Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer

Since discovering a little fondness for mountaineering literature, I decided to do a little research into what was considered a true classic. Those who are familiar with the genre won't be surprised to learn that the first book I focused my attention on was: The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer. Everywhere I looked online suggested that this was a 'must read' for anyone who is even remotely interested in alpinism and mountaineering; I couldn't wait to start reading.

After the first couple of pages, I wasn't sure if this was the right book for me. The first part of the book focuses on the history of the Eiger and, while this is very interesting, I found the dated writing style quite hard to read and follow. However, I was determined to give this said 'classic' a fair chance and stuck with it; I was not to go unrewarded.

After the initial history and prologue, Harrer turns to the nitty-gritty and focuses on the early attempts on The North Face; the many failures and numerous tragedies. There a some shocking tales but by far the most hard-hitting is that of the tragedy of Toni Kurz. I don't think anyone could read this chapter and not be moved by such a sad tale - be they a climber, mountaineer or neither.

The book then becomes extremely enjoyable and easy to read, as the historical style changes to subjective accounts of attempts on The North Face. Harrer's personal account of the first ascent is a truly fascinating read; if you are a modern climber or mountaineer, it is quite hard to imagine the hardships suffered on The Face, as one has the comfort of modern technology and equipment - a truly magnificent achievement for the day.

Each chapter then focuses on either a different tale of a number of ascents or a landmark year for the Eiger's North Face. This keeps the reader interested, as each chapter is filled with epic tale after tale.  Harrer clearly carried out an enormous amount of research to piece all of these accounts together and lets the reader make up their own mind; where there is any doubt about what really happened on an attempt. He writes with a very open mind and does not pass any judgement whatsoever on his fellow alpinists, and I feel the author commands respect here and deserves a great deal of credit. Indeed, one can imagine that it would be easy to judge others and criticise individuals for the many fatal mistakes that were made over the years on The Face. On a personal note, I particularly enjoyed the account of the first rescue attempt from the summit that involved the use of a winch and steel cable - clearly a revolutionary tactic and a groundbreaking method at the time.

After being unsure about this text initially, I am so very glad that I persevered with it - as it is a true classic in mountaineering literature. A must-read for any climber or mountaineer.