Book and other reviews

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The Mountaineering Handbook
Craig Connally

The mountaineer's Handbook - Craig Connally

First, let me get this out of the way: why am I reviewing this book while I should be busy enjoying my last above freezing temperature for a year ? It's because the author used 40 of my pictures featured prominently throughout the book.

Weighting in at a hefty 400 pages, it's very complete and starts by warning you that it's mostly concerned with traditional climbing techniques. Sport climbers go away, there's way too much for you here. Similar to The Freedom of the Hills in substance, this book concentrates on more modern techniques, for instance GPS, light & fast alpine (several chapters), recent nutrition advances, etc... I browsed TFOTH years ago so I cannot make direct comparisons, except that I remember entire chapters in it devoted to forgotten techniques like 10 point cramponing, useless knots or wooden shaft axes. Recent editions may have changed.

There are some chapters devoted to original subjects, like 'the alpine start' and the books shows a lot of real-life situations sounding sometimes like extracts from rec.climbing trip reports. But most of it takes a no-nonsense approach to climbing: small groups, selected gear, maps and judgment instead of compass. Among original subjects is an explanation on how to sew runners for instance.

On the other hand the author goes for one knot solves all (yes, he didn't chose my favorite knot). He also thrashes (with good reasons) many old techniques like the Dülfersitz, shoulder coils, GORP or belaying a second from the waist through a redirect higher up, still found in many other books. Also the fact that many other climbing books show plenty of pictures of moves on rock. I agree with him that "Books are not the place to learn to move on stone". Its no-nonsense approach also shows in statements like "Drinking water without any form of treatment is probably the most reasonable approach for mountaineers in North America because there aren't enough pathogens in alpine water sources to bother with"; which comes with full justification. Having myself been almost brainwashed by american climbing partners who'd rather die of dehydration than drink pure mountain spring water, I got a good chuckle out of that chapter.

Many times in the book the author stresses the need for judgment, which is the hardest thing to teach in my opinion. He gives little details that can help one decide at the proper moment, and also figure out when those 'proper' moments are.

A healthy sense of humor is spread throughout the book, like reference to the "infinite number of monkeys school of anchor building" or "My granddad's idea of ten essentials were a Barlow knife, eight kitchen matches, and a pack of Lucky Strikes".

On the minus side I find the presentation a bit dry and old-fashioned, but as the owner of an ugly looking website I know that content is more important than looks. The diagrams made by simplifying pictures are quite readable. Also the map sections only features USGS maps in middle age units, forgetting that if you get out of the US all the maps will be metric. And it's a little strange since in other parts of the book the author gives equivalent tables between metric and middle-age systems. In summary, something to keep your climbing spirit up on those rainy days.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comThe Mountaineering Handbook by Craig Connally.

Base 66, A story of Fear, Fun and Freefall - Jevto Dedijer

Base 66, A story of Fear, Fun and Freefall
Jevto Dedijer

I received this book as a gift from the author after taking some pictures of BASE jumping in the verdon, on my last WE in France. It's a first hand account of early base jumps in Europe after word had spread from the US that it could be a fun and thrilling experience to jump from bridges, antennas, structures or cliffs. It follows the author as he discovers this sport and tries to jump from one of each of the mentioned places. A bridge in Germany, trying to avoid the police. A jump from the Montparnasse tower in Paris, resulting in some hospital time for a friend and himself. An antenna in Sweden and the gigantic and dangerous Troll's Wall in Norway. The books builds on those stressful situations and shouldn't be read just before trying to sleep... How crazy does one need to be to jump from a perfectly safe place with a parachute ? Jevto doesn't quite answer but gives more than a few examples.

The main negative of this book are the pictures which are Black&White and poorly printed, but overall it's a quick and interesting read; an exciting read about what is certainly the most dangerous sport in the world.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comBASE 66, A story of Fear, Fun and Freefall by Jevto Dedijer.

The Snowball Earth - Gabrielle Walker

The Snowball Earth
Gabrielle Walker

I met the author during the 2005 summer campaign in Concordia where she was researching a future science book. She left us a copy of "The Snowball Earth" to read during the long winterover nights... She's a scientific journalist with a keen interest in Antarctica and everything concerning ice. This book presents the recent theory that near the end of the Precambrian period the entire surface of the Earth iced up and stayed this way for quite some time. The consequences are that the former life forms, simple unicellular stomatoliths which had ruled the world for billions of years, suddenly turned into more complex and varied organisms when the ice thawed.

