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Scaling the heights: climbing and mountaineering

On the new tower Dawn

When asked why he became a mountaineer, George Mallory answered that climbing represented, for him “the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward”. This selection of books on climbing takes in a broad sweep of ascents, from the facades of Cambridge colleges to the sandstone cliffs of Bohemia. Whether a statement of civil disobedience or an aspirational allegory for fascism, climbing has frequently stood for more than just the act itself and can tell us much about the political, social and moral leanings of those who pursued the heights.

Wall and Roof Climbing by Geoffrey Winthrop Young.


[YOUNG, Geoffrey Winthrop.] Wall and Roof Climbing. Eton College: Spottiswoode and Co., Limited, 1905 Geoffrey Winthrop Young soon after leaving Cambridge 1898

The first person to produce a work on the tradition of buildering at the University of Cambridge, Geoffrey Winthrop Young published The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity in 1899, over three decades before the rather better-known Night Climbers of Cambridge by ‘Whipplesnaith’. So-called because of the necessity of the cover of darkness to its perpetrators, night climbing was (and still is) a cultish activity at Cambridge, an act of defiance against the very stones of the revered institution. Setting aside the extreme danger of free climbing the often sheer planes of architecture, the penalty for being caught was immediate rustication, or expulsion, so the practice was guarded by a code of strict fraternal secrecy. Documentation of buildering, both within and outside of Cambridge, is often scarce, making first editions of pseudonymous works such as those by Whipplesnaith (actually Noël Howard Symington) or Young rare and highly sought-after in first edition.


Young’s The Roof-Climber’s Guide was in part a humorous parody of early alpine guidebooks and partly a serious manual for Cantabrigians who might want to follow in his footsteps. It was to be the first of several published works in his lifetime, including collections of poetry and books on mountaineering. Young went on to become a celebrated Alpinist in his own right, making several new and treacherous ascents before the outbreak of the First World War. During the war, Young, a conscientious objector, joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, which sent over a thousand men to France and Belgium. He was decorated for his services but was wounded by an explosion in 1917 and lost one of his legs. Undaunted, Young continued to climb after the war using a specially-designed prosthetic, with which he successfully scaled the Matterhorn in 1928.


From Wall and Roof Climbing, 1905

Wall and Roof Climbing is Young’s second published work, referred to by him in a tipped in note present in this copy as ‘a literary joke’. It collects together a history of climbing lore, including quotations from figures such as Ovid, Chaucer, Malory and Shakespeare, as a kind of facetious justification of the noble and ancient ‘tradition’ of buildering. It was published anonymously (‘by the author of The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity’) during his time as a master at Eton.


Thomas Mailaender’s Night Climbers exhibition at Roman Road exhibition space in London

With the continued popularity of buildering and parkour, Young’s second book is an early chapter in the oft-undocumented heritage of this unusual pastime. Whether seen as an irresponsible and dangerous hobby undertaken by individuals possessed of extraordinary privilege, or a heroic and subversive act of disobedience (or perhaps both),  interest in the night climbers of Cambridge is still strong. Whipplesnaith and Young’s books have been republished by the Oleander Press, and a 2013 exhibition by French artist Thomas Mailaender displayed photographs of the night climbers in an installation which included a temporary climbing wall.

Cesty k Vrcholum by Vilém Heckel – BOOK SOLD

HECKEL, Vilém. Cesty k Vrcholum

HECKEL, Vilém. Cesty k Vrcholum. Prague: State Sports Publishing Company, 1956. Portrait of Vilem Heckel, 1955

Among the most celebrated Czech photographers, Vilém Heckel began his career as an industrial photographer and photojournalist. He took to mountain climbing in the 1950s, eventually becoming a professional mountaineer and mountain photographer. His membership in the Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists enabled him to travel much more extensively than most Czechoslovakian citizens were then able, and he continued to photograph his mountaineering expeditions for the rest of his life. He gradually developed a reputation not only as an accomplished photographer, with a talent for capturing the grandeur of mountainous landscapes and a sensitivity in depicting the human mountaineers who attempted to conquer their peaks, but also as a skilful mountaineer in his own right.



Images from Cesty k Vrcholum. 1956

Heckel completed exhibitions in the High Tatras, the Caucuses, and was amongst the group which formed the first Czech expedition to the Hindu Kush. In 1970, he and a group of climbers were planning an expedition to Alaska which was blocked by the Communist regime. Following the 1968 Prague Spring it was almost impossible for Czechoslovakian citizens to travel to Western countries. Their destination was therefore changed to the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca. Heckel and several colleagues had planned to separate from the rest of the expedition party on 1 June 1970 to take a break from the mountains and document Peruvian culture in the lowlands. On 31 May, the day before their departure, the Great Peruvian Earthquake hit the coast of Peru, causing a substantial part of the north side of Huascarán, under which Heckel and his party were camped, to collapse. The avalanche, estimated to be half a mile wide and a mile long, killed every member of the expedition and decimated the nearby towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca.

