Fallen Giants

A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, Yale University Press.

It has been more than 50 years since a comprehensive history of Himalayan mountaineering was written, something of a surprise considering the ongoing popularity of high-altitude mountaineering books. In “Fallen Giants,” authors Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver—amateur climbers and professors of history—do a remarkable job of chronicling the history of climbing in the Himalaya, taking pains to include every significant expedition since the 1890s. 

As one might expect, it’s a narrative dominated by failure. It wasn’t until 1950—when Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal climbed Annapurna—that anyone reached the summit of an 8,000-meter peak. In the six decades since, the region’s 13 other “eight-thousanders” have all been scaled many times, but often at great cost in terms of life and limb. 

While “Fallen Giants” isn’t as accessible as, say, a best-seller like Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” it’s filled with interesting tidbits. Who knew that occultist Aleister Crowley was one of the first to make a try at K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. (Although Crowley didn’t succeed, he did manage to identify the route by which K2 would ultimately be climbed.) And who knew that Nanga Parbat—the world’s ninth-highest mountain and the fastest-rising eight-thousander—might one day surpass Mount Everest as our tallest peak. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, “Fallen Giants” is a little light on details concerning well-documented climbs in the “age of extremes” (i.e., the last 20 years), and readers will certainly lament the absence of glossy, full-color photographs, which are an integral part of any contemporary mountaineering book. Otherwise, it’s difficult to find fault with this exceptionally well-written tome, a must-read for any fan of climbing literature.