The best ten mountaineering and climbing books every climber should read

March 03, 2021 5 min read

A selection of Vertebrate's climbing books

Over the last couple of years there have been a few mutterings about making climbing books a bit more touchy feely. A bit less about clinging to the side of the mountain and a bit more about being connected to the emotion and being one with the outdoors.

Personally, I think that is a load of rubbish. Don’t get me wrong, give me Sally Rooney or Gail Honeyman any day over Joe Simpson or Heinrich Harrer; but if I want to read a mountaineering book (which I occasionally do) I want to read a book where people actually climb mountains, or preferably don’t quite climb mountains. I want the fate of the protagonists to be in doubt from the first sign of clouds on the horizon, I want fingers and toes to get cold, very cold; and if I’m honest I don’t mind a bit of conquest. I’m not ever so bothered about how an ordinary climber climbed an ordinary route despite a difficult time at boarding school.

You’re probably not with me on this, in which case can I draw your attention to recent winners of the Boardman Tasker prize? No mention of bad weather there.

Oh, my point? Well, I do wonder if one problem, a crisis even, is folk are reading the classics – dare I say White Spider, Into Thin Air, Touching the Void, that kind of stuff and not getting to grips with the new stuff coming out – fresher, sexier, bigger storms. So here are the top ten climbing books you should read; noting some of them were written this millennium …
To Live by Elisabeth RevolTo Live from Elisabeth Revol
That thing about never leaving your partner on the mountain, well see what Eli has to say about that. This is about as hardcore as true life gets. Especially poignant when you know the back story, as revealed in Winter 8000. Despite all the bitchy backstabbing that seems to be going on these days above 8000 metres, those lads left K2 at the drop of the hat to mount a rescue … like climbers do.
Beyond the Mountain by Steve HouseBeyond the Mountain from Steve House
American climbing literature at its most classic. What’s the lesson? Don’t marry a climber. Steve makes climbing seem so much easier than normal life, which is a very dangerous place to find yourself in.
Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonaldWinter 8000 from Bernadette McDonald
Bernadette could be recounting battles of the first world war, but with ice instead of mud. The mountaineering Bernadette recounts is at the very least shocking. She attempts to weave something of the poetry into the events – the art of suffering. Despite Bernadette’s huge skill in telling the story you never quite get to work out why? Reward yourself with some nature writing after reading this, you’ll need a rest. Curlew Moon is particularly bland.
Revelations by Jerry Moffatt and Niall GrimesRevelations from Jerry Moffatt with Niall Grimes
Before the inevitable crop of biographies from competition climbers and boulderers this book is perhaps the first and last word in rock climbing biographies. Jerry Moffatt was the last of the world’s best climbers and all done while living on fifty pence a day. Ever climbed a Jerry route? Only the odd one for me as well ... Hard to believe it was ghost written in a close collaboration with Niall Grimes, such is the mastery which Jerry’s story is told. If you only read one book on rock climbing ever …
The Bond by Simon McCartneyThe Bond from Simon McCartney
Okay so this story is a bit sad. It’s about the bond that once forged on a mountainside can never really be broken, although quite contradictorily to that ‘never leave your partner behind’, rule, yet again we get a great book when the partner is left behind. Oh, and someone falls in a crevasse, that should definitely happen in all mountaineering books.
If climbing had a literary classic, this would be it.
One Day as a Tiger by John PorterOne Day as a Tiger from John Porter
I was still blown away by the story. Written by a climber no one now knows; about a world-class alpinist no one now remembers. Possibly the best mountaineering book written this millennia. Utter proof that only mountaineers can write about mountains.
Peaks and Bandits by Alf Bonnevie BrynPeaks and Bandits from Alf Bonnevie Bryn
How do these books lay undiscovered for so many years? A Norwegian masterpiece every bit as good as A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, in fact decidedly better, discovered in its original Norwegian and speculatively translated into English, then sent to the editor of the Alpine Journal, who fortunately knows a good book when he sees one. Set to join such legendary texts as The Ascent of Rum Doodle. A remarkable book.
Tides by Nick BullockTides from Nick Bullock
Nick’s first book is the classic – Echoes – it has what us publishers call a narrative arc; prison, a dead end, redemption, ascent to the light. Etc. Tides is better because Nick cleverly replaces the narrative arc stuff withhumour, so you get plenty of why am I here (not like in life, more on a bivi) bookended with hilarious ‘he’s going to fall and kill himself chapters’. Brilliant!

Black Car Burning from Helen Mort

A climbing book with sex, about real people. It’s had to be fictionalised in order to not make us proper climbers feel we are missing out on all the fun stuff that other people do when we are climbing. There’s some stuff about society as well (which I’m told is really good) it’s a book about trust, which is funny as climbing is so inherently selfish. So maybe it isn’t a climbing book.
The Ogre by Doug ScottThe Ogre from Doug Scott
Chris Bonington breaks with tradition and doesn’t leave his stricken climbing partner behind. Although that may have been the storm and broken ribs stopping him getting the hell out of the mess the accident on the summit had got them into. When folks say ‘climbers have got out of worse scrapes than this’, this is the scrape they are referring to.

If I wanted to have eleven books I’d have added in Cold Wars from Andy Kirkpatrick, but then I would need to also add in Unknown Pleasures in which Andy’s Troll Wall essay is singularly one of the greatest bits of mountain writing ever.

Your list might be different, but these are very good books and definitely all worth reading before you dust off that copy of The White Spider.