A personal pick of books and films during 2016

Here's a few of the book and film reviews I wrote for the outdoor press over the last year. Should you have book or film tokens from the festive period, you can't go wrong with anything here.

BOOK

In Some Lost Place - Sandy Allen

I’ll cut to the chase: In some lost place is a breathlessly told and disarmingly honest first person account that I was barely able to put down. The facts are now well known: In the summer of 2012, Sandy Allen led a team of 6 onto the Mazeno ridge, the longest unclimbed line to an 8,000m summit in the world. A fraction shorter than the Cuillin ridge at 10kms long, but all at over 7,000m, this way onto Nanga Parbat had stalled 10 expeditions before theirs. His and Rick Allen’s success and near death experience on the route, for which they subsequently won the Poilet D’or, is told simply and chronologically, but there’s much more than just suffering and adventure. Insight into Sandy’s psychological approach as a mountain guide and expedition leader, a personal reflection on the role of friends and mentors in progressing mountaineering in general and the Mazeno in particular, a frank description of beginning to lose his mind at altitude, and finally the insight into his understanding of grace in high places, which I found incredibly moving. This is a humbling account of possibly the boldest British mountaineering accomplishment in a generation.

 

Mountain Bothies: Celebrating 50 years of the MBA

This is the DIY, make do and mend response to other book about bothies published recently (The Book of the Bothy). In some ways they are complimentary. The MBA offering is not about to convince newbies of the charm of a cold stone shack. Instead, it’s a lovingly put together and wide ranging collection of reports, fables, anecdotes, histories, drawings and photographs by, for and about bothy obsessives. I love it, but not cover to cover – it’s a reference guide for me, when I want to find out more about a particular building, perhaps when seeking background to share with others once we’re on our way. Herein are hilarious tales, slightly dubious typeface and a whole lot of history about the organisation itself. The most moving chapter for me is ‘The buildings and the people’ which attempts to trace the stories of these lonely structures when they were more than temporary shelters for wandering hill bums – when they were homes. Utterly charming, and invaluable reading for hill geeks. Plus all proceeds to the MBA. What more could you want?

 

Out There: A voice from the wild by Chris Townsend

Although he’d no doubt deny it, Chris Townsend is something of a pioneer. He made a career from walking and writing long before social media and celebrity adventuring, following a desire for long distance exploration over many years and mountain ranges. Chris’ latest book is one of his most accessible, and I think possibly his most important. It’s a wide ranging selection of essays and articles from a lifetime of travels, updated for a modern audience. These range from adventures short, long and ‘ultra’ long, as well as thoughts on the significance of wild places and nature experience for humans, and the importance of wilderness for the creatures we share the planet with. Chris is a lover not a fighter, and that passion is writ large across every page. This outdoor scribe isn’t trading hyperbole or adrenaline. The tone here is enthusiastic yet calm and clear-sighted – conversational, but never cold. Despite being a record holder, our guide to the Wild remains humble: In ‘Out There’ his voice is just as full of care for a local, unassuming hill that he visits out of habit, as it is for the Rockies and Sierras. It's the voice of experience, and it’s one we should listen to.

 

After the Crash and other stories - David Pickford

Climb magazine’s David Pickford delivers a compilation of 10 finely honed fiction shorts that showcase a climber’s nimble imagination and an editor’s precision with a storyline. The stories range from a child’s woodland wander to tales of climbing, skiing and mountaineering… and the best of these are miraculous miniatures. Plot and character are pared back to an absolute minimum, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and me to wonder how such a punch was packed in so few pages. As a result, these feel like fables, or perhaps more accurately like dreams – archetypal journeys pieced together from the wreckage of memory, barely protected and half remembered from the shock of a sudden and breathless awakening. Weren’t we just teetering on the brink of an abyss? Pickford has a surgeon’s hand and a sculptor’s heart, and has figured out very precisely how to leave us wanting more. There are perhaps one or two less effective pieces in the mix, but overall this is virtuoso stuff.

