Christmas Books 2019 - Our Recommendations Review

© Dan Bailey

From inspiring new guides, both rock and hill, to biography, fiction and poetry, staff here at UKC/UKH pick their favourite titles of the last year. Whether you're stuck for present ideas or writing your own note to Santa, these are our top seasonal reads.

Tom Ripley - gear reviewer

Lake District Climbs

by Mark Glaister (Rockfax) £34.95

Growing up and learning to climb in the Lake District, I was more than a little excited to receive a copy of Rockfax's latest guidebook. Although the Sheffield based publisher have produced guides covering both bouldering and sport climbing in the distant (and in the case of sport climbing virtually prehistoric) past, this is their first attempt at covering the main event: traditional climbing in the Lake District.

Lake District Climbs Rockfax Cover  © Rockfax

Any decent climbing guide should perform two main functions. First, and most importantly, it's there to inform, in a logical and easy to use format. Second, it should inspire its reader to drop everything and go climbing there at the next opportunity.

Lake District Climbs emphatically achieves both. Mark Glaister and his team have spent years climbing in the Lake District, and have included virtually every worthwhile crag and route in the area. I've gone over the book with a fine tooth comb and am yet to spot any glaring omissions. It has also been nice to see the inclusion of crags like Iron Crag and Greatend Crag, which were omitted from previous select guides to the Lakes, and suffered neglect as a result.

The guide uses the long established, and easy to use Rockfax layout, with its clear maps and familiar symbols. All crags are described from left to right, and I can't wait to visit crags like Shepherds and Gimmer with this guide. Previously those crags have only been described the wrong way round, which normally results in my brain hurting. There is however one odd decision when it comes to layout: While each crag in Langdale is described from left to right, the crags themselves are described from right to left (Raven Walthwaite is described first, when logically it should be Black Crag Wrynose, or ever Hodge Close). I was fairly incredulous when I noticed this, as I know Alan James is militant when it comes crag ordering. However this is a pretty minor quibble, which I think only a serious guidebook nerd (guilty as charged) would even notice, and only a total lunatic would get upset about.

Rockfax have seriously upped their game when it comes to action shots, which I think have let down some of their previous publications. As well as conventional photos they have also used a drone (perhaps the only good use for a drone!?) to take action shots from never-before-seen angles. They've also used the drone to create amazing three dimensional crag shots. This has been used to particularly good effect on Pillar Rock, a crag I had never fully understood the geography of previously. The only disadvantage of the drone action shots is they maybe make routes look harder than they are. The shots of Springbank and Gormenghast both make them look desperate, and they can't be as I've led them! For me the stand out action shots are Jordan Buys on The Cumbrian, and Stephen Reid on Goodbye to All That.

Lastly, and as you would expect from Rockfax, at 480 pages, Lake District Climbs is neither light nor small. I wouldn't recommend carrying it up any long mountain routes. Still shoving it in your bag for a ninety minute walk will certainly help with one's fitness. For the less fit there are a few solutions: the tech savvy could download the Rockfax App, a heretic could rip the pages they need out, and a competent mountaineer could simply commit the route description to memory and follow their nose. My favoured option as a semi Luddite is to snap a photo on my phone or camera. Fingers crossed 2020 is blessed with a long hot summer, so we can all get up to the Lakes' high mountain crags armed with our shiny new book.

Natalie Berry - UKC Editor

The Sharp End of Life: A Mother's Story

by Dierdre Wolownick (Mountaineers Books)

The Sharp End of Life.  © Dierdre Wolownick
Dierdre Wolownick is Alex Honnold's mum - but to know her for this alone doesn't do this remarkable woman justice. Her memoir The Sharp End of Life was initially intended to tell the story of raising Alex, but publishers soon realised that Alex's story is also Dierdre's story, and one worthy of telling.

An oppressive upbringing, an emotionally abusive marriage and an uneven share in parenting prevented Dierdre from reaching her own potential and feeling a sense of self, despite being an accomplished writer, musician, artist and language teacher. Aged 58, Dierdre asked her son Alex - no mean climber - to show her what his climbing life was all about. Hooked and keen on exploring this new world for herself, Dierdre went on to become the oldest woman to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite at 66. The book tells her inspiring story of overcoming adversity and how she brought up Alex Honnold (and his sister Stasia) to be the climber and person that he is today.