Cesty k Vrcholum (Paths to Peaks) was one of Heckel’s early mountaineering works, now quite uncommon to find in first edition. It charts the process of training in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and the subsequent winter ascent of the High Tatres.


RIEFENSTAHL, Leni. Kampf in Schnee und Eis. Hesse & Becker Verlag, Leipzig, 1933

Pioneering female film maker and Nazi propagandist; Helene ‘Leni’ Riefenstahl is a troubling and contradictory figure. Born in Berlin in 1902, she was a talented artist, dancer, actress and photographer and made her career in the arts. She produced and directed her first film in 1932, in which she also took the starring role. Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) was inspired by the popularity of the bergfilm (mountain film) genre popular in Germany at the time. Whether it was the beauty of its star or the Wagnerian portrayal of the mountainous landscape that appealed, the film caught the attention of Adolf Hitler. He invited Riefenstahl to meet with him and later offered her the opportunity to direct a fully funded propaganda film about the fifth Nuremberg Rally in 1933. Riefenstahl had seen Hitler speak the previous year. His oration had a profound effect on her and she described later the ‘almost apocalyptic vision’ she experienced at the time.

Thus began a friendship and working relationship between Riefenstahl and the Reich, which, despite her later assertions that she did not intend any further films to be used as Nazi propaganda, saw her produce several projects funded either by the Nazi party, or by companies set up by them to conceal the source of funding. Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), another Nuremberg rally propaganda movie, and Olympia, her coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, are both considered ground-breaking advances in documentary filmmaking. Riefenstahl was astonishingly innovative in her technical cinematographic approach; she was one of the first directors to utilise tracking and slow-motion shots, and used an inventive combination of trenches, balloons and rafts to capture the unusual and striking footage of the athletes.


Riefenstahl on the cover of Time magazine in 1936. Riefenstahl in Franck’s 1933 film SOS Eisberg.

It is easy to see the appeal of Riefenstahl’s work to the Nazi regime. Her treatment of the male body in Olympia, glorifying strength and physical perfection, is particularly consistent with Hitler’s adoption of Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch. But even before her involvement with the Nazi party, Riefenstahl’s artistic preferences seem to have been notably aligned with Nazi ideology. Riefenstahl was mesmerised by the bergefilme of director Dr Arnold Franck, who popularised the genre with a series of mountaineering films throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Riefenstahl met Franck and persuaded him to cast her as his star in the landmark feature The Holy Mountain (1926) and the pair worked together on several other mountain films, including Riefenstahl’s own Das Blaue Licht. With their plots about the travails of stoic young Aryan heroes pitting themselves against nature, fate and the towering peaks they sought to conquer, Franck’s films, and the genre in general, became a tacit visual metaphor for Nazi ideals.

Kampf in Schnee und Eis is Riefenstahl’s autobiographical account of the making of her mountain films. The title is doubtless a reference to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which Riefenstahl studied in detail, as well as Im Kampf mit dem Berge, one of Franck’s early films. Her ‘struggle’, however, was not an exaggeration. Riefenstahl suffered through significantly adverse and often dangerous conditions in her involvement with bergfilm projects, breaking both of her ankles on her first day of shooting with Franck. She proved, however, to be an able and enthusiastic climber and sportswoman, challenging the prejudices of the overwhelmingly male-dominated genre. This copy contains a vintage photocard inscribed by Riefenstahl and depicting her in  one of her mountain roles.

Riefenstahl was detained by American troops in 1945. She was tried four times by post-war authorities but was never convicted of being a Nazi. To the end of her life, she claimed that ignorance, naivety and a lack of political interest had made her unaware of the atrocities being committed under Hitler. Between the end of the war and her death in 2003, she won more than 50 libel cases against claims that she was a Nazi or knew the horrific realities of the Holocaust. The extent of her knowledge and involvement with the Nazis is to this day unclear.

Reichsparteitag 1934. Leni Riefenstahl filmt

Riefenstahl and a camera crew stand in front of Hitler’s car during the 1934 rally in Nuremberg.

Riefenstahl’s contribution to film as a scriptwriter, cinematographer, director and technical innovator was unusually broad and prolific for a woman of her time. Appreciation of her work is, however, rightfully complicated by her connection to Hitler and the Nazi party, who certainly commissioned and funded her work for propagandist purposes. Though she lived to be 101 years old and introduced some of the most important technical innovations in cinematic history, Riefenstahl was castigated and despised until the end of her life for what was at best a sympathetic relationship with Nazism. The controversy effectively ended her career as a filmmaker and, though she continued to undertake artistic projects throughout her life, Tiefland was her last feature. Her status as the woman who had forged the triumphant imagery of the Nazi party in her propaganda films, and her later denial of all knowledge of the atrocities committed in the name of the Reich, undermined the legitimacy of everything she did after, and haunted her to the end of her life.

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