and fashion writer, recounts a slapdash attempt on unclimbed Mir Samir (19,058’) in Afghanistan. Newby and his hapless climbing partner don’t get far, but it hardly matters in this comic masterpiece.
The White Spiderby Heinrich Harrer (1959)
Though the writing is sometimes stolid, Harrer’s story of the many attempts (often fatal) to climb the Eiger Nordwand during the 1930s, culminating in his first-person account of the successful climb in ’38, has a power that’s impossible to ignore. Climbing reader Steve Kraft said, “The White Spider was the book that inspired me to start climbing. I immediately wanted to go to Europe, fall in love with an Italian girl, and climb in the mountains.”
In the same vein: Try Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage: The Lonely Challenge, by Hermann Buhl.
Everest: The West Ridgeby Tom Hornbein (1964)
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Tom Hornbein’s story of the bold climb of the West Ridge and traverse over the summit of the world’s highest mountain—both firsts—is by far the best book about an American expedition to Everest.
Mountain of My Fearby David Roberts (1968)
The first of nearly two dozen books that Roberts has written or co-authored, Mountain of My Fear is a fast-paced, revealing narrative of a new route on Mt. Huntington in Alaska and the sudden death of a team member during the descent. Roberts revisits this accident and other climbing fatalities in his 2005 book On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Re-examined, in which he questions the value of serious mountaineering.
One Man’s Mountainsby Tom Patey (1971)
Satirical essays? Song lyrics? The great Scottish climber’s autobiographical work—published after Patey died in a rappelling accident at age 38—wouldn’t seem to appeal to a 21st-century reader. But Patey’s humorous tales hold up well—you can easily imagine hearing them told in a smoky Highlands pub or bothy. Pour out a wee dram and enjoy.
Speaking of poetry: David Chaundy-Smart, editorial director of the Canadian climbing magazine Gripped, claims that “the single best piece of 20th-century climbing literature is ‘David,’ a poem taught in Canadian schools, written by Canadian poet Earle Birney in 1940. It’s about two young men on a free-soloing spree in the Rockies. One falls and breaks his back, and because he can’t climb anymore asks his buddy to roll him off a ledge. And he does.” This long poem is easily found online—and it is remarkable.
Climbing in North Americaby Chris Jones (1979)
Don’t worry: This history book is nothing like the tomes you toiled through in school. Covering all forms of climbing, from Native American spirit-questers to the dawn of modern free climbing, Jones’ book is enlivened with fast-paced storytelling, memorable quotes, and iconic photos. Many of the legendary climbing tales we take for granted came to prominence in these pages.
Interested in climbing history? Don’t miss Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado, by Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton (1977). A later edition, updated by Jeff Achey in 2002, refocuses the story on modern climbing.
The Shining Mountainby Peter Boardman (1978)
Savage Arenaby Joe Tasker (1982)
The annual Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature is Great Britain’s top award for written works about mountaineering, and these are the best books by the eponymous climber-writers. Boardman’s The Shining Mountain describes a cutting-edge new route on Changabang in India, while Savage Arena is a general climbing memoir. Both are unforgettable. You can buy them together, along with Boardman’s Sacred Summits and Tasker’s Everest the Cruel Way, in The Boardman Tasker Omnibus ($35, mountaineersbooks.org).
Touching the Voidby Joe Simpson (1988)
Joe Simpson’s account of what happened after he broke his leg high on Siula Grande, a towering ice peak in Peru, is simply riveting—possibly the greatest book-length climbing survival story ever written. Remarkably, the movie produced 15 years later was just as good (see “Hollywood Heroes”), but read the book first.
Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountainsby Jon Krakauer (1990)
Jon Krakauer has always been a climber’s climber, and before he wrote his big climbing book—Into Thin Air, likely the bestselling mountaineering book of all time—he published this slim volume of stories collected from Outside and other magazines. The chapter on Krakauer’s search for meaning and transformation through a solo ascent of Devils Thumb in southeast Alaska is a classic.
Other collections of excellent climbing articles are found in Greg Child’s Postcards from the Ledge (1998), Doug Robinson’s A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open (2004), and John Sherman’s Sherman Exposed (2001), many of whose chapters were drawn from the “Verm’s World” column that ran for years in this magazine.
