Best mountaineering / climbing fiction (novels)

For the most part I am content to free-ride on the generosity of the web: if I am curious to know about how to sharpen a pencil just right, I can be confident that someone out there has done a public service and let us all know (for free). The internet really is a modern oracle, and people are generally very happy to share their arcane (albeit often inaccurate) knowledge with the rest of us — so e.g. I don’t feel at all guilty about using wikipedia and not contributing to it, even when I could add something.

But today is the day when I start to pay it forward!  Mountaineering has a tradition of incredible story-writing, in part because of the type of people who pursue it (intelligent, perfectionist, driven, introverted and happy to be alone with their thoughts for long periods of time) and in part because of the extraordinary real-life scenery and drama and personalities and locales and history. I have a decent collection of books on alpinism (happy to share), and there are lots of lists on the web if you want to dabble a bit or start your own.

That all tends to be non-fiction, however: where is the fiction (if anywhere)? It turns out there are plenty of potboiler spy thrillers and steamy romances that use mountains as a backdrop, but is there any real literature where mountains and climbs play a central role in the story? The answer is yes, but not very many and I couldn’t easily find a decent list online. So I hereby present to you, dear internet, ten mountaineering novels, in order of original publication date (all of which I own, despite several being out-of-print, but only three of which I have read – so far):

  1. The White Tower (1945) by James Ramsey Ullman
  2. The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) by W.E. Bowman  [comedy, but still]
  3. The Eiger Sanction (1972) by Trevanian  [perhaps verging on potboiler status, but it's quite good and the mountain is key and the movie stars Clint Eastwood so it has to be on the list]
  4. North Wall (1977) by Roger Hubank
  5. Solo Faces (1979) by James Salter
  6. Beyond the Mountain (1983) by Elizabeth Arthur  [the only one by a woman, which is for better or worse about the same ratio as for anything else related to alpinists]
  7. Climbers (1989) by M. John Harrison  [Boardman-Tasker Prize winner]
  8. The Ascent (1992) by Jeff Long  [Boardman-Tasker Prize winner]
  9. Looking for Mo (1998) by Daniel Duane
  10. The Fall (2003) by Simon Mawer  [Boardman-Tasker Prize winner; this may be the best pure novel of the bunch]

I don’t claim that this list is comprehensive, especially since the inclusion criteria were subjective, and I did find a few more that I chose to leave out. But if anyone reads this and has suggestions for others to add, I really would like to hear it and will happily append them. Maybe in a future post I will even include some reviews.

Finally two related bonus books: Snowblind by Daniel Arnold is apparently a collection of climbing-related short stories that just came out within the last couple of months; and The Terrors of Ice and Darkness by Christoph Ransmayr looks like a fascinating novel in both style and subject, set in the arctic (originally published in german in 1984, with an english translation in 1991).…

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Category: Books, Mountaineering

Women in science (again)

I ran across this article in PNAS reporting the results of an experiment re hiring men vs women in various technical fields, and I posted it to facebook with the comment “only male economists showed no gender bias in hiring”. This sparked an interesting discussion (on a similar topic to this recent post), including the relevance of experiments to policy, so it seemed worth reproducing below…

[full names removed in case people didn't want their comments to be public; I am JJ]


  • SH  Sure you economists will do anything to meet women. :)
  • RF  I want to read through this one more closely; it sounds interesting.
  • JJ  SH: of course! that just proves how rational we are…

