Few novels carry the suspense, drama, emotion and potential for tragedy as mountaineering books.
The drive and desire to attain an irrational, potentially fatal goal is eternally fascinating in a quotidian world that seems tame and entirely domesticated.
This list of books covers a range from the early days of 20th century climbing when mountaineers were attempting never-before climbed routes to today’s world of data and technology.
High tech clothing, equipment and fixed ropes left behind by previous climbers have radically changed mountaineering. Today, even a relative amateur, with enough money to pay a commercial guide is capable of making the summit of Everest.
The following books are mixed bag of stories by climbers and reporters of expeditions small and large.
Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak by Maurice Herzog. This book has been labeled by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time. In 1950, when no mountain taller than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) had ever been climbed, French climber Maurice Herzog led an expedition to the summit of 26,493-foot Annapurna. This is a new edition, published just before the 60th anniversary of the Annapurna ascent on June 3, 2020. At the time of Herzog’s expedition, no climbing routes on Annapurna had been charted. The team had only crude maps to located the mountain itself. Historically, Annapurna is known as one of the most treacherous mountains to climb in the world. Its fatality-to-summit ratio (32 percent) is the highest of any of the 8,000-meter peaks.
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by Arlene Blum. Here, Blum narrates the story of the 1978, 13-woman expedition to climb Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest peak and most treacherous mountain. On Oct. 15, 1978, two women and two Sherpas made the summit. But two days later, the two women of the second summit team fell to their deaths. The 1978 Women’s Himalayan Expedition proved that women had the skill, strength and fortitude necessary to make the challenging climb and changed perceptions worldwide of women’s abilities in sports and other arenas.
Buried in the Sky; The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan. Zuckerman and Padoan focus their story of the deadliest day on the world’s second deadliest mountain (after Annapurna) on the high altitude porters who make most mountain climbing expeditions possible. This book is much like Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. The authors vividly make the point that while much of the publicity goes to foreign mountaineers, the high-altitude porters often travel to the summit two or more times helping climbers.
The Crystal Horizon by Reinhold Messner. On Aug. 20, 1980, Reinhold Messner became the first person to reach the summit of Everest climbing solo and without using supplemental oxygen. The extreme physical and mental challenges of climbing are what Messner calls the “crystal horizon.” In this book, Messner also describes his year-long journey through Tibet, reflecting on his profound emotional reactions to Tibet and the extreme challenges of his climb.
Everest The Cruel Way by Joe Tasker. In January 1981, Joe Tasker was part of a British expedition attempting to climb Mount Everest at its most difficult: in the winter, via the infamous west ridge and without supplementary oxygen. This is a gripping, personal account of daily life on an expedition and the struggle to survive at high altitude.
Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge by Chris Bonington. This is the story of the tragic expedition that Bonington led to reach the summit of Mount Everest via the seemingly unconquerable Northeast Ridge. The attempt cost Bonington two close friends, consider the best climbers of their generation, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, their lives.
Everest: The West Ridge by Tom Hornbeing. He and Willi Unsoeld made the second American ascent of the mountain in 1963, using the West Ridge route.
Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend by Robert Roper. Willi Unsoeld was considered the greatest American climber of the Himalayan golden age. He became the poster boy for extreme adventure with his casual fearlessness and physical power. Author Robert Roper sets Unsoeld’s intense life against two defining adventures: his 1963 triumph ascending Everest on the previously-unclimbed West Ridge, which nearly cost him his life, and his fateful 1976 expedition up a new route on Nanda Devi, the tallest peak in India. Among the climbers on the Nanda Devi expedition was Unsoeld’s daughter, Nanda Devi, who died on the climb.
Fragile Edge by Maria Coffey. When Coffey met climber Joe Tasker, she felt like she’d come home. But two-and-a-half-years later, Tasker disappeared on the northeast ridge of Mount Everest along with his climbing partner Peter Boardman. Although Coffey’s relationship with Tasker had grown increasingly difficult with every risky expedition he went on, she finds herself struggling with her grief and inability to understand why Tasker was driven to take such risks.
Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb. On May 1, 1999, climber Conrad Anker of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition found pioneering mountaineer George Mallory’s body on the wind-swept North Face of Everest. Amazingly well preserved, the climbers found equipment, artifacts and the contents of Mallory’s pockets. Mallory had disappeared in 1924, leaving behind the mystery of whether he ever made the summit of Everest. Jochen Hemmleb uses these findings to piece together Mallory and Irvine’s historic last day.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. After more than a decade of research author and explorer Wade Davis vividly draws for readers the heroic efforts of Mallory and and his fellow climbers, setting their achievements in the context of British imperial ambitions and the impact of World War I on a generation. The expeditions to conquer Everest became powerful symbols of national redemption and hope.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Journalist Jon Krakauer was on assignment for Outside magazine to write about the increasing commercialization of climbing Everest in 1996. He found himself in a perfect storm of tragedy when eight people died. The events of the day were a case study for his article. Two talented climbing guides lost their lives that day while amateur alpinists with a wide range of skills and the $65,000 to pay the guiding fee had to be helped down the mountain when conditions turned bad. It is a story of miraculous survival, crass arrogance and an obsession with Everest and proving oneself on high-risk challenges.
