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Climbing Books: The Climbers by Jim Herrington

The Climbers by Jim Herrington was foreworded by Alex Honnold and has an essay by Greg Child, it was published by Mountaineers Books.

The book won the grand prize at The Banff Mountain Book Festival in 2017 and as Jon Popowich explains, is one of the better climbing books of the past year.

One of my favourite books is The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. I purchased my now well-worn copy at a used bookstore in Whitehorse in the Yukon in the days around an expedition to the Saint Elias Range many years ago.

In the earliest pages of that semi-autobiography, she writes of a comment she received from someone, upon seeing her much later in her life, who says, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

The celebration of the often ravaged, weathered face; the topography of eyes, noses and mouths, the shadows that crease or conceal, and like glaciers cutting into stone, the years and experiences and history that shape it – this is the subject of Jim Herrington’s outstanding new book The Climbers.

The result of a nearly twenty year photographic pursuit, The Climbers is a collection of stunning black and white portraits of climbers who were active during the 1930s to 1970s.

Herrington is both a climber and an incredibly skilled photographer of reputation, having photographed significant A-list acting and music talent for many years. It is fortunate for us then that he turned his lens to this project, which is both art, labour of love, and historical archive.

Many of the climbers featured are in their final years; some have now been gone for a while.

The photos alone are themselves a collection of stories; these are the images of proud faces, worn faces, faces – like that of Riccardo Cassin – right near the very end of life.

But the book contains outstanding words as well. A foreword by Alex Honnold, is a short reflection on the intersection of climbing history and its culture, and the many things we climbers hold as references. Greg Child provides a well-written and informative historical essay that summarizes a lot of twentieth century climbing, including the lives of those featured in the photos and the many others who were also active in and around these characters.

And Herrington’s own writing describes the context for the project, his style and approach, his influences from climbing and his love of photography. These written passages are wonderful and set the stage for what are truly breathtaking images.

The Climbers was the well-deserved winner of two awards at the 2017 Banff Mountain Book Festival – the Mountaineering History Award, and the Grand Prize.

It succeeds for three reasons. It is a historical document, capturing the stories in the faces of the many bold figures of our sport. Second, it is an incredible collection of photography of inarguable quality, skill and craft – these are master portraits.

Lastly, Herrington has approached the whole project with a distinctive aesthetic informed by his own youthful and ongoing influences – photographically, climbing-wise, and culturally as a whole. Bearing his fingerprints without intrusion, it celebrates the past yet is timeless.

The master French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo.” This type of book, this type of photography, does not come along often.

Do yourself a favour and buy it; you won’t regret it. It is my belief that The Climbers, like the faces and images it contain, will become its own historical reference point in the future. For more visit here.

Jim Herrington