  • SH  Actually a less generous reading of this is that most of these academics seem to have recognized gender imbalances and actively sought to choose equally qualified women 2:1 over similar men. Except male economists who appear oblivious to such concerns.
  • JJ  Possibly, although it’s not clear that’s a good thing. For instance, as a manager in the federal govt (not sure about state universities) who has done a lot of diversity training, I can assure you that it would be *extremely* illegal for me to do that (even if exactly equally qualified); we focus on the applicant pool. Even if true, that would suggest that we no longer need any interventions among senior [non-economist] faculty, because a broadly representative sample of them recognize the concerns you mention and are actively fighting them. I suspect neither you nor I would agree with that conclusion, so I doubt the premise.
  • NK  Flawed study that is getting a lot of press because, while the experiments are clever, they hugely oversell their conclusions. Responses to an experimental questionnaire are much more likely to display a social acceptability bias – especially given all the press gender bias in academia has received lately. And responses to narratives in which the single signal of gender is a pronoun are frail proxies for real-life interactions.
  • LP  Hurray for male economists. I like one of them a lot.
  • JJ  NK: So what do you believe are the correct conclusions to draw from this clever study? I’m half convinced by your criticisms (overselling, though that doesn’t bother me, and more seriously social acceptability in hypothetical questionnaires) but not fully (names and pronouns are often the only info in hugely important initial rounds of hiring decisions). Also curious about your take on the difference between economists and others, which is experimentally unassailable but obviously requires interpretation.
  • EH  Perhaps it isn’t unassailable. I haven’t looked at the study, but if you make enough approximate measurements, then one is likely to be significantly different from the true value.
  • JJ  EH: “I haven’t looked at the study” is not a very promising start to a comment on it – I expect more from you! :) There were only eight profession-gender pairs so chance is unlikely to have driven these differences, but of course it’s possible. However my point was that the internal validity of the experimental design is unassailable, even if the external validity is not, so it does require some sort of response (even if the response is that one’s prior is so strong in a different direction that one chooses to dismiss this data).
  • NK  JJ, this is the kind of wild (and pernicious) overselling: “Our experimental findings do not support omnipresent societal messages regarding the current inhospitability of the STEM professoriate for women at the point of applying for assistant professorships (4–12, 26–29). Efforts to combat
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Category: Policy, Psychology, Science

Glorious tables of numbers

At some point, in one of the many universities where I have spent time, I ran across a pile of old books that were being given away to anyone who wanted them. I was attracted (who wouldn’t be?) by the Table of Circular and Hyperbolic Tangents and Cotangents for Radian Arguments, which was published in 1943 by the Columbia University Press; mine is the second (1947) printing. It consists of page upon page of digits, row upon row and column upon column of tan(x), cot(x), tanh(x), and coth(x), enumerated to roughly eight significant digits.

This was before the time of calculators and computers, and I really was attracted by the sprawling, rippling, hypnotic lists of numbers. It sits proudly on my bookshelf next to the copy of Gradshteyn and Ryzhik’s Table of Integrals, Series, and Products that I bought as an undergrad (and which has actually proven useful to me in my career, since computers are not unmatched along that dimension). But the truly and surprisingly beautiful portion of the book of tables turned out to be the Foreword, written by one H. T. Davis of northwestern university.

I highly recommend clicking on the link above and reading the entire text (don’t miss the “note” at the end!), which is only about two pages. But if you are in a rush (or just need a teaser to spur your interest), here are some highlights:

  • …discovery and measurement have gone hand in hand.
  • The mathematical functions’ origin in some universal principle has endowed them with a kind of immortality, and hence they appear over and over again in disciplines [including economics!] far removed from the one in which historically they first appeared.
  • The figures seen on the printed page may appear dull reading to the uninitiated, but behind them there is a realm that challenges the imagination … usually there is a long story of scientific achievement.
  • Even the old table of chords, computed probably by Hipparchus in the second century BC and transmitted to us through Claudius Ptolemy, could be adapted readily to the use of modern students of trigonometry.
  • The present volume … adds another pillar to this great monument of science, which, in the words of Horace, “is more enduring than bronze.”

It is marvelous to me to imagine the concentrated time and effort, stretching back continuously over centuries, that fed these and similar tables — and to imagine the many discoveries and adventures that would not have been possible without them.…

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Category: Philosophy, Science

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Julian C. Jamison

I'm an economist, researcher, traveler, runner, and astronaut-in-waiting. I enjoy pondering human behavior, including both what we do and what we ought to do - either to maximize our well-being or in pursuit of some other goal.

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