Hold The Heights


Quick Overview

A historical of mountaineering achievements around the globe.

Originally men feared the mountains as the home of gods or dragons. The notion of climbing mountains for pure pleasure was slow to take hold, despite the intrepid ascent of Mont Aiguille by a fifteenth-century French courtier. For all its cloak of scientific respectability, the race for Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, held all the seeds of later mountaineering controversy - sponsorship, competition, mixed motives, chauvinism, accusations of bad faith, and unresolved recrimination. But it was a beginning. By the middle of the next century all the great Alpine summits had been climbed and, on the Matterhorn in 1865, climbing had suffered its first sensational disaster. Queen Victoria wondered if she should put a stop to it. Fortunately, she was counselled otherwise.

In Hold the Heights, Walt Unsworth presents a comprehensive history of world mountaineering, from the first recorded ascent to the conquests of Everest and Nanga Parbat in 1953 - milestone ascents that ushered in new eras of exploration. Beginning with a major reassessment of the late-Victorian Alpine Club worthies, Unsworth then traces how the initiative passed from the British pioneers to European climbers, as elegance of route and rock-climbing skill came to the fore and mountaineering shifted from stamina to athleticism. He examines the emergence of technical climbing from the Dolomites, the influence of the Munich School through the thirties, the assaults on the great north faces by climbers whose brilliance was rewarded with medals from Hitler.

Beyond Europe, the exploratory style of climbing favored by the British held sway much longer in the great ranges of the Himalaya and the Karakoram, asMallory, Irvine, Mummery and the like lost their lives in contests against the unknown effects of high-altitude on man. From this vast frontier comes the story of the British obsession with Everest, the Germans' with Nanga Parbat, and the exploits of the Italians and Americans on K2, as Unsworth traces the challenges to the world's 8000-metre peaks through those contrasting first ascents of Everest and Nanga Parbat within weeks of each other.

At the same time, quite different methods of climbing had been in the making in North America. The foundations of mountaineering in this country - on the volcanoes of the Cascades, the crags of the Tetons, the glaciers of McKinley and St. Elias, the tilted strata of the Rockies, the great, granite pinnacles of Yosemite - developed independent of Alpine influences. These ascents owed nothing to the traditions of the Alpine Club or to Swiss guides. Says Unsworth, "Apart from the work of the founding fathers during the Golden Age of alpinism, this separate American development was the single most important event in the history of mountaineering".

Unsworth literally covers the globe in the text, ranging from Greenland and Norway to the Pyrenees and the Tatras, from Chimborazo to Waddington, Kilimanjaro, the Caucasus and Mount Cook. He brings to life a vast gallery of legendary climbers as diverse as Crowley and Hunt, as revered as Welzenbach, Merkl, Underhill and Wiessner. But the real strength of this work is the way in which the author looks behind the mere chronology to relate climbing to the changing social ethos out of which it sprang.

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