The Totem Pole: And a Whole New Adventureby Paul Pritchard (2000)
Paul Pritchard became a notable writer with his award-winning first book, Deep Play, which chronicled adventures from North Wales to Baffin Island and Patagonia. But in 1998 Pritchard suffered a terrible accident on a 210-foot sea stack off the coast of Tasmania and barely survived—he lives today with hemiplegia (paralysis on one side). His moving book recounts the accident and his tortuous recovery.
Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climberby Mark Twight (2001)
A book people either love or love to hate, this collection of stories is a collective blast at the “stupidity and mediocrity” Twight saw in the world around him—both inside and out of the climbing world—at a time when he was one of North America’s best alpinists. Quote: “Live the lifestyle instead of paying lip service to the lifestyle. Live with commitment. With emotional content. Live whatever life you choose honestly. Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice.”
The Fallby Simon Mawer (2003)
Written by one of Britain’s most respected novelists, The Fall narrates a web of relationships spanning two generations of all-too-intertwined families. The climbing scenes, set in North Wales and Switzerland, are utterly believable—not surprising when you learn that Mawer was a passionate climber until he suffered a horrible fall off Scotland’s Ben Nevis.
Two more climbing-centric novels to try: Solo Faces,by the highly regarded American novelist James Salter, and Angels of Light, by Jeff Long.
Beyond the Mountainby Steve House (2009)
A memoir by the most accomplished American alpinist of his generation, Beyond the Mountain is framed by Steve House’s three attempts on Nanga Parbat, culminating with a new route up the Rupal Face, with Vince Anderson in 2005. In between are stories from Alaska, Slovenia, the Canadian Rockies, and the Karakoram, rich with detail and dialogue. “The depth of any story is proportionate to the protagonist’s commitment to their goal, the complexity of the problem, and the grace of the solution,” House writes. On all three counts, Beyond the Mountain delivers.
Psychoverticalby Andy Kirkpatrick (2008)
The British writer’s first book weaves an account of a solo ascent of the Reticent Wall, one of El Capitan’s hardest routes, with his childhood of poverty and dyslexia. The many epics Kirkpatrick relates from his alpine and big wall apprenticeships are almost painful to read—yet he kept getting up stuff.
Jerry Moffatt: Revelationsby Jerry Moffatt and Niall Grimes (2009)
The autobiography of a superstar of the 1980s and ’90s, co-authored with one of the British Isles’ funniest writers, Revelations details Moffatt’s intense ambition and training—physical and mental—at the dawn of the modern rock climbing era. Climbing reader Jaya Sachi McFarland says: “If you ever want to be inspired to train, just read any chapter. What a hardman!”
Freedom Climbersby Bernadette McDonald (2011)
The best book by Bernadette McDonald, a biographer and former Banff Mountain Festivals director, Freedom Climbers tells the story of the generation of Polish climbers who emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to do some of the hardest Himalayan climbs in history. McDonald knew many of the leading players before they died and extensively interviewed those who survived, creating an essential record that’s also a great read.
The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountainsby Barry Blanchard (2014)
The new memoir by Canada’s greatest living alpinist is a rollicking good time—though it doesn’t exclude more troubled times. Blanchard’s career has played out mostly on the faces of the Canadian Rockies, far from the relative glamour of the Himalaya or Yosemite. It’s at its best when describing adventures with Kevin Doyle, Dave Cheesmond, and other partners on peaks most American climbers won’t even recognize—wild men in the wilderness just to our north.
Which non-climbing writer do you wish would write a book about climbing?The overwhelming response: Cormac McCarthy
A valiant attempt by climber Clint Helander at writing the first paragraph of a Yosemite novel in the style of McCarthy:
A miasma of detritus hung like heavy thoughts of past failures across the nylon city of tents once bright but now faded to more earthly tones by a godless sun in the dirtfilth mecca of Camp 4, the small—but at the same time large by its history—campground at the center of Yosemite, the ditch of great towering dreams of granite that made men feel small yet empowered all at once. In the shadows the rangers, these overzealous ne’er-do-fucks seeking trite excuses to punish the punished when they too would break the rules if only they possessed an ounce of borne creativity and not a gun. Soon to be adventurers clatter and clank their gear, a war chest of metallic devices that is the wanderlust’s weapon on the vertical battlefield of cracks that shoot skyward to the very unknown that these seekers seek but they do not know why.
