Veteran mountaineer and historian Roberts (The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest, 2015, etc.) looks once more at the question of why humans are so bent on scaling the world’s tall places.
Climbers have worried that the planet’s peaks are getting overcrowded ever since Petrarch ascended Mont Ventoux, and indeed readers could be forgiven for thinking that Roberts was among the last to live in the golden age of adventure and exploration. Take, for example, his first contact with a people hidden away in the depths of an island rainforest: “I had never been part of such a strange cultural interchange, and I covertly stared back, wondering, What are they thinking? Who do they think we are? Why do they think we’ve come?” Good questions all. In the main, this is an amiable if surely adventure-packed collection of yarns and historical oddments; who knew that one of the first organized mountaineering expeditions in the world involved a theologian, a carpenter, and the “official ladderman to the king”? Roberts is as home in libraries as he is on summits, and he explores the literature of mountaineering and some of its genre conventions, if not clichés: the use, for example, of “martial metaphors on every page supported a narrative that veered closer to melodrama than to understatement.” So it is with the books that mark a true golden age, that of Himalayan mountaineering, which Roberts closes off at 1964, books that center on a pair of daring climbers while scarcely acknowledging the vast support staff behind them. The author is more generous in writing of the great teams that figure in any expedition, and, he notes, expeditions are continuing, now with young climbers who appreciate their predecessors: “I no longer worry that the skills and technology of the current band of alpinists relegate the deeds of my own generation to the limbo of ‘pretty good for its time,’ ” he writes.
Roberts ponders his mortality while celebrating the freedom of wild places. A book for anyone who appreciates good adventure writing.