Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Book Rec - Beyond The Mountain

I just procured and read a fabulous book - Beyond The Mountain - an autobiographical sketch by Steve House, the foremost *alpinist* of the day.

Despite the fact that this guy is an a$$hole, and that I have little to no interest in the reckless stupidity that is mountain climbing, this was a most compelling read. I took me less than a day to consume the entire 267 page book!

Here are some excerpts:

My boyhood friends turn detractors. They try to take me down with logic borrowed from their church of success. "What are you going to do when you're old and your knees are shot? Are you saving for retirement?" I laugh at them, the laugh of the cornered villain who knows his escape. I will succeed because I must. Their slings and arrows are excuses for their failure to commit to an unmapped future.

Their born-again indoctrination makes them blind to the benefits of process. I trade stock in the future for cash in hand. I equal their fervor in my admonitions that their notions of success are meaningless. I charge that they are motivated by expectations that are not their own; busy with empty dramas that belong only to them. (p63)

We return to camp and that night I prepare a last supper; rotelli pasta heavy with reindeer sausage and dehydrated tomatoes. For dessert I want to provide something bitter to go with the sweet mugs of cocoa. So I read out loud from Yukio Mishima's 'Sun and Steel':

"Pain, I came to feel, might well prove to the be the sole proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh, the sole physical expression of consciousness. As my body acquired muscle, and in turn strength, there was gradually born within me the tendency towards positive acceptance of pain, and my interest in physical suffering deepened."

Mishima committed seppuku, ritual suicide, the same year he wrote that. In two sentences he had described our need to climb without knowing the context. We were here to prove the existence of our consciousness.

At 25, when I wed Anne on a rainy November day, I believed true love to be self-sustaining. I don't understand why my thesis failed, but staring at 4,000 feet of black limestone reminds me that these mountains may be my solace and my curse. Purpose has its price, but it wasn't just the time apart; I've always needed that. In the last six months, I realized that with Anne I am no longer capable of the intimacy I seek. Our failure to communicate our needs to one another buried us under years of resentment and judgment. I know from climbing, that a deep connection between people is possible and that is what I want in a relationship. (p 196)

An hour before sunset, two exhausted men descend from the summit of Nanga Parbat. It should be deeply frightening to gaze over the Rupal Face at dusk - and it is. Perhaps nowhere on earth are you so far away from life. In the dark, fear and pain seem more appropriate. Home and love are just flickers of my imagination in the hollow darkness.

In that moment, I understand that on the outer edge of infinity lies nothingness, that in the instant I achieve my objective, and discover my true self, both are lost. (p 244)

I crave evidence of existence. Yukio Mishima wrote that although the core of the apple exists, you cannot see it from the outside. The only way to prove the core's existence is to cut the apple open. When the apple, or the body, bleeds, and dies the existence of the core is confirmed. I have cut open this metaphorical apple on a thousand climbs. I have seen beauty, have wept with joy; I have been astonished, and been horrified to the core.

Climbing is not an attempt to transcend gravity or death for it is these intractable forces that actually create the endeavors. Without gravity, climbing would not exist; without death, what matters life?

I take the lead as clouds rise from the valley. The rock climbing is over. We sprint for the top, simulclimbing ice until eventually we emerge from the north face onto the northeast ridge. I belay Vince in hovering cloud. We're in heaven: a land of mountains and ridges, sculpted by wind and snow, a paradise devoid of any souls but our own.

We lift ourselves on the heights, sometimes leaving bereft families in the wake. For what? They did not, cannot, live this indescribable experience.

Witnessing death is horrific. Does my panic stem from the loss of a friend or from the foreshadowing of my own demise? Or is my terror derived of Mishima's apple; his proof of existence? Facing mortality my actions carry weight, my words heft, my life meaning. (p 263)

Jeanne and I have been together for three years and we've had many ups and downs. I am willing, even driven, to take all the time and energy necessary to climb, but an unable, or unwilling, to dedicate the same to a partner or wife. It's convenient to cast aside love before a trip; I climb lighter without the tether of commitment. (p 264)

These stories are not fairy tales. They are the thoughts and actions of a fallible person and my very human partners. Do not mistakenly assume that these exalt courage, bravery, skill, or intelligence. Though these qualities bear some part, so do fear, inadequacy, and compromise. 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 why they are so difficult to express. My ice axe may be your paint brush.

