Books for High Places – What to Read at 18,000 Feet

The “Old” Library

When most people think of climbing gear, they have in mind ice axes, crampons, helmets, and the other accoutrement needed to maintain life and limb at high altitude. But to me, an equally vital piece of equipment is whatever book I’ve selected to accompany me in whatever arduous spot I find myself in.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of opportunities to read while climbing high mountains. You’re typically going to bed as early as 7, especially if you are aiming for a midnight or 1 am departure for the summit. And that’s just summit day. On a lot of acclimatization days you find yourself collapsed in a hut or hacienda by mid afternoon following your first few forays over 14,000 feet. And, if you’re like me, you can’t sleep unless you’ve first consumed at least a few pages of a novel.

Now books for such trips must meet certain requirements, at least in my mind. First and foremost, they have to be available on a Kindle.  When every ounce you carry can make a difference, lugging paper around doesn’t seem like a particularly wise choice. They have to be of sufficient length to engage you. I love short stories but somehow they seem more suited for an evening jaunt in the neighborhood – not a multi-day expedition. And they have to be engaging. If your goal is to blot out an altitude headache, to forget how cold you are each time a part of you inadvertently slips out of the sleeping bag, and to screen out the assorted snores and noise of your fellow hut dwellers, you need something that transports you into some alternate world. The odd thing is that life on a mountain can be so surreal that the imaginary world of some novels can seem a more likely reality than the one you’re in.

The “New” Library

So, what are some of my top choices for high places?

Our first trek, in 2011, to Kilimanjaro, was accompanied by Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. The story of a doctor and his twin brother it globe trots from Africa to New York, and kept me enthralled at Crater Camp on the Western Breach, where we camped at 18,000 feet. It’s 690 pages long. Of course, I would have been in no shape to write a scholarly analysis of it at that altitude, but it was a good read.

On this summer’s trip to Ecuador I relied on the fantastic creatures and characters of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld to get me up the steep slopes of Cotopaxi. Yes, I do like science fiction and some fantasy, and the alternate reality of Weaveworld and its 768 pages (now you see why a Kindle is essential) fit the bill. Years ago, on a much tamer trip to California I read Barker’s Imagica, and I think it would be a equally suitable high altitude choice.

Some others? Consider:

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – a story of a family in Afghanistan and elsewhere, covering multiple generations and places.

The Dust series by Hugh Howey – a post apocalyptic world – or is it? Be prepared.

The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner – I will never forget the opening description of speed racing on the Bonneville salt flats.

These are only a few. What do you take with you on your travels? Let’s share.

The Armchair Climber – The Power of the Book


My parents' house
My parents’ house

As an English major and daughter of two now retired English professors, I was raised in a house filled with thousands of books. We didn’t just have one copy of a book – we would have triplicate, because, I suppose, you can never have too much of a good thing.

But reading  has always powered my imagination – and imagination is probably behind my  starting  this whole mountain climbing thing in the first place.  Well, to be more precise, it was a 1991 movie called K2 that I saw on TV.  In fact checking for this post, I discovered it was largely panned by the critics, but I still remember the drama of preparation (one of the climbers was a lawyer) and the critical moments on the mountain where one climber had to make the decision to leave his injured companion behind. The husband found the film absolutely appalling.  But for some reason, the adrenalin junkie in me found the battle of man versus the elements completely fascinating.

A good book about the mountains – or any adventure travel – brings you that one step closer to making the summit your own reality. Lots of books have given me that little last push up that extra flight of stairs. Here are some of my favorites and I’d like to know yours – I’m currently perfecting my Kindle reading technique for stair climbing.

The Seven Summits by Frank Wells and Dick Bass. This may be where it truly started. A work colleague of mine lent me this book back  in the 1990s, and, true confessions, I never returned it. It’s the tale of the original two who climbed the seven summits in one year, 1983, the year I graduated from university. Easy reading and puts the mountains within reach.

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer. The story of George Mallory’s fateful trip to Everest, starting with his days climbing church steeples. The mystery remains – did he or did he not summit?

Mark Horrell’s travel diaries – these are available  very inexpensively in Ebook format. He seems to have climbed everything and his very detailed accounts of mountains ranging from Cotopaxi to Elbrus are quite reassuring to a novice climber.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Need I say more.

And, to finish up, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Ok, it’s not about summits but it is about swamps., Possibly the most beautiful prose ever written about the adventure of hiking through the wild Florida of the Fakahatchee swamp and the search for rare orchids. Inspirational for swamp dwellers who want to see more than the concrete of Florida development.