5 Mountaineers on Their All-Time Favorite Books
The books and other time killers climbers take with them on expeditions (just in case they get stuck in their tent for a while)
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Mountaineering involves minimal summit glory, time-wise. Usually it’s a lot of slow slogs and watching for weather windows. On big expeditions, climbers can spend just as much time waiting and kicking around camp as they do climbing. They learn the importance of patience—and the power of bringing a good book. We asked some folks who spend a lot of time in the mountains what they read when they’re stuck in the tent, waiting for the clouds to clear.
“Podcasts and my Kindle are the two ways I pass time when I’m tent-bound,” says Adrian Ballinger, who summited Everest without oxygen in 2017 and was the first person to ski off the top of Manaslu. Ballinger gravitates toward newsy nonfiction, like Who Thought This Was a Good Idea, a memoir by Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s White House deputy chief of staff, and The State of Affairs, psychotherapist Esther Perel’s book about relationships and infidelity. Recently, he read and loved American Kingpin, Nick Bilton’s book on Ross Ulbricht, founder of the Silk Road.
If you end up in the mountains with Doug Robinson, the first president of the AMGA, writer, and father of clean climbing, there’s a good chance he’ll have a hard copy of a Jim Harrison book in his pack. “I’m an unreasonably big fan,” Robinson says. “I read him not just for his whimsy and piercing insights, but frankly, as a writer, to cop moves.” Robinson just finished rereading The Ancient Minstrel, Harrison’s last book of novellas, and says he never worries about getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere with only a single Harrison book. “I’ll often read one, then turn around to the first page again, which may say more about me than it does about the books.”
Filmmaker Holly Morris, who is on her way to the North Pole, filming an international all-woman polar expedition, has been reading Rumi in her tent. “His poetry goes down easy and with an inspirational chaser,” Morris says. “Anyone who takes on indie filming at minus 39 degrees on treacherous Arctic sea ice needs some spiritual go-to.” Morris also bucks up by reading works by past explorers, like Freya Stark, whose books like Winter in Arabia chronicled her travels around the Middle East in the 1930s, into places few westerners, and no western women, had been before. “Stark was a formidable diva who did not let political unrest, language barriers, or age daunt her,” Morris says.
Mountaineer and outdoor educator Tyrhee Moore, who was a member of the first all African-American climb of Denali, says he’s been too consumed with the news cycle to dive into a book lately, even when he’s on a climb. “There’s so much day-to-day information to keep up with,” Moore says. When he needs a break from that, Moore works on his skills and keeps his hands busy. “I have a Pro-Knot card set that I share with my tent mate to work on different knots that could be useful during our trip,” he says. Also—and this is not a plug—Moore is into the Outside “Science of Survival” podcast.
Leif Whittaker wrote a nonfiction book called My Old Man and the Mountain, about his relationship with mountaineering and with his father, Jim, the first American to summit Everest. But when he’s in the mountains, Whittaker leans toward the fictional and escapist. “Sci-fi books seem to make it into my bag quite often,” he says. “I like something entertaining and well-written with small print and thin pages.” Whittaker will also bring books about the places he’s visiting. On a recent trip to Nepal, he brought James Ramsey Ullman’s Americans on Everest.