K2, The Savage Mountain: The Classic True Story of Disaster and Survival on the World’s Second Highest Mountain by Charles Houston and Robert Bates. Houston led the 1938 and 1953 bids to be the first to reach the top of K2
K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs. Four times as deadly as Everest, K2 is 28,251-feet and the world’s second highest mountain. Climbers regard it as the ultimate achievement in mountaineering. Veteran climber Ed Viesturs considered it the “holy grail of mountaineering” before he faced its challenges. In this book, Viesturs focuses on seven of the mountain’s most dramatic campaigns – from his own first ascent in 1992 to the tragic day in August 2008 when 11 climbers died in a 36-hour period on K2.
Kingdoms of Experience: Everest, the Unclimbed Ridge by Andrew Greig. This book describes a 1985 expedition lead by climber Malcolm Duff to summit Everest using the northeast ridge. The attempt was unsuccessful.
Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers. Weathers, a Dallas pathologist, was a survivor of the May 1996 Mount Everest disaster described in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. He was one eight clients being guide on Mount Everest by Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants. He had had laser eye surgery before coming on the trip and discovered on summit day that due to the altitude and light reflecting on the snow, he was unable to see. Between the disaster on the mountain and a blizzard, Weathers got disoriented. He was found the next day but consider too weak to make it off the mountain alive and abandoned. He spent another night in a blizzard and managed miraculously to walk down to Camp IV. He was not expected to survive. Eventually he was helped to a lower camp where he was the subject of one of the highest altitude medical evacuation ever performed by helicopter. He suffered the amputation of his right arm between the elbow and wrist; all the fingers of his left hand and parts of both feet. His nose was amputated and reconstructed with tissue from his ear and forehead.
The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest by Conrad Anker. In 1999, climber Conrad Anker found the body of George Mallory, frozen into the scree at 27,000 feet on Mount Everest’s north face. Mallory had disappeared in June 1924 while climbing toward the summit of Everest, 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay successfully made the summit.
The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti. Bonatti was an Italian climber, explorer and journalist. He was known for many climbing achievements including a 1965 solo winter climb of the north face of the Matterhorn on the centenary of the mountain’s first ascent. Immediately after that climb, he announced his retirement from professional climbing at age 35 after 17 years of climbing. He wrote many mountaineering books and traveled off the beaten track as a reporter for the Italian magazine Epoca. He died in 2011 in Rome of pancreatic cancer.
Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition by John Roskelley. In 1976, climber John Roskelley joined an expedition to climb Nanda Devi, a 26,645-foot mountain in India’s northwest frontier. The expedition was led by Will Unsoeld and included his daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who was the mountain’s namesake. While Rosekelley helped put three people on the summit of the mountain, Nanda Devi lost her life there. Her death was attributed to altitude, which caused blood clotting and a heart attack.
No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley. New York Times reporter Graham Bowley offers a vivd account of the harrowing worst mountain climbing disaster on K2. Although second in height to Mount Everest, K2 is considered much more dangerous and difficult to climb. On Aug. 1, 2008, 11 people died high on the mountain. Eight international teams were on the mountain that day, with the last group reaching the summit at 8 p.m. A huge ice chunk came loose above a 300-foot, avalanche prone gully, wiping out the fixed guide ropes. Moe than a dozen climbers were left with the nearly impossible task of coming down the mountain in the dark without the ropes or protection from the weather.
Sacred Summits by Peter Boardman (1982), was published shortly after his death attempting to summit Everest via the northeast ridge. It describes his year of climbing in 1979, covering trips to New Guinea, Kangchenjunga and Gauri Sankar South.
Savage Arena by Joe Tasker (1982) is a general climbing memoir. This book was finished just before he left for his last trip to Everest in 1982, where he disappeared attempting to climb Everest on the challenging northeast ridge. This book describes several of the expedition he participated in, including the first British winter ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, his ascent of the West Wall of Changabang with Peter Boardman and his two unsuccessful attempts to climb K2.
Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, the World’s Most Feared Mountain by Jennifer Jordan. Less well known than Everest, K2 is actually more dangerous to climb than Everest. Jordan has focused on five women who climbed 28,268-foot K2 — Lillane Barrard, Alison Hargreaves, Chantal Mauduit, Wanda Rutkiewicz and Julie Tullis. Between 1954, when K2 was first summited, and 1998, only five women had reached its summit (compared to 95 for Everest). Three died coming down and two who survived their journey to the summit died soon after.
The Shining Mountain: Two Men on Changabang’s West Wall by Peter Boardman (1978). Alternating the telling between Boardman and his climbing partner Joe Tasker, this book tells of their daring expedition to climb the then unclimbed West Wall of Changabang, the Shining Mountain, in 1976. Thrown together for 40 days in virtual isolation, this story documents how climbing a mountain can become an obsession.
Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow; the Dark Side of Extreme Adventure by Maria Coffey. Coffey knows better than most the high emotional cost paid by the families and loved ones of a mountain climber. For two-and-a-half years, she was involved with British climber Joe Tasker, who died five days after his 34th birthday on the northeast ridge of Everest. Coffey interviewed experts as well wives and children about what drives a mountain climber to take such risks and the lasting effects on those left behind.