Saturday 28 December 2013

Outdoor Books 2013: My Choices

As a voracious reader I get through many books every year.  Some are old favourites - few years pass by without my reading some Colin Fletcher, Edward Abbey or John Muir - whilst some are new to me. Not all are outdoor books - the last year's reading has included works by Neil Gaiman, Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Lucy Mangan, Richard Dawkins, Philip K.Dick and Stanislaw Lem - but it's on those I'm concentrating here. Some are new in 2013, others are ones I've caught up with from previous years.

The sixtieth anniversary of the first ascent of Everest led to a plethora of books about the '53 Expedition of which the most interesting was Everest: The First Ascent by Harriet Pugh Tuckey, deserved winner of the Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, which tells the story of her father, Griffiths Pugh, and his previously little-acknowledged yet essential scientific work. I also enjoyed Mick Conefrey's detailed Everest 1953: The First Ascent to the Roof of the World , a more straightforward account.

Many books are read during evenings in camp. The long hours of darkness in winter and the storms of summer both gave opportunities for reading. Until recently the weight of books mattered - not something most readers think about! However e-readers have changed all that and I can now carry a whole library for less than the weight of an average paperback. Thus I was able to read Wade Davis's massive Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest , during my Scottish Watershed walk. This looks at the effect of the First World War on the Everest climbers of the 1920s and describes those early expeditions in fascinating detail. Filling in some of the gap between the 1920s and 1953 is Jim Perrin's Shipton & Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration, which tells, in Perrin's usual lucid prose, the story of the pioneering expeditions of those two maverick mountaineers.

A final Himalayan book I haven't yet read but which is sitting waiting is Alan Hinkes' 8000 Metres: Climbing the World's Highest Mountains: All 14 Summits, a beautiful book with dramatic and mouth-watering photos. That'll be a pleasure for next year.

Also based in mountaineering history though on a much lighter note and taking huge liberties with facts are the novels of Alex Roddie. The Only Genuine Jones is about O.G.Jones and Aleister Crowley's mountaineering rivalry in the 1890s and can only be described as a rollicking good yarn. Crowley's Rival, a longish short story, jumps back a few years and moves from the Alps to the British hills to tell the story of how the rivalry began.

Purely factual but no less entertaining or readable is the second revised edition of one of the indispensible books on the history of the Scottish hills, Ian R.Mitchell's Scotland's Mountains Before The Mountaineers. I read this when it first came out and was very impressed. Reading it again only confirmed my feelings.

Also about the Scottish hills is Max Landsberg's The Call of the Mountains: Sights and Inspirations from a Journey of a Thousand Miles Across Scotland's Munro Ranges, which I reviewed here.

Two very different books on current mountain adventures are Graham Forbes's Rock and Roll Mountains and Andy Kirkpatrick's Cold Wars: Climbing the Line between Risk and Reality. I'd been meaning to read Forbe's book for several years, especially after I became 'friends' with the author on Facebook and we started a series of exchanges on music, outdoor conservation and politics that is still continuing. Although we'd never met I felt as though we had and I was pleased I liked Rock and Roll Mountains, which tells the story of the author's discovery of the pleasures of mountaineering after a life as a musician. Indeed, I liked it enough to read Forbes's following books, Rock and Roll Tourist and Rock and Roll Busker, which are also good but without the outdoors content. Where Graham Forbes's shows how the mountains became a healthy refuge from a rock and roll lifestyle Andy Kirkpatrick's book is the opposite. In Cold Wars it is the mountains that are the danger, a danger that draws the author back again and again to undertake terrifying and seemingly impossible climbs in the most horrendous winter conditions despite his worries about responsibilities to his family. Parts of the book had me shuddering at the discomfort involved. Others had me gripped and tense. Away from the mountains and into mostly gentler terrain is Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, in which the author explores ancient tracks and pathways (and sea routes) from Britain to Palestine.

Perhaps the most important books I read this year were those concerned with the conservation of wild places: George Monbiot's Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life (which I wrote about here); and Jim Crumley's The Last Wolf and The Great Wood. I'd recommend all three to anyone concerned about nature and wildness. Both authors mix together personal experiences with opinion and fact to provide powerful and compelling books. Also with conservation as a theme but wider in scope are Peter Wright's Nature's Peace: A Celebration of Scotland's Watershed (as one of the photographers with pictures in the book I attended the launch as described here) and Clifton Bain's The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Traveller's Guide, which I reviewed here. I also reread Peter Wright's first book about the Scottish Watershed, Ribbon of Wildness, as this accompanied me on my walk.

Guidebooks are not usually volumes read cover to cover but rather reference books to be dipped into for information or inspiration. Three new ones this year I did read straight through however. The first was Cameron McNeish's Scotland End to End: Walking the Scottish National Trail, which is an account of the author's own walk as well as a guide. Still in Scotland was Kellan MacInnes Caleb's List, which is a mixture of personal story, history and guide book and which I wrote about here. The last guidebook was one to which I contributed a chapter: Trekking in the Himalaya, edited by Kev Reynolds. Reading the stories of other treks and looking at the glorious pictures has really made me want to go back to the Himalayas. Maybe next year ....

One long distance walk I've never done (though I've read that I have a few times!) is the Appalachian Trail in the Eastern USA. I did though read The Appalachian Trail: Celebrating America's Hiking Trail by Brian B.King, a monumental and beautifully illustrated history of the trail that shows just how much work is required to establish and maintain such a long distance route. The same work was required for the Pacific Crest Trail in the Western USA, which I have walked and which I am writing a book about for Sandstone Press. As part of my research for this book I've been reading other accounts, partly as I want to recommend ones I've enjoyed and also to gain a feeling for the changes in the thirty plus years since my hike. Two very different PCT stories I read and enjoyed were Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, undoubtedly the most popular hiking account since Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, and Keith Foskett's The Last Englishman: Hiking 2650 Miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.


  1. That's a great list of book to dip into Chris.

  2. A great list indeed :) Thanks for the mention, Chris.

  3. I GET through quite a few books in the year, but never in camp, nowadays when I hit the campsite and finish eating I 'crash' -I think its called age? Common with you - Harriet Tuckey's book on Everest. - remarkable; when Mary Rose and I wrote our book book on the history of gear, when it came to Everest 53 the innovations were amazing but we could only see a hidden hand. Harriet revealed 'the hand' and it was her father. yes also to Wade Davies, Andy K and Al Hinkes' book is something rather closer, it was written in Patterdale on Marian's PC and experienced on the worlds 14 highest mountain over 28 expeditions. I also read a lot of techie innovation related books but right now APE, Author Publisher Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki, brill' book.

  4. A book I came across whilst in the states hiking the JMT was 'The Last Season' by Eric Blehm and account of the life and disappearance of Randy Morgenson a Sierra back country ranger. Enjoying your blog..