I was drawn to the book to find out what it must be like to be the mother of the first person to free solo El Capitan, but ended up finding Dierdre's resilience the most intriguing and inspiring aspect. As a fellow linguist, I appreciated that her interest in Alex's climbing stemmed from a curiosity about the climbing lingo, and how learning the language of climbing brought them closer together. I felt like Dierdre's influence on Alex's life was brushed over, or even caricatured as a bit of a 'pushy mum', in the film Free Solo, so it was fascinating to be able to find out more about her in this book.

Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth

by Dan Richards (Canongate) £16.99

Outpost by Dan Richards.  © Dan Richards
Some of you might be familiar with Dan's name from his excellent Climbing Days, in which he followed in the hand-and-footholds of his pioneering great-great aunt, Dorothy Pilley. In Outpost, Dan is even more intrepid and travels to some of the remotest and most intriguing outposts on earth and Mars, well - the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, anyway.

In a similar vein to Climbing Days, Dan begins by looking back at his family history prior to his birth and explores how his father's 3-month escape to a small wooden hut in Svalbard became the root of Dan's own desire for exploration and adventure. A polar bear pelvis in his father's study is a mysterious, tangible record of the trip, which captured Dan's imagination from a young age.

He sets off on a pilgrimage of sorts to experience rugged, isolated places for himself: from Icelandic refuges to look-outs on Desolation Peak; from Scottish bothies to Japanese shrines and huts, sheds and lighthouses in all their various forms, before retracing his father's journey to Svalbard. In an age when slow travel, lone travel and disconnection from everyday life - and the Internet - are becoming scarce and somewhat taboo, Outpost is a timely and entertaining reminder of the importance of retreat to and connection with wild places. Just watch out for the bears...

  • Read a UKC article by Dan, based on Outpost: Four Bears

Alpenglow - The Finest Climbs on the 4000m Peaks of the Alps

by Ben Tibbetts £50

Ben Tibbetts is a British Mountain Guide, photographer and artist. In Alpenglow, he has combined these three skills and passions to create a stunning hardback coffee table book. Alpenglow has much more substance than your typical photography book, however, and it's unfair to class it as that alone.

WIth each of the 50 classic route picks, Ben has written in-depth texts to accompany the images and drawings, which include route descriptions, historical background and personal reflections on his own journey to becoming the second British person to climb all 82 of the 4000m peaks of the Alps. That said, the photographs alone provide instant inspiration; it's clear that Ben's vocation as a guide and competence as a climber have afforded him access to some extraordinary vistas.

We won't all have the ambition and ability that Ben has demonstrated with this book, but whether you're a keen alpinist, aspiring mountaineer or a sea-level dweller with an eye for a different world and the imagination to go with it, Alpenglow will be a book to dip into every now and then for new objectives or fuel for the imagination. I'd say this book is a modern day version of Rébuffat's The Mont Blanc Massif: The 100 Finest Routes, albeit with a wider geographical scope and more depth to each route.

Rob Greenwood - Advertising Manager

High Inspiration

by Heather Dawe (Little Peak Press) £12.50

High Inspiration  © Little Peak Press

Runner Heather Dawe's first book, Adventure in Mind, is something of an underrated classic. Whilst it's technically an autobiography, it's a whole lot more too, covering a lot of ground regarding (amongst other things) the complex matter of motivation.

High Inspiration continues along a similar line of exploration, with the author moving away from the hustle, bustle, and rush of races and on towards appreciating a slower pace - one that is more embracing of time spent simply being within the mountain landscape. Whilst the narrative follows her journey around the Tour of Mont Blanc, run over several days with her friend Angela, it takes many forks along the way, covering thoughts on inspiration and creativity, parenthood, and the ever evolving nature of one's personal motivation as time - and age - passes by.

Personally, I think it's another underrated book. More people should consider picking up both this, and Adventure in Mind, for Christmas. I for one have benefitted from Heather's approach.


by Robert MacFarlane (Penguin) £20.00

Underland   © Penguin

Robert MacFarlane launched his career with Mountains of the Mind back in 2003. Since then he has become a giant of the genre (whatever genre that is), with his two subsequent explorations - The Wild Places and The Old