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A Mountaineer's Life

Author : Allen Steck
Published : 2017-10-24

I first heard Allen Steck’s name when I was flying and climbing in the Owen’s Valley of California in the early 1980s. His exploits, along with Norman Clyde, Doug Robinson, Galen Rowell and John Salathe, were legendary. Known by the moniker, the Slim Fox, the mountains have been his home.

At 91, Steck has passed along what wisdom he has gained in his seven decades of mountaineering in this well-written memoir. His insights into the trajectory and increasing popularity of climbing in America, had him write: “When I started in 1946, climbing was little known or understood in America. Compare this to what climbing was like in France at the time, where the French Alpine Club was so vigorous that they easily financed an expedition to make the first ascent of Annapura in 1950.”

Things have certainly changed, and Steck has been there every vertical step along the way, and outlines his journey in this fascinating chronology of one climber’s life. An Oakland, California, native, his first climb in the Sierra had him hooked. Then it was off to Europe as a teen in the Alps with Karl Lugmayer. Over the next 70 years, Steck would travel worldwide and compile the nuggets for stories of triumphs and defeats, deprivation and anguish, hunger, and injuries in pursuit of the summit that went into this memoir.

Perhaps the most dramatic chapter describes his journey to the former Soviet Union’s Pamir Mountains as part of an international climbing camp. It was on Peak Lenin on August 7, 1974, that eight Russian women perished during an intense storm in pursuit of the summit. Steck’s description of the storm, climb, and sorrow at their loss is a heart-wrenching tale.

He made many first ascents, including the Hummingbird Ridge in the Yukon, and the Steck-Salathe Route on Yosemite’s Sentinel Rock. From a Teton Traverse to an ascent of Makalu to backpacking in the Grand Canyon, he has pretty much done it all.

In search of a living, Steck founded, and published, Ascent Magazine for the Sierra Club for over 30 years, and was the co-author with Steve Roper of the well-read tome, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. In 1969 he co-founded Mountain Travel, America’s first true adventure travel company, which introduced many guests to his beloved mountains worldwide. Along the way he also married and had a family that carries on his tradition of a life outdoors.

Steck writes a beautiful homage to his climbing partner and friend John Salathe, the Swiss climber who created the first hard-steel pitons that changed climbing forever. They have both been friends, mentors, and inspiration to subsequent generations of alpinists.

Philosophically, Steck realizes that his pursuits of steep rock, thin air, and comradery have no other purpose than to just be. He writes, “We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaging in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless and total without redeeming social significance. One should not probe for deeper meanings.”

This book seems to say otherwise.

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