Book Review: Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer

Eiger Dreams original cover

Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains” was first published in 1990. Well before the cultural zeitgeist embraced the outdoors as the hippest, healthiest place to play, and long before #adventure became chic, Krakauer began his book with this epigraph:

“Having an adventure shows that someone is incompetent, that something has gone wrong. An adventure is interesting enough in retrospect, especially to the person who didn’t have it; at the time it happens it usually constitutes an exceedingly disagreeable experience.”

There’s something to be said here about the wisdom of your elders, but considering the name of this website, I’ll leave it hanging.

A collection of climbing and mountaineering essays and articles written for Outside Magazine and others, “Eiger Dreams” was the first book ever released by author Jon Krakauer, who would later go on to find literary fame with two heavy hitters: “Into The Wild” and “Into Thin Air.” By nature of being an essay collection, “Eiger Dreams” doesn’t demonstrate the thematic and narrative tightness of those later books; some essays are worth reading, others will likely have you skipping ahead to see how much longer until the next one.

I bought my copy for $1 in an eccentric bookstore in Nederland, Colorado. I had never heard of it before, despite a familiarity with Krakauer. The spine bears the logo of an outfit called Lyons Press, which I speculated might be based in the tiny, locals-only mountain town of Lyons, near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It seemed like the sort of thing that might be out of print, and ONLY available in the run-down bookstores of the west, those places where the owner parks their bike inside, blocking rows of shelves, and sometimes closes for a whole weekend with no explanation but a handwritten sign which says: “gone climbing.”

Turns out, none of that’s the case (you can buy it on Amazon); Krakauer’s name and fame are now too great to render any of his works obscure. But at its heart, the book very much lives up to that vibe, and it serves as a good reminder that big names come from small beginnings.

The stories aren’t half bad, either.

“Eiger Dreams” contains twelve essays. Here are their titles, and (roughly) what they address:

  1. Eiger Dreams— the history of climbing the Eiger, in Switzerland
  2. Gill— Profile of John Gill, one of the pioneers of North American bouldering
  3. Valdez Ice— Ice climbing
  4. On Being Tentbound— self-explanatory, I think
  5. The Flyboys of Talkeetna— bush pilots in Alaska
  6. Club Denali— Climbing Denali, expidition-style
  7. Chamonix— The culture of France’s famous adventure-sports mecca
  8. Canyoneering— Exploring slot canyons in Arizona
  9. A Mountain Higher Than Everest— altitudes, trigonometry, etc.
  10. The Burgess Boys— profile on Adrian and Alan Burgess, a pair of outlaw Scottish climbers, who also happen to be identical twins.
  11. A Bad Summer on K2— Chronicle of the 1986 climbing season on K2, in which 13 climbers died, while only 27 made the summit.
  12. The Devil’s Thumb— A personal essay about Krakauer’s attempt to climb the Devil’s Thumb formation in Alaska.

If you didn’t pick up on this already, there is little here for anyone who doesn’t like climbing.

The stories are interesting, but stylistically lacking. Without a strong personal connection to the subject matter– or at the very least an interest to know more– there’s little to keep you entertained.

There’s lots of mountaineering history, famous names, places, and routes, but the book never directly addresses why you should care so much about these things, and why people spend their lives in single-minded pursuit of utterly useless objectives.

That question, of course, is the heart of the book. But for those looking for an easy answer as to the enduring appeal of the mountains, it won’t be found within these pages. You’re better off looking on the side of a granite wall, or maybe even your nearest rock climbing gym.

For those of us who can’t get enough, Krakauer’s first foray into “the literature of expeditioning” is more than enough to get us thinking about our next, “exceedingly disagreeable” adventure.

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