See? This guy doesn't write with much equivocation, now does he?

Again, notwithstanding the *prickness* of the author, one has to admire at least some aspects of him, and many aspects of this beautifully written book. I highly recommend this one.

But I say short this guy. He'll be dead within a few years for sure. In the middle of this book, it seemed like all his buddies died on mountains. If Steve House doesn't meet this same fate, he'll minimally spend his final years one miserable, lonely bastard!

(How did I discover this one? Well, two knuckleheads mentioned it in the comment section of one of my posts. I looked it up on Amazon and saw that it had a RARE five star rating.)


Taylor Conant said...

Is it April Fool's already, C? This guy's attempts at poeticism via shoddy prose-- SUCK! I kept thinking you had mistyped the passages... grammar, word choice, idea construction all sound like a person who flunked out of 7th grade English because he was too busy putting together a killer acoustic guitar riff!

This is one rec of yours I will definitely not follow up on... and 5 stars? Has this country gone illiterate?


There was a day when man had to climb mountains to survive. Now, he does it for the fun of killing himself in an unusual manner. Progress?

Taylor Conant said...

Oh, and a big PS... what the fudge are you doing linking to a google search result for the book's title?! Are you nuts? I thought you were hoping to monetize this blog. How about signing up for Amazon Associates and providing your readers the SERVICE of a convenient, comissioned link they can click through to buy the book directly after reading your glowing review?!

You could even cross-post your reviews on Amazon and put a link to your blog in your Amazon profile! Badda-bing-badda-boom, now we're cooking with gas, C!

Thank me for the hot marketing tips later, I know you're too busy with the kids to figure this crap out on your own anymore.

CaptiousNut said...


He's not trying to be poetic. This guy fancies himself a philosopher-warrior!

I maintain the prose is great, but won't argue the point.

That Google link was deliberate. I am thinking about shorting AMZN stock and thus can't be sending them too much traffic!

But seriously, why should I give Amazon business?

At my level of readership, there's no way the *monetization* of a link would be anything but an income tax hassle.

But in general, I've decided to go more with general Google links when I can. I've used Wikipedia a lot but, while it's pretty good, I don't like citing it as a regular, automatic authority.

I always much appreciate tips. Note that's how I found this great book, among sundry other worthwhile discoveries.

Taylor Conant said...


Wow, what a surprise... you refuse to concede even one point! Remarkably consistent, anyway... your ego, that is.

On Wikipedia as authority: http://saltypig.com/2010/02/message-for-hayseeds/ (bad language!!!)

I maintain the prose isn't prose but the stuttered tardspeak of a writer who SUCKS, at least from what I've seen in your "best of" pull-quotes. Oh well, we can't all be perfect, he the writer and you the reader.

Anonymous said...

I started reading the House book. The first 50 pages or so were good but then I realized, "what is the point of this book?" The guy just keeps climbing different mountains, same story but different mountains. Once I read about climbs 1, 2, and 3, the remainder of the climbs seemed the same. I figured that once I'd read about how "scary, exciting, amazing, adrenline rush, etc." one of the climbs was, I've read about them all.

If you want a much better book, read "Open: An Autobiography" by Andre Agassi. Just reading about how Agassi changed and grew over the course of his life makes the book worth reading. In addition, you learn how much he hated tennis, wore a wig, etc. I'll save some of the other trivia for your enjoyment.

CaptiousNut said...


So I guess if you think *reading* about the peaks he ascended, over and over again, was boring...

Then I guess you think even less of the *act* of doing so!

For sure, this guy is a self-unconscious Moron - and I could easily rip his credos to shreds... Nevertheless, like an outrageous *action* motion-picture, this one grabbed me.

BTW, someone else recommended that Agassi book to me recently. I'll see if my library has it.