I was the kid who, in boarding school, couldn't climb the rope in the gym to the rafters, a requirement for graduation. Decades later, climbing the aptly name Breakneck Ridge, I found myself on a nearly vertical wall of stone and freaked out so completely that my wife had to maneuver below me and push me over the top.
Climbing, I've long believed, is more than a passion --- it's a drug. So I wasn't stunned to hear that Sandy Hill had reached the top of the world's "seven summits" and had climbed mountains in a hundred countries. Or that she was on the climb you read about in Jon Krakauer's 'Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.' Part of the thrill of expeditions like this is the flirtation with death; roll the dice often enough and eventually you roll doom. Lucky me to take all my risks on a nice, safe computer keyboard.
But as I looked through Hill's book, "Mountain: Portraits of High Places," my responses were unsettling. I found myself stunned. Moved. Inspired. Weepy. Exalted. And, finally, enlightened, for as I looked around our apartment, I saw that I too had the obsession, though in the mildest possible form --- photography. On one wall, the famous 1948 Cartier-Bresson image of Muslim women praying on the slopes of Hari Parbat. On another, an Abbas Kiarostami photo of lush mountains in Afghanistan. And on my computer, a startling black-and-white image of a high-walled canyon.
The mountains --- maybe they're inside of us. Some of us confront them in books and images and dreams; some of us need to confront them as physical challenges. But all of us want, if not the thrill of the climb, the satisfaction of the view from the top --- the sense of being on top of the world, looking down as if from space.
And that is the appeal of "Mountain." Physically the book is a slab: 11" by 12", 350 black-and-white and color photographs, 6.4 pounds. And then, as you move through the photo spreads, it becomes a kind of spiritual quest. The photos are historical (Stieglitz), artistic (Ruscha) and monumental (Lynn Davis). And varied? Oh my.
There are mountains like uncut diamonds in the sky. Shards of ice pointing to the heavens. Everest haunted by a swirling cloud. An erupting volcano. A climber on George Washington's face on Mt. Rushmore. A man climbing, without equipment, on a high rock wall. A double spread of vast whiteness, with five dots in the center --- people crossing a snowfield, looking like Morse code. Observatories and spas at impossible heights. And, over and over, pictures so not of this world that only the inclusion of the moon establishes they're of our earth.
And there are essays, from Sandy Hill; a filmmaker; the first person to reach the North Pole, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest; a literary critic; one of the sixteen survivors of an airplane crash in the Andes Mountains; and a guide who has climbed the Teton Mountains more than 300 times. These pieces are terse and smart, but they don't matter --- not when set against images of so much beauty and power.
There are big books that you buy for people you don't completely care about --- gift books, coffee table books. And then there are books like "Mountain," books that cost you something to look through, books that repay the effort. Yes, "Mountain" is a book for the holidays. But more, it's a prayer in stone and snow, a reach for the divine. To look through it even casually is be cleansed and humbled.