Beyond the Mountain by Steve House

06 March 2014

Today is World Book Day, so I’ve decided to write a review of a book I read recently, Steve House’s “Beyond the Mountain” - winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 2009.

“I will succeed because I must. Their slings and arrows are excuses for their failure to be brave enough, their failure to believe in themselves, their failure to commit to an unmapped future.”

This quote from the book gives some flavour of the emotional intensity with which House describes his climbs, and faces the climbs themselves. This same intensity pervades the book, giving it a very different voice from another autobiographical tale of grim adventures in high places - Andy Kirkpatrick’s “Cold Wars” - the winner of the Boardman Tasker prize in 2012. “Beyond the Mountain” makes the latter seem positively light hearted.

Although I do not think that you need to be a climber to appreciate mountain literature in general, it is to climbers that I think House speaks most clearly. Only a climber can most effectively fail to appreciate the scale and ambition of the climbs described, in much the same way that only a runner can properly fail to grasp the commitment required for a two hour marathon, and only a musician can fail to comprehend a Beethoven Symphony in a comprehending way. The layperson may fail to grasp these things, but he dismisses them, placing such achievements in the broad pigeon hole marked “difficult things.”

Beyond The Mountain probably contains more detailed descriptions of actual climbing than any other example of the genre I can think of, yet it is not here that I think House connects most closely with climbers, but rather in his explorations of more abstract preoccupations. The relationships with climbing partners that go “beyond friendship”, and of course the emotions of grief and loss that all climbers can relate to even if their ambitions don’t quite match those of House and his peers.

“The level of trust I have experienced has born something beyond friendship. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for these men, my partners, or that they wouldn’t do for me. Will I someday find this same trust, make this same commitment, with a wife?”

It is in these explorations of grief and loss that I found the closest connection with House. As an amateur climber of a few years experience, the climbs that House embarks upon are beyond my wildest dreams - yet all climbers whatever their ability must accept that the longer they climb, the more likely it becomes that they will lose partners and friends in the mountains. A loss that becomes all the more acute given the significance that House attaches to such partnerships, versus the more conventional attachments of “Flatland”.

“Flatland friendship is based on what we tell each other - much of it unverifiable. Each creates the image we want to project, who we think the other would want us to be.”

Towards the end of the book, with House’s successful ascent of the Rupal face on Nanga Parbat, he speaks more clearly still on a loss altogether more abstract, yet which is probably more effective at transcending the world of elite alpinism than any of the book’s other themes - the loss that comes with a lifelong objective realized. The lack of triumphalism that accompanies his achievement underscores the philosophical tone of the book, a tone that is juxtaposed with and complements the highly physical nature of the climbing. House left this reader, for one, feeling rather introspective.

“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 they are so difficult to express. My ice axe may be your paintbrush. One man’s Slovak Direct is another’s West Buttress.”