Managing editor Margaret Sullivan attended a lively panel discussion of The Best Mountain Book Ever Written at last week’s Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. She reports:

Conquistadors I was thrilled but not surprised to see that many of the Mountaineers Books’ classic mountaineering narratives were mentioned. Although everyone declared it impossible to settle on a single book, Conquistadors of the Useless, by Lionel Terray, and The Mountain of My Fear, by David Roberts, were short-listed by almost all panelists.

Jon Popowich, an Edmonton-based alpinist and contributor to Gripped, said that for him Conquistadors was tied with Gaston Rebuffat’s Starlight and Storm, for its fabulous writing and its heart. When I talked to him later in the week, he explained how emotionally wrenching it is. David Roberts, who wrote the introduction to the English translation of Conquistadors, was in the audience, and called the book “the greatest of all time.”

Harry Vandervlist, a Canadian poet and writer, mentioned The Mountain of My Fear. He cited Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers (we’ll be publishing the US edition of it this spring) for being dramatic, poignant, and situating mountaineering in its political context. It’s the amazing story of a generation of Polish climbers who managed to do great climbs in the Himalaya despite the isolation and poverty of their Soviet-dominated homeland.

Bernadette McDonald, a fellow panelist and the author of two other acclaimed books, The Brotherhood of the Rope and I'll Call You in Kathmandu, listed Conquistadors, The Mountain of My Fear, Bill Tilman’s writing (H.W. Tilman, The Seven Mountain-Travel Books), Postcards from the Ledge (Greg Child), Kiss or Kill (Mark Twight), and Deep Play (Paul Pritchard) as worthy of consideration.

Stephen Venables, British climber and award-winning author, gave his list of six favorites. First up, Tilman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi (included in The Seven Mountain-Travel Books). According to Venables, Tilman is "the Jane Austen of mountaineering literature" with "style by the bucketful." Next, Eric Shipton’s That Untraveled World, and Tom Patey’s collection, One Man’s Mountains, which includes one of the funniest climbing stories of all time, A Short Walk With Whillans. Fourth, Venables chose Kurt Diemburger’s Summits and Secrets (Kurt Diemburger Omnibus, now out of print in the US), because it inspired his own path into the world of climbing. He included Peter Boardman’s Sacred Summits for its "fine lyrical prose" (in The Boardman-Tasker Omnibus), and Thin Air, by Greg Child, "an acute observer of the people around him."

Geoff Powter, author of Strange and Dangerous Dreams, cited Conquistadors and Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage (Hermann Buhl), as well as Freedom Climbers, Kiss or Kill ("a real finger that wagged at the climbing community and said 'You're not doing enough.'"), The Mountain of My Fear, and Paul Pritchard's two books--Deep Play and The Totem Pole.

EverestI would add three of my own favorite climbing books: Everest: The West Ridge (Tom Hornbein), Minus 148 Degrees (Art Davidson), and The Last Step (Rick Ridgeway). Everest: The West Ridge is my all-time favorite. It’s got everything: suspense (a difficult new route on the world’s highest mountain, an unplanned bivouac near the summit), culture, history, friendship, all woven together by compelling and insightful writing. Minus 148 tells of the first winter ascent of Denali—and in Alaska, winter means not just unimaginable cold but also near-constant darkness. The Last Step is one of the early tell-all climbing narratives; it reveals the inner dynamics of the first American team to summit K2.

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