 

East of the Himalaya: Alps of Tibet and Beyond - Tamotsu Nakamura

Published on the 100th Anniversary of the Japanese Alpine Club, This is a staggering body of work from mountaineer Tamotsu ‘Tom’ Nakamura, covering his extensive research in east Tibet and west Sichuan. Tamotsu has made over 37 expeditions in the last quarter century, and in leaving this legacy has done mountaineering a great service. Information is offered in both English and Japanese, including ridgeline mapping compiled from on the ground exploration and multiple map sources, climbing history where it applies (which is not that often!), as well as extensive photographic documentation of an area about 1500km across. The volume of work is genuinely impressive, by any standard. It’s the author’s contention that there are still around 400, 6,000m peaks left unclimbed in the region. And the majority are likely to resist first ascents for a good while: After the Lhasa Uprising in 2008, foreign travel in the TAR has become harder than ever to negotiate. Those regions outside immediate Chinese control will likely succumb first, but this book is a lifetime resource and serious temptation for very committed and experienced alpinists. Available in the UK by direct mail order email to ibd@kinokuniya.co.jp.

My copy is now with the SMT archive at Strathclyde University, and can be accessed in the reference library.

 

Let my people go surfing - Yvon Chouinard

This revised and updated edition of the classic sustainable business bible is a complicated read, but not because it’s badly written - on the contrary, Chouinard speaks plainly and simply. It’s complicated because of the world it sits in, a world of unsustainable growth for profit, a world that Patagonia the outdoor gear company both wrestles with and benefits from. The book isn’t about surfing, or climbing. It’s about the mistakes the company makes, the environmental awakening the author has, and what he decides to do with that information. The list of innovations in design, engineering, fabric science, eco footprint, HR, corporate social responsibility and business organisation is so endless that it’s difficult not to be cynical. But just as I find myself thinking ‘greenwash’, I’m disarmed: Again and again, Chouinard is matter of fact about his company’s many errors on it’s way to being one of the most ecologically sound paragons of capitalist virtue that exists… as if that isn’t an oxymoron. The author is aware of the contradictions of course, and to his credit chooses to contain them. He’s not just a benevolent entrepreneur giving away money… as he says himself, “it’s okay to be eccentric, as long as you are rich. Otherwise you’re just crazy”. The mission is bigger – make a profit and lead the way for others, both in product quality and environmental impact. He’s plainly very proud of his company, but forgive him that and Let My People Go Surfing is a fascinating, full and frank confessional about a business which leads the pack in terms of environmental credentials.

 

FILM

Tom directed by Angel Esteban and Elena Goatelli

A straight and true documentary about Tom Ballard, son of the legendary Alison Hargreaves. The filmmakers stalk Tom and father James, as Tom attempts to be the first to solo all 6 great North Faces of the Alps in a single winter season. Moodily scored, elegantly paced and subtly edited, the film marries Tom's own mountain Go Pro footage with a keen sense of direction from those behind the camera on terra firma. Clearly Tom is a product of an upbringing immersed in climbing culture and driven to the point of obsession, but the filmmakers don't overstate the psychological reasons for his ambition, and instead simply witness the action as it unfolds, allowing Tom to do his own talking when he is ready. Directors Esteban and Goatelli seem to have secured the trust of the family and access to what was obviously a very personal mountaineering project, and utterly believable footage. In a world of hammy hyperbolic advenchurn, it’s a huge relief to see something this sensitively made. 'Tom' is a quiet, honest and intense portrait of a young man on a personal journey to the heart of the mountain. Available on Steep Edge.

 

Sherpa – directed by Jennifer Peedom

A film from Universal charting the disastrous Everest season of 2014. The director aimed to get a Sherpa's point of view on climbing Everest after the famous flareup of 2013, and instead was on the ground to document the appalling loss of life and resulting Sherpa strike the following year. Footage from veteran cinematographer Renan Ozturk is beautiful and terrible in equal measure, rich with his trademark desaturated colours, textures and slo mo, but never mind the eye candy – there’s genuine substance as well as style here. Access to both Sherpa family life and the accident as it unfolds is moving and non-judgemental. Analysis is offered by a very chilly, pensive looking Ed Douglas who helps navigate the complicated politics of the mountain, and offers insight into the tacit racism of the relationships between Sherpas and foreign visitors, cloaked in over a century of imperialism. Exped leader Russell Brice comes of as the best of a guilty bunch, but even he doesn’t get away scot-free in this. The take home message is that a new breed of Sherpa is no longer subservient to the Sahib. This film will ruffle some feathers but is the most significant mountain film you will see this year – absolutely unmissable. Watch on itunes