It’s been said that most autobiographies reveal nothing questionable or bad about the author — except their memory.
Top alpinist Steve House’s autobiographical work, “Beyond the Mountain,” breaks that mold — in a good way. From the prologue, when House admits that on the “greatest summit I ever achieved, success vaporized,” to the end of the book, when he states, “there is nothing I wouldn’t do for these men, my partners…will I someday…make this same commitment with a wife?”, House makes the classic me-and-Joe climbing story soar to new heights of introspection. But he balances introspective honesty with gritty reality. Along with pondering mountain philosophy, this book will make you sweat with fear as you ponder making a decision where a wrong answer means “we’ll all die,” or shiver from the cold as you unpack your ice filled sleeping bag up on the side of an 8,000 meter peak.
Steve House has experienced physical and mental challenges that few of us can conceive, let alone ever experience. Along the way, he changed the rules of alpine climbing. Yet House states he’s an atheist and expounds more than once on the abject nihilism that an activity as overtly dangerous and seemingly pointless as modern alpine climbing is fraught with. “I’ve taken twisted pleasure in dedicating to my life to a sport where only a few survive,” House writes. Indeed, if you choose a path such as Steve’s, you are either going to ponder such issues, or you’re such a Neanderthal your brain function is limited to twitching your bicep muscles.
Fortunately, Steve thinks about it, and writes about it.
Danger in this is that too many self absorbed dilemmas from a Mishima quoting athiest such as House could drag a climbing tell-all into the worst whine and cheese party imaginable. Not in this case. Instead, the author artfully weaves first-person blow-by blow climbing action in with his philosophical crampon kicks.
The physical journey begins in Slovenia. Teenager House is introduced to what I’d call “ascetic alpinism” by none other than core Slovenian climbers whose attitudes about suffering express the culture of a country that doesn’t have a history of being the most hopeful, uplifting place in the world. During his time in Slovenia, House even goes on a Nanga Parbat expedition while still in his teens, toasts his young lungs, but begins a Parbat thread that defines his next 16 years as an alpinist.
The book closes with House’s return to Nanga Parbat, when he finally finally “stood atop one of the greatest climbs ever imagined,” (Nanga Parbat, Rupal Face, Central Pillar, alpine style, 2005).
Between Nanga Parbat sojourns, you’ll also read about House being mentored by the late Alex Lowe, and making amazing solo climbs of Alaskan ice walls and Karakorum peaks — along with efforts in the Canadian Rockies that are rather outlandish in terms of commitment. If you’re a lightweight fanatic, you’ll laugh but be amazed when House shares that he carried an eight pound pack on that little Karakorum peak (K7). Sleeping bag? Not even a concept.
Other extreme climbing books sometimes allude to mystical connections in the mountains. It’s tough to wax mystical when you’re not one to acknowledge a higher power, but House manages to weave that path by theming his book with an unusually powerful connection he experienced with his partners on Denali’s Slovak Direct.
Beyond seeking the visceral gratification (I wouldn’t call it pleasure) climbers such as House experience from what I’d call “warrior alpinism,” in his subsequent climbs House wants to re-experience the defining experience of humanity he had on the Slovak, with mixed results. Thus, as any good book needs, House finds a theme that keeps you interested throughout the read (since after about the fifteenth near-death experience some of the reader’s adrenaline will have worn off). Does he again find that special connection with his partners? I’m not telling.
It is axiomatic that extreme sports get too much hype, too much glory. After all, can’t we just enjoy the mountains for their aesthetic uplift and just plain fun? Does everything have to be extreme? Thus, if for no other reason I’d highly recommend “Beyond the Mountain” as a reality check, since House pulls no punches in describing the downside of extreme risk sports. Physical misery is commonplace, and death everywhere. Indeed, House takes up a number of pages simply describing funerals for climbing partners who died in the mountains, and describes in gristly detail the passing of a man killed by a falling rock.
Yet what makes this book go beyond a grim tell-all is that by sharing everything about extremism, House reminds us of just how much human beings can accomplish physically, mentally, and emotionally. Famed pioneer alpinist Walter Bonatti said this ability is the basis of all human achievement and “can never be proved enough.” In “Beyond the Mountain,” Steve House does just such proving. He is the warrior alpinist, and at least for a certain period in Steve House’s life, that’s his role in the human continuum.
Check out Steve’s website. He took a fall a while back that almost ended his career, all interesting reading.