The book follows several strong willed scientists in their quest for signs of ice left on very ancient rocks and most of the book reads more like a novel than a science book. The Snowball Earth theory and others theories related to geology and glaciology are introduced gradually, always with the set of facts that lead to their proposition (for instance when she explains plate tectonics starting with the life and death of Wegener, unsuccessful proponent of the first continental drift theory). Sometimes the book reverts to the first person as the author sees for herself the clues left by the past. A book for all public that talks about much more than just ancient geology and glaciology: the origin of life, how scientists work, what makes them tick... The main drawback is that it lacks images, which could be a great help in figuring out what a stomatolith or an Ediacara fossil looks like. In summary I'd say it makes a great gift for any young student interested in science.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comThe Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker.

The Baroque Cycle
Neil Stephenson

Made of 3 heavy books: Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World, this very long tale is a masterpiece. Between 1660 and 1714 the story intertwines the tales of a natural philosopher (scientist), a thieve and a slave girl come social climber through the many revolutions and evolutions of the times. Written by an established science fiction writer this book is pure historical fiction, the few science fiction elements having done with very short side stories of alchemy.

True, the book is a bit slow to start and the first 400 pages drag on, but after this it proceeds to a fireworks of action, piracy, social climbing, finance manipulation, counterfeiting, disease and death. The relationship between the various characters doesn't always make much sense but the amount of historical details going into the story is quite simply staggering.

Purchase the Baroque Cycle trilogy: Buy at Amazon.comQuicksilver, Buy at Amazon.comThe Confusion and Buy at Amazon.comThe System of the World by Neil Stephenson.

Antarctica the complete Story
McGonigal & Woodworth

This is the most complete book on Antarctica I've ever seen, covering every subject: from the various science projects performed on the continent, construction technique, the history of the discovery, the animals, etc... The iconography is extensive with lots of small illustration images and quite a few full page stupendous images. Never mind its name, this book also talks extensively about the Arctic and they could have saved at least a third of the weight by sticking to the subject. Where the books fails is the description of the various scientific stations where I've found numerous factual errors.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comAntarctica the complete Story by McGonigal & Woodworth.

Big Dead Place - Nicholas Johnson

Big Dead Place
Nicholas Johnson

The book whose full title is "Big Dead Place, Inside the strange and menacing world of Antarctica" is based on information collected on the eponymous website which has long been involved in exposing all the absurdities out of the US Antarctic Program. So this book offers a hilarious and totally different way to look at Antarctica than the usual early explorers, cute penguins and iceberg pictures. As 'the garbageman of Antarctica', Nick has seen the ins and particularly the outs of many Antarctic administrations.

I read the first third of the book in one shot, often laughing out loud, both from the author's very lively style as from the insane stories. If the website is a ramshackle collection of anonymous emails, complaint letters and stories overheard at the McMurdo bar, the book weaves it all together in a story that reads like a mystery novel, intertwined with not often heard edifying stories of old explorers. The Antarctic heroes are quite absent from this book: there are liars, thieves, drunkards, careerists, dumbass managers and many others. Or are they ? Instead of falling prey to crevasses, cold, exhaustion, starvation and scurvy, the new Antarctic Hero gets preyed on by customs regulations, the IRS, remote managers and crazy coworkers. It makes Concordia look like a communist paradise in retrospect, and probably explains why there were already two american candidates for the first Concordia winterover (they unfortunately applied too late). A must read for anybody who's been to Antarctica, who's thinking of working there or who just wants a very different take on the subject; in particular I recommended it wholeheartedly to the psychologists who came to do our psyc'eval at the end of the winter.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comBig Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson.

Dec 2012 Update: Unfortunately I just got word that Nick took his own life after being rejected for another Antarctic mission. He was a great guy with a great sense of humor and an uncanny sense of the absurd.

Hoosh - Jason C. Anthony

Jason C. Anthony

This book traces the history of cooking in Antarctica from its heroic days of old eating penguin breast and seal brains to the modern difficulty of supplying salad with the longest supply chain in the world. Jason pulls on his extended bibliography to give us recipes of survival and tales on the difficulty of extreme weather cooking. He cites the cooks themselves and also what the members of many expeditions thought about their food intakes.

Several recipes of pemmican, penguin, seal... and sled dogs are given ("soup made from snow soaked in seal blood", "fried seal brains") but most of the book is about the food, its preparation ("using dried-up seal bones soaked in seal fat and lit up") and its logistics ("dogs fed to dogs"). So food went from an element lacking at the start of the 20th century while making current explorers too fat by its abundance. As the subtitle of the book implies, scurvy is never far from the thought of those early explorers as the role of vitamin C was still poorly back then.

