The library’s collection features original journals, historic maps and even a copy of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, which identified Everest as the world’s highest peak
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Sometimes, the best trips begin with a little bit of research to find out-of-the-way spots along well-traveled tourist routes, or to learn how early travelers viewed a destination. And even though it seems, in this day and age, that everything you might want to to know is online, that’s not the case.
If, let’s say, you’re planning a trip to Asia, or a climb in the high reaches of the Himalaya, you may want to look at one of the only five known surviving copies of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, which pinpointed Everest as the summit of the world and helped establish the size of the globe. Or you may want to simply retrace the steps of some of the explorers who preceded you.
There’s a good chance that material is not on the internet. But you may just find what you’re looking for at the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall Library in Golden.
The library has a circulating collection of 20,000 books that got its start after some WWI intrigue, when Alpine Club member Henry Montagnier — who was expelled from Italy as a spy — donated his collection of mountain and travel-related books to the club. The collection was housed in a special room at the New York Public Library and then at an Alpine Club clubhouse in downtown Manhattan before it found its permanent home in Golden.
Members of the Alpine Club can check out the books in person or by mail, and the library itself is open to everyone.
It’s a living repository of climbing lore and artifacts, and a valuable resource for climbers, explorers and writers. When Yosemite climbing pioneer Royal Robbins needed source material from old Sierra Club climbing newsletters, he found it at the library, where staffers sent him photocopies of the relevant issues to help place the pieces some historic climbing puzzles.
“The point of this collection is that it’s used by climbers to go climbing,” said Beth Heller, the preservation librarian charged with making sure the old journals, books and magazines are properly cared for.
And some are very old, including a tome from 1541, On the Appreciation of Mountains, by Swiss naturalist and bibliographer Konrad Gesner. The book is one of the first-known works that serves as a guide to what travelers might expect to see at high elevations. It was written during an era when many people still thought of the mountains as the home of ogres and dragons.
Along with looking after those old volumes, Heller is also working on several other projects, including an ambitious effort to preserve old 16 millimeter-format climbing films and curating a collection of more than 600 climbing maps and journals from all over the world.
“I think there’s a real value to being able to encounter the primary source,” she said, describing boxes of artifacts stored by the Alpine Club, including clothes found on climbers who perished on the mountain. “Holding a journal that somebody kept on an expedition is a different feeling than looking at something with even the flashiest page-turning software,” she said.
But there’s no conflict between the collection of original material and the dawn of the digital age — to the contrary, the library’s electronic mission, with a mandate to digitize material, has helped spur interest in the physical collection, Heller said. To help make the old and new mesh smoothly, the library has a lively internet presence, anchored by a blog that’s linked to other new media outlets, including a Flickr page and even a YouTube channel.
One of the library’s most cherished assets is the John M. Boyle Himalayan Library, including more than 2,500 books in 36 different languages and dialects, along with 400 expedition reports, 100 video and films and 35 boxes of ephemera. There are first-acent books from all 14 8,000-meter pekas and from the seven summits, as well as first-ascent editions by John Hunt, Maurice Herzog and Karl Herrligkoffer and a book by Tsuneo Hasagawa on his illegal solo ascent of Nanga Parbat.
“It’s an extraordinary collection. Some of the books are signed by every member of various expeditions,” Heller concluded.
You can support the library by shopping at Barnes and Noble between May 20 and May 28 by using this code: 10135614, with part of the proceeds going to the library.