Monday, April 15, 2013

Learning from examples

Harrer stresses the importance of learning from history. As other people have already said, the beginning of his book tackles the question of "why write." He was told: "a book of yours will have more effect on our youngsters than a thousand warnings from elsewhere. they'll believe you" (5). Through his narrative, Harrer hoped that both readers and future climbers would learn necessary lessons, and he wrote his book to advise and inform his audience. Just as the experiences of previous climbers guided his climb, his book serves as a warning to future adventurers. Harrer talks of the role that the initial expeditions had in molding subsequent ones. In reference to Rebitsch and Vorg's historic climb, he noted how they "had learned from the tragic errors of their predecessors and had themselves made no new mistakes" (78-9). The successes and failures of previous expeditions are critical to helping new climbers not repeat old mistakes. 

Along with the idea of the necessity of learning from history, Harrer's book offers a new perspective on how we--as readers and potential climbers--gain this knowledge about prior climbs. By discussing the people at the base of the mountain who watch the climbers through telescopes and binoculars, Harrer opens up another category of armchair adventurers in addition to those of us who read from afar. These bystanders are able to watch the climbers, make judgements, witness accidents, and see progress. It's almost like the climbers are on TV with an audience available to call for help if they're in danger. These in-person armchair adventurers have greater responsibility than mere readers of adventure narratives because they can directly assist the climbers if they are struggling. 


  1. In response to the first point, I would say Harrer does speak to learning from history, especially since this was the 'golden age' of mountain climbing in Europe and new discoveries, equipment, and routes were being made every year. However, the final chapter of the main part of his book was dedicated to the 1957 tragedy in which the apparent, startling incompetence of the four men who were on the North Face is commented upon innumerable times. It's a double-edged sword: learning from past successes and failures inevitably produces more successes, and more successes causes people to forget about / underestimate the dangers of the mountain, resulting in less competent people attempting to summit and instead creating further disasters as in 1957.

  2. I think your comment about real-life armchair adventurers, those who are close to the events they are watching in person, is really interesting. My impression from the book and Harrer's attitude towards these observers is that he did not expect or want them to be involved in any aspect of the climb. In fact, he comments negatively on their responses to the climbing they witness and their inability to form correct judgements about the actions unfolding before them. The only spectators that he treats with respect are the guides and rescuers. It must be noted that the rescuers are always other climbers or experienced guides. Thus, he only appreciates the spectators that are members of the mountain climbing club, and this membership prevents them, by definition, from being arm-chair adventurers. The tension between reading about these experiences from afar, often in both time and place, and actually witnessing them as they unfold is an interesting one as some spectators, especially in the Alps, are qualified by their membership in the mountain climbing club and their experience with these mountains to provide aid and to participate in the drama unfolding before them. I'm not sure if the simple tourists that pay exorbitant rates to watch through the telescope are qualified to call for aid. From Harrer's telling, it seems like they often don't call for help. Instead, they seem to wait for guides and other climbers to spring in to action.

  3. I would agree that accounts such as Harrer's allow those who wish to climb to do so armed with the information gained from "experiencing" (via the armchair, as it were) the mistakes of others. However, I would disagree with Nicole's point that the increased rate of success on the mountain led directly to the 1957 disaster. For that to be true, one would have to assume that every person on the North Face was a historian of sorts, and was even aware of all the events Harrer touches on in his book. It is clear from the narrative that this is not the case, and that the 1957 climbers were not suffering from a false sense of security resulting from too much information, but rather from none at all.