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Author Topic: Books: Rocks and hard places, A South African's journey to the highest ...  (Read 7891 times)


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    • The 7 summits pages

Rocks and hard places,
A South African's journey to the highest mountain on every continent.

By Alex Harris
February 2004, Struik publishers
Hardcover, 240 pages, 64 in full colour.
Photographs 50 b/w & 50 full colour
Price 230 rands, or about $35

Order the book here online at Kalahari.net.

In Rocks and Hard places, Alex Harris shares his experiences on climbing the 7 summits. From his first failure to even cross the Tanzanian border in order to climb Kilimanjaro until his final retreat on Everest, just short of his 7th summit.

I have very mixed feelings about this book.

Let me start with a great quote from Alex in the book and the accompanying reviewers leaflet:
"It is both a liberating and terrifying moment when you realize you have committed everything you know to a single task. Everest is no different. Yes, we could lose our lives, but most of the time that's not what we fear. We fear failing. We fear taking that step out onto a rickety bridge and feeling it collapse beneath us, leaving the masses standing on the banks saying 'I told you so'. We fear discovering that the reality falls short of the dreams we have for ourselves.
As a result, most of us are afraid to discover, and some of us won't even dream".

This is beautifully said and very true in my regard. But after reading Alex's book I found that dreams can be dangerous and some reality might help reaching your goals. Although nowadays everybody with a laptop on a mountain is a climber, I think that Alex has climbed enough to be able to tell a good long story.
He is honest and open and does not show the arrogance often found in other books about a mountaineering career.

But arrogance seems to have been replaced by ignorance in some parts. That is ok as I appreciated the honesty about errors made, but would have liked to have seen a more safe approach to climbing and writing about it.
Too many readers will think that climbing in general and the 7summits in particular is easy, that you need little preparation and only some money and time.
This is of course wrong and has gotten quite a lot of people killed and frankly, in my opinion Alex is lucky to be alive this day although he does not seem to realize it himself.

There you have my main objective about the book: the subject is great, it shows insight in the minds and worlds of adventurers including financial and relationships issues, much more, than your regular "I climbed this hard route" mountain book.
It is therefore more than just a travel story; some of the details are so well written that you might think that it's an instruction book about how to climb the 7summits. But that it is not. Anyone following Alex's footsteps will be luck to be alive afterwards. Just as long if you use the book and its nice pictures as just a companion and not a guide you will be ok. But do not think that this book will teach you to climb the 7summits and get out of it alive.

I will list some negative and positive points about the book

- The first thing is the constant mixed use of Metrical and non-metrical measurements like this:
Within a few paragraphs you will find stuff like this:
"The temperature was about -10C (14F).. the wind was blowing 30 or 40 kilometres (18 to 25 miles)... it stretched for about 100metres (328 feet)."
This seems nice for different audiences but gets really annoying after a few pages already and continues to be so in the rest of the book. If there is ever a 2nd edition, please choose one or the other and put some conversion table in the back or so. A book about climbing is literally filled with numbers and in this way, it annoys so much I have put the book down a few times as it totally takes you out of the story.

- Alex has made errors which he sometimes recognizes, but he never stresses them as prevention to his audience, this is dangerous for the reader who regards this as a guide to the 7 summits. During his Elbrus climb they climbed during an announced storm which cost a fellow climber his life when he was struck by lightning; this has nothing to do with objective dangers of mountaineering, it was plain stupid to go out under those circumstances. Also they climbed the wrong summit of Elbrus which shows bad preparation. But to my amazement the same almost happened on Aconcagua, where they not only abuse the emergency shelters (bring a tent!) and almost died in there due to carbon monoxide poisoning by cooking inside, they also had no clue which summit of Aconcagua was the highest, but this time they guessed right. Again bad preparation and a very bad example. Also taking inexperienced people up very high and dangerous mountains is not a good idea...

- The order of climbs is a bit weird, jumps back and forth and some are completely missing, for example we do read about the failed climbs of Kili, Elbrus and Vinson, but not about the ones that succeeded later.
- The pictures are sometimes in the wrong place. No use for a summit picture after a failed climb I think.

- The book is filled with pictures which makes the story so much nicer to read. Although they are not always in the right spot and a bit clustered it makes it a better read than most of the books out there where all the pictures are in a section in the middle, mostly revealing what is going to happen later on in the book.

- Alex seems to be honest in his writing. He not only takes the readers up the mountains, but also shows the other struggles adventurers have to face: financial stuff, relationships etc. He also mentions all his climbing partners

- It is a nice coffee table book (227x227mm) and is an easy read. It also contains basic info about the mountains to give you a better idea bout where they are located, the basics of the ascent route etc.

Over all it is a nice addition to the library of anyone interested in climbing the 7summits or adventure and South African adventurers in general, but should not be regarded as a guide book as it sets some dangerous examples.
"He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
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