Beyond The Mountain
Publisher Vertebrate Graphics
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateFriday, 12 February 2010
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In the winter of 2005, Steve House woke up in a motel room in Portland, Oregon. You wouldn’t have guessed he is one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers. An empty bottle of whisky lay by his bed, which was soaked in his own vomit. Among the beer cans on the floor, he saw his empty wallet, where the woman he had met a few hours before had dropped it on her way out. The $500 he had made giving a lecture the previous evening was gone.
House’s predicament was more Raymond Carver than Chris Bonington, which is perhaps why his book Beyond the Mountain is so compelling. Depression isn’t an aspect of mountaineering its heroes often acknowledge, but Beyond the Mountain has been winning admirers and prizes, including in November 2009 the Boardman Tasker Prize, the world’s most prestigious mountaineering book award.
He spent the fifteen years before Nanga Parbat climbing a series of increasingly difficult and remote new routes in Alaska and the Himalaya, often living out of his van when he wasn’t at a base camp. The mountains he chose – K7, Mount Foraker, Mount Dickey – weren’t picked for their resonance with sponsors. He loathes what he calls ‘business climbing’, the kind of stunt designed to snag media interest. His appetite and ambition for hardcore climbing seemed limitless.
He is not, on the evidence of this book, lacking for demons. The darkest of them he encountered on Nanga Parbat, the year before his successful ascent with Anderson. Attempting the same huge challenge, this time with an affable Colorado climber called Bruce Miller, House found himself, after five days, just hours from the summit.
But House’s face was bloated from oedema and his rate of progress slowed badly. The two men were climbing up towards the summit unroped, and Miller surged ahead before realising he’d left his friend behind. He retreated a little to wait, took one look at House’s face, and said they should retreat. By this stage, however, House was overcome with summit fever. It was the top or death as far he was concerned. Only Miller’s determination to descend forced him to turn around.
House acknowledges he overstepped the mark and accepts the criticism that was heaped on his head afterwards for questioning Miller's commitment. He never shies away from the implications of how he lives. 'There had been moments,' he writes, 'where my survival seemed secondary to my need for acute experience.'
That sense of social isolation and complete commitment to the cause put me in mind of another Boardman Tasker winner, Andy Kirkpatrick's Psychovertical, but while Kirkpatrick shares his darker moments, there's more of a nod and a wink, a self-conscious need to entertain. House's view of the world is like the hero of a Clint Eastwood Western, or perhaps, because he's brighter than that, a Cormac Macarthy novel. And, of course, House is a notch or two higher as an alpinist.
As a window on what's required to break barriers in the world of modern alpinism, this book is as good as any I've read. It's full of action, full of crisp, often harsh sentiments. The narrative is often as jagged as the peaks he climbs, a series of interlinked snapshots rather a predictable arc. People die, relationships fail, but the restless hunt goes on. It's not comforting, and it's not romantic, and the laughs are rare. This is a serious game played by a brotherhood that takes itself very seriously. Not since Joe Tasker's Savage Arena have I read a book by someone so uncompromising in his commitment.
House has been critical of some more famous contemporaries who have spun the public a line to keep the money flowing. For him, the very act of communication seems to weaken the purity of what he experiences. That might explain the almost grudging mood of this book. This is what I am, he seems to be saying, and I really don't care whether you like it or not. He ends with a flourish:
'Within alpinism's narrow framework we seek transcendence and relentlessly pursue what remains hidden from us on flat ground: our true selves. We should not be blamed for thinking our undertakings beautiful and grand, for they are. Meaning is born from struggle, and each of us has our own unique battle. My truths are not universal, which is one reason they areso difficult to express. My ice axe may be your paintbrush.'
I couldn't help but wonder, though, having read this dazzling book, what it is about Steve House's true self that requires such searing experiences to bring it to the surface.