Book Reviews: July 2007

Cycling’s Greatest Misadventures
Erich Schweikher, Editor
Casagrande Press, 2007, 254 pages.

Cycling’s Greatest Misadventures, edited by Portland’s Erich Schweikher, is a collection of tales chronicling the adventures-the good, the bad, and the mundane-of bicyclists from around the globe. Schweikher’s collection includes the tales of tourists, commuters, racers and others looking to understand themselves through their cycling.

As with most adventure tales, these are of wildly divergent interest and readability. Some of the longer tales would do well to be shortened, particularly the tale of the cross-country tour leader who loses a rider to a fatal collision, through no fault of her own, on two consecutive trips. While a touching tale, it plods like a long climb.

The flipside is some under-developed tales, such as that of a rat hitching a ride on the handlebars of a Washington, D.C. commuter. The rat jumps from a wall to her handlebars and falls between the hub and spokes of the front wheel, its tail lashing her shin with each revolution. The author hyperventilates, abandons her dinner plans and returns home to recover, all in a few hundred words. Too much is left to the reader with this one.

Among the more engaging tales is that of the Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps of Fort Missoula, Montana. Led by an innovative young Lieutenant Moss, the “Iron Riders” traded their horses for bicycles, the alternative transportation of their future, or so Moss thought. The appeal was not having to groom or feed horses. Even with mud clogged tires and gears, the men made twice the time they could marching, and often out-paced soldiers on horseback.

But for every inspiring tale, there is something equally mundane: a tourist struggling with potassium levels, a collector of junk in Boise (one of several graduate student tales), and idiots scattering tacks on a race course hoping to meet racer babes. Cyclists tend to take in stride the good, bad and mundane on each ride. Do so with these (mis)adventures, and you’ll have some reasonably pleasurable beach reading or the means to while away a rainy afternoon.

Bradley Bleck


The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father
John Harlin, Simon & Schuster
2007, 304 pages.

Given that more than 48 climbers have died on the north face of the Eiger, an uneventful climb is next to impossible. Pair that with the mountaineering legacy forever tied to John Harlin III, and The Eiger Obsession easily surpasses most mountaineering books.

Even now, John Harlin II stands out in the sport of alpinism and was arguably the greatest mountaineer of his day. He put together a solid climbing resume complete with famed first ascents, notable rescues; as well as initiating a climbing school. Tragically, he will likely always be known as the man that died in 1966 on the north face of the Eiger when his over-used rope snapped and he fell 4,000 feet.

It comes as no surprise that nearly 40 years later, the 13,025-foot Eiger preoccupied his son, John Harlin III, also an accomplished climber and the previous editor of The American Alpine Journal. Though he often vowed he would not follow his father’s path, particularly on that specific mountain, the notoriety was unavoidable.

Perhaps that’s the key to this book’s success. After all, doesn’t the public like to know that McQueen or Lennon’s son turned out okay? Did they or did they not follow their father’s path?

“The Eiger held a part of my soul captive for forty years, and with this trip I was able to set myself free,” says John Harlin III of his achievement.

Thankfully, Harlin III avoids most of the climbing-as-life-metaphor clichés that mar so many mountaineering books. The rope need not always be an allegory. The greatest climbs are certainly not found solely on Everest.
I particularly applaud him for giving a fair tribute to a legendary climber, while still citing his father’s faults at home or in his marriage. This keen background supplements the events leading up to the climb, and then delivers the reader inside a very personal triumph and a wonderful celebration of life.

Jon Jonckers


Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston
Bernadette McDonald, Mountaineers Books
2007, 238 pages.

If Bernadette McDonald’s award winning biography of Elizabeth Hawley, I’ll Call You in Katmandu was a home run, her latest work, Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston, is a grand slam. At 93 Charlie Houston who fashions himself as “just a country doctor” remains an icon of mountaineering history. Carefully blending lively narrative, references to the ideas and opinions of Charlie’s colleagues and friends and his own words, McDonald weaves an enlightening tale. Probing into Houston’s past McDonald finds a moderately talented youth with a deep interest in nature. His outdoor interests, expanded during family summers at Honnedaga Lake, an upstate New York wilderness enclave, ultimately lead him to his duel career in medicine and mountaineering.

From his emergence on the climbing scene as one of the “Harvard Five,” to Charlie’s final climb – the legendary 1953 American K2 expedition, McDonald describes not only Houston’s climbing experiences but also the motivation behind them. Allowing us to discover the mountaineering part of his life through Charlie’s own works on the 1938 K2 trip, Five Miles High, and his account of the 1953 adventure, K2: The Savage Mountain, McDonald focuses on Houston’s personal and professional lives. The book explores his pioneering medical research in high altitude physiology both as a Navy doctor and later in the Mt. Logan High Altitude Physiology Study. Houston’s work Going Higher, in its fifth edition is required reading in the field. McDonald explores his medical practices in New England and Aspen, Colorado and his service with the Peace Corps in India in the 1960s.

The accompanying 43-minute documentary DVD Brotherhood of the Rope describing the camaraderie of the 1938 and 1953 K2 expeditions alone justifies the book. The taped conversation among the survivors of the 1953 expedition in base camp provides an insightful high point for the work. Paul McGowan became Houston’s eyes for work on the film; Charlie was nearly blind from macular degeneration during its production.

Stan Miller

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