WHY DO PEOPLE seek to conquer? Is it for fame or money? Is it a desire to get one over on nature? Or is there simply an inherent need in all of us to set goals and achieve them?
For me, this was the central theme of Heinrich Harrer's classic non-fiction text, The White Spider. In 1938, Harrer was one of four men who became the first team to climb the North Face of the Eiger, a 4000-odd metre mountain in the Alps. In his book, Harrer sets out to relate the stories of several attempts made at this alpine challenge, from the first formal undertaking in 1935, and detailing his own team's successful first ascent.
The White Spider came to me under recommendation from the good Mrs H; years ago, her whole family passed the paperback around whilst holidaying in France and the Alps. In retrospect, that sounds the perfect place to have read it; I constantly found myself googling more and more pictures of the Eiger, trying to pick out and visualise every point on the various routes. Harrer succeeds in conjuring up clear visual imagery as he describes the attempts and ascents, but being able to concurrently read and view other documents and pictures of several of the climbers and their endeavours turned the whole thing in to a bit of a study (an experience akin to that of reading Dava Sobel's Longitude - watch this space for that one.)
|The North Face of the Eiger. |
Something very striking is the specificity of the challenge. The Eiger was first climbed in 1858, 80 years before Harrer got there. Various routes and faces of her and her sister mountains had been climbed and conquered in the interim. But the fearsome North face, which has claimed 64 lives since 1935, was the challenge. What made people risk their lives for success? If mountain has been climbed in four other ways, why does this one matter?
It would be easy to say that the prospective conquerors were seeking fame and fortune. But that is not the world that Harrer portrays. Harrer seeks to show us that the fame-hungry, attention-seeking climbers tended to be the least successful, even wildly dangerous and risk to those around them. The prototype of the successful mountaineer is painted as those who study, painstakingly prepare, and - crucially - know when to call it off.
It's by no means a happy tale; the majority of moments that have stuck with me from the book, four months after reading it, are the most tragic ones. Stories of men dying frozen and alone on the mountain abound. But it is perhaps here that Harrer tells us about those he considers true heroes - the climbers who, often despite official warnings against it, would set out to rescue those who got stuck. In many cases, they knowingly were setting out to recover bodies, rather than men. Some of the most daredevil accounts are those who sacrificed their own attempts, or risked their own lives, to pull their climbing brothers and sisters out of death's jaws. These are the qualities Harrer praises the most:
"If during moments of extreme danger… he thinks first of his rope-mates, if he subordinates personal well-being to the common weal, then he has automatically passed the test… For him, the knowledge that he has done his best is enough. A passion to prove his mettle can never be the mainspring that makes him tick."
In praising the heroes, Harrer is also damning of those he would see as villains. One or two climbers come off particularly badly; those he would see as endangering their fellow mountaineers are not spared his calm wrath. Furthermore, at his most negative Harrer carries out a study of the media frenzy surrounding attempts, and the inevitable tabloid taste for blood.
But overwhelmingly, his positivity is poured out when examining man's motivation for climbing itself.
"What lured him on was, of course, the great adventure, the eternal longing of every truly creative man to push on into unexplored country, to discover something entirely new - if only about himself."
The White Spider made me want to climb stuff. Harrer describes mountaineering as if it is one of the true ends of man; as if, in seeking to conquer peaks, humanity demonstrates the breadth and depth of his goodness and abilities in one fell swoop. Having read The White Spider, you may well find yourself thinking he has a point.