Like many other people before me, Mount Everest has always fascinated me. I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air as a teenager, and it was mesmerizing. I recall his explanation for people trying to do this impossible thing — climb the tallest mountain in the world — being simply because it was there. While I know I’ll never attempt to climb the summit (base camp would be sufficient for me!), I understand that impulse. It’s the same desire behind making words rhyme in a poem, or playing an Irish jig at 200 beats per minute. We do it because we want to, because it’s there and we can do it.
So it was a wonderful delight to come across the 2021 Netflix documentary 14 Peaks. In the film, Nepali mountaineer Nimsdai Purja and his team have a goal of climbing the 14 tallest peaks in the world in seven months. Now, if that seems like a challenge, most climbers take months to cover just one. The film goes back and forth between achieving their goal and Purja’s life and his decision to undertake this quest. And, oh, while they climb, Purja and his team get involved in rescue efforts for other team members, because that’s what you do for your fellow humans. It’s an incredible testament to what humanity can do.
So here are eight books that explore mountain climbing, with a natural focus on Mount Everest.
The most obvious starting place is Purja’s own book. It dives even deeper into his life story than the documentary film can capture (if we don’t want a 30 hour film!), including his time as a soldier as well as the 14 climbs (and emergency rescues/recoveries). There’s also a young adult edition, too!
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
This is the book that started it all for me. My battered, signed copy of Into Thin Air has traveled with me from home to home over the years. In 1996, eight climbers died in their attempt to climb Mount Everest when a blizzard hit. Journalist/mountain climber Krakauer details what went wrong. He provides meticulous explanations of the process of climbing, like acclimatizing yourself to the altitude by making several trips up and down the summit to prevent the dangers of things like HAPE (High-altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (High-altitude cerebral edema).
But it’s more than that, it’s an exploration of why people feel compelled to do these things, including Krakauer himself.
Two at the Top: a Shared Dream of Everest By Uma Krishnaswami and Christopher Corr
While most of these books listed are nonfiction and intended for adults, I wanted to include a children’s book that explores the stories of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, who are credited with summiting Mount Everest first. Told side by side with bright colorful drawings, readers learn about these two men who achieved what seemed impossible.
Sacred Mountain: Everest by Christine Taylor-Butler
Many histories of Everest and other tall mountains have a bit of a European-centric focus. But the Sherpa have lived on the mountain and done the work of assisting in the climbs for generations. There’s dispute of whether Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay actually reached the summit first, but whether that’s true or not, Sherpas do not get the focus they typically should. Taylor-Butler tries to focus more on their perspectives about Mount Everest and their culture.
High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places by David Breashears
Mountaineer David Breashears recounts his life and how he got into the world of mountain climbing. It explores how he got started, how he ended up on mountains like Everest. It’s a highly entertaining book for people who like adventure narratives. It does touch on the 1996 Everest disaster (with a foreword by Krakauer), when Breashears was at Everest but in a separate climbing party.
In the Shadow of the Mountain by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado
This recently published memoir is Silvia Vasquez-Lavado’s own account of her life and her goal of climbing the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent. On top of it all, she is the first openly gay woman to accomplish that feat. After a less than ideal childhood, Vasquez-Lavado ends up in Silicon Valley but when her mother asks her home to Peru, Vasquez-Lavabo finds mountain climbing. It’s a beautiful and painful story of a woman finding herself.
The Summit of the Gods by Jirō Taniguchi, Baku Yumemakura
Last year was a bumper crop of climbing movies on Netflix. In addition to 14 Peaks, The Summit of The Gods was released as an animated film. It’s based on a five volume manga based on a book by the same name. This is the only fictional book on the list. A Japanese climber and photojournalist, Makoto Fukamachi, stumbles on a camera that might hold the proof of whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two climbers who died on Everest, may have gotten to the top in 1924. The possibility that the camera is found leads Fukamachi on to a famous but disappeared Japanese climber, Jouji Habu, who might have had the camera. It’s a quest for both men, one to climb Everest, the other to find out if Mallory and Irvine may have been the first to reach the summit.
Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman by Cathryn J. Prince
I always love learning about new women in history and Fanny Bullock Workman is an exciting one. This late 19th century New England–born woman broke both cycling and mountaineering records, and addressed the Royal Geographic Society of London as the second woman ever. And her work on mapping parts of the Himalayas and elsewhere was used decades after her death in 1925. If you want a nonfiction story of an adventurous woman explorer, this is the book for you.
These are just eight titles to whet your appetite for books about mountaineering. And if you are inclined towards cinema, both 14 Peaks and The Summit of the Gods are well worth watching, too. Want more? Here’s a list of 100 nonfiction adventure books. Or here’s a list of books from another adventuring part of the world: books about the Arctic.