As a member of the US antarctic program, he goes on to describe how the large US research program has been kept fed since the 50s, never mind the complexity of the operation with its many field camps and seasonal population fluctuation. He also writes about other stations such as the difficulty of life in cold Vostok or the abundance of the midwinter fest of Concordia.

Most important of all, the book answers the oft-asked question "what does penguin taste like?":

"A piece of beef, odoriferous cod fish, and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce."    — Frederick Cook, about the taste of penguin.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comHoosh by Jason C. Anthony.

Antarctic movies

Here are a few Antarctic-related movies... as you can see they span a wide range of styles...

The Thing
John Carpenter's science-fiction masterpiece is the absolute must see for anyone considering a winterover... And really freaky when seen in the middle of it... Buy at
March of the Penguins
The award-winning documentary about the life of the emperor penguins, the only animals living in Antarctica in winter. Buy at
An inconvenient truth
Recounts Vice President Al Gore's campaign to raise awareness of global warming issues. This is based in part on the data collected by the Epica team at Dome C. Buy at
Happy Feet
A kids' cartoon about a tap-dancing emperor penguin chick... Buy at
Surf's Up
Yet another penguin CGI animation. This time in the form of a fake surfing documentary.
Emperor Zehnder
Many years in the making, this film about the life story of a photographer (played by Richard Gere) with a love of penguins and a sad ending is still not out. I've contributed some pictures for matte paintings (backdrops).

Science books

Some of the best science book around:

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Touching and fascinating. Buy at
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Also by Carl Sagan. Buy at
Unweaving The Rainbow
Richard Dawkin to counter the common belief that only the religious can truly appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of the universe. Buy at
The Road to Reality
Roger Penrose, mathematics for dummies, although I don't like his pseudo-philosophy when he talks about physics. Buy at
Science Class You Wish You Had
By D. Brody, for a simple and clear understanding of the most common natural phenomena. Buy at
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
This extraordinary book by Douglas R. Hofstadter is one of the reasons why I went into computer science. 25 years later some of the simple questions he raised still fascinate me (can an anthill be considered a distributed intelligence ?) Buy at
A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson. Buy at
The Selfish Gene
By Richard Dawkin explaining our common behaviors in evolutionary terms. Buy at
The Blind Watchmaker
Still by Richard Dawkin. Buy at
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Yet another Richard Dawkins Buy at
The God Delusion
Still by Richard Dawkin for all those who can't stand the stupidity of religion or those who want a final excuse to wean from its ugly tit. Buy at
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Classic of classics by Richard Feynman. Buy at

Megalith poster
By George Gamow about relativity. Buy at
Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory
The other side of the coin by George Gamow. Buy at
Birth of a New Physics
By Bernard Cohen Buy at
Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life
One of the better biography of the great Albert by Abraham Pais. Buy at


Not a book, but a CD by german metal band Megalith: Gipfelsturmer (storming the summit). Why I am reviewing this ? First of all because they bought several of my images for their cover art. And second because I like it. It's brutal while still retaining this musical german sensibility that gave us so many great composers. Their style is a mix of power balad and classic metal, I like in particular: Zukunftsplane, Deutsches Herz, Die brucke (which has excellent but needs even heavier guitar in my opinion), Das tor, March or Die...

The band posters are based on an image taken in Scandinavia during our winter ski raid through Sarek. Just one more link with the current excellent scandinavian death metal scene ?

Purchase the CD: Buy at Amazon.comGipfelsturmer by Megalith.

Zion Climbing, Free and Clean
Bryan Bird

Coming out in 2009, Zion Climbing, Free and Clean fills up a much needed gap. When we climbed in this sandstone mecca a couple years ago, we had a hard time plowing through the classic guidebooks in order to find routes without any aid climbing in them. It seemed a given that all classics were aid routes. This guidebook brings something else to Zion: the Supertopo quality. Known for their very clean and detailed route sketches, most of the books in this series don't even need to contain route descriptions. Here, due to the 'Zion adventure factor', the sketches are completed with short descriptions. But the guidebook also innovates as it contains multiple color pictures of the faces with the climbs overlaid, great shots of climbers on the routes themselves, some historic trip reports and even some artsy watercolors.

If you trad rats thought that Zion wasn't worth a visit due to the lack of free routes, this guidebook now proves you deeply wrong and should motivate a visit. It also contains some 'sport' (Indian Creek style) climbing areas and bouldering areas.

Purchase the book: Buy at Amazon.comZion Climbing, Free and Clean by Bryan Bird and Chris McNamara.