Saturday, 25 September 2010

Conquistadors of the Useless

While rummaging around in the Guardian/Observer digital archive the other day, I came across an obituary for the French mountaineer and guide, Lionel Terray. It's 45 years this week since he died while climbing in the Dauphine Alps. Terray made the second ascent of the Eiger north wall in 1947 with Louis Lachenal, and then returned to take part in a dramatic rescue on the same mountain in 1957. As well as being part of the 1950 French Himalayan expedition to Annapurna, he climbed Makalu, Nilgiri and many other summits.

The alpinist, regarded as one of the finest climbers of his time, also wrote Conquistadors of the Useless, his much acclaimed autobiography in 1963. Here he defined his love of mountains as
"This mass of grandeur and mystery...this world of ice and rock where there is nothing to be plucked but weariness and danger."

In a review of the book for the Guardian, Patrick Monkhouse (a climber, and a writer/editor on the paper for some 30 years who features in the Guardian Book of Mountains), while praising the content, thought the title "irony overstrained". Perhaps, but four decades on the and the phrase regularly crops up in mountainering essays and articles. In fact, I'd say that it's up there as one of the greatest titles for climbing/adventure books.


  1. Fascinating title. Does the book read with the same irony or critical self-inquiry on climbing? I find a lot of the extreme climbing lit hard to read because it seems that the authors don't really grapple with the motives behind, and consequences of, their actions. Steph Davis's book High Infatuation is an exception here- as is Maria Coffey's book Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow.

  2. Good point about climbing lit.

    As for Terray, I'll admit that I haven't read the book from cover to cover. However, a pointer to the tone he takes can be found in a 1963 review of the book by poet/climber/writer Al Alvarez. He notes that it's:

    "the sheer enjoyment of strength and movement which comes out most strongly" in the autobiography. Terray though "tends to go on a bit about the purity of the mountains and subscribes to a sub-Nietzschean cult of the superman. No one, certainly, would accuse his writing of false modesty; it suffers, rather, from a false lack of it. But his passion for climbing and his unrivalled experience are compensation enough."