Works by three of the most beloved and best-selling authors in climbing literature—and why some say you’re better off reading something else.
Annapurnaby Maurice Herzog
The “official” book about the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak is still a bestseller (by climbing standards), and it’s a page-turner. But English writer Ed Douglas calls it “self-serving and fundamentally dishonest,” and David Roberts wrote a whole book, True Summit, debunking Herzog’s account. Roberts: “People should read Annapurna, then read True Summit. Make up their own minds.”
Into Thin Airby Jon Krakauer
This narrative of the 1996 Everest disaster in which eight people died is a superbly written first-person narrative—Krakauer was on the mountain as the events unfolded. Nearly 20 years after it was published, Into Thin Air still ranks at or near the top of Amazon’s best-selling mountaineering titles. But critics said Krakauer played fast and loose with the facts, especially concerning Kazakh guide Anatoli Boukreev, who later wrote his own account, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, with Gary Weston DeWalt. The debate will never end. As with Annapurna, read both books and decide for yourself.
Any bookby Reinhold Messner
He has written more than 60 books—translated into many languages. But whether it’s the fault of his original manuscripts or the translations, Messner’s books are often tough to read. Consider his well-known and apt quote from All 14 Eight-thousanders: “Mountains are not fair or unfair—they are dangerous.” Unfortunately, he elaborates for two more paragraphs: “Mountains… are nothing more than an organic mass,” but they “will always remain a useful medium.” Admire him for being the greatest mountaineer in history. But for reading pleasure, choose any other mountaineering book in these pages.
What media motivates the pros?
Alex HonnoldFreedom of the Hills stands out, just because when I read it as a young, budding mountaineer, it got me all psyched to go open-bivy in the mountains and things like that. “Masters of Stone V” was also super-inspiring to me, particularly the section with Dean Potter speed-soloing Half Dome and El Cap. Obviously, I sort of borrowed some of those techniques many years later.
Paige Claassen Although the blog world requires some sifting to find the gems amid the clutter, pro blogs offer the most personal and raw insight into the world of climbing. Two of my favorites are Emily Harrington’s (emilyaharrington.com) and Heather Weidner’s (heatherclimbs.com)—they are well-written, thought-provoking, and always honest.
Angie Payne The one bit of “media” that stands out is this poster of Lynn Hill that hung on my bedroom door. It was a photo of her on the Changing Corners pitch [free variation on the Nose of El Capitan]. I had no idea of its significance. I just remember looking at that and thinking, “She’s small; I’m small. She’s a great climber; I want to be a great climber.”
Matt Segal As a kid I was always inspired by the book on Wolfgang Güllich, A Life in the Vertical. He was so ahead of his time and inspiring in all the different aspects of climbing.
Joe KinderRock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs [John Long, 1994] was my intro into the climber’s world and the lifestyle. I have even told Largo eye to eye that his book changed my life. I wore a bandanna on my head like Ron Kauk did the first year I started climbing—ha!
Jonathan Siegrist For me, Jeff Achey’s Climb! was key. I studied this book—it largely inspired my stoke for history and motivated a lot of my effort to climb classics at Shelf, in the Flatirons, and around Eldo. Another huge one was Pat Ament’s Wizards of Rock, something of an almanac for free-climbing history.
Clint HelanderMinus 148°, by Art Davidson . Art’s writing [about the first winter ascent of Denali] is wonderfully visual, and you can’t help but feel his deep wonder and awe for the environments he explored. The book is all about teamwork and rising above yourself to meet an almost insurmountable challenge.
What do you think? Did we miss any must-read classics? Is there anything on our list that doesn’t deserve to be? Tell us in the comments.
Culture consultants: Peter Beal, Andrew Bisharat, Michael Brown, Cameron Burns, Fitz Cahall, Doug Canfield, David Chaundy-Smart, Michael Chessler, Jimmy Chin, Paige Claassen, Jeremy Collins, John Dickey, Ed Douglas Anson Fogel, Chuck Fryberger, Ben Fullerton, Damien Gildea, Jon Glassberg, Steve Goodwin, John Harlin III, Clint Helander, Alex Honnold, Steve House, Mark Jenkins, Chris Kalous, Joe Kinder, Andrew Kornylak, Brendan Leonard, Sara Lingafelter, James Lucas, BeRnadette McDonald. Angie Payne, David Roberts
BY DOUGALD MACDONALD