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The Magician’s Glass - Character and fate: eight essays on climbing and the mountain life

By Ed Douglas

Vertebrate Publishing £14.95 pp178

Like any good essayist Douglas selects a topic, examines its pros and cons, and then reaches a reasoned and well crafted conclusion. But, to describe The Magician’s Glass as a series of essays is to do it less than justice. The likes of Searching for Tomaz Humar and What’s Eating Ueli Steck? are much more than that. Here are stories that first capture then hold the imagination, reminiscent of the seafarer’s yarn spun in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or as the title suggests, Ishmael’s tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession with his nemesis, Moby Dick..

Some, like Stealing Toni Egger, have the elements of a detective story, a whodunnit or rather a who-done-what, as the essay tries to unravel what happened to Egger on Cerro Torre and whether his climbing partner, Cesare Maestri, actually made the first ascent of the mountain as he claimed. With others the investigation is more philosophical. The title essay examines the motives that lie behind those who risk their lives climbing routes where the objective dangers mean that death is as likely as not. What makes them do it or perhaps more importantly what makes them, often suddenly, decide the game’s not worth the candle. Have they, the author asks, looked into the “magician’s glass” and, like Ahab, finally discovered the truth of their “mysterious self”?

Finding a solution to what was really “eating Ueli Steck” is far from simple. Whether he fully looked himself in the face has been a matter of much debate. His motives for choosing to solo the south face of Annapurna are to say the least mixed. With a younger generation snapping at his heels, did he feel the only way to stay at the top of the pile was to take even greater risks? Was there also an over-riding imperative to satisfy the sponsors at all cost? Did he deliberately drop his camera so he could claim the ascent without photographic evidence? Were the commercial and egotistical pressures so great that he had to distort the facts of what really happened? The battle between supporters and sceptics still rages but as he received the Piolets d’Or in recognition of his “achievement” only Steck knew what reflection the mirror in the cliff must have thrown back.

Perhaps the most important piece in the collection is Crazy Wisdom. In this account of Himalayan climbing the author examines the lot of the porters who make the climbers’ dreams possible. For too long the outsider’s picture of the mountains of Nepal is of an enchanted land, a Shangri-la, populated by “children of nature” living in “a beautiful oasis” in an otherwise troubled world. At best they were seen as faithful companions who added local colour to the post colonial ambitions of Western Society. At worst beasts of burden who were to be chided for their indolence, “discarded, like garbage” when no longer of use. Douglas produces evidence of exploitation of labour, prostitution and poverty, of indifference to suffering and of well-meaning concern that did as much harm as good. Unlike the other pieces, here, the author addresses the reader directly: that as mountain lovers, climbers or trekkers, we are all, to greater or lesser extent, responsible for the “body only half-buried under wind-blown snow, abandoned so that someone’s holiday wouldn’t be delayed”.

A review of this length cannot but scratch the surface of the subjects covered by these essays, from freeing aid routes to the connections between climbing and art. Nor does it do justice to the depth of research, the lucidity of the prose and above all the sense of humanity that makes up this collection. Without doubt, it should be required reading for anyone who ventures into the hills and, arguably, for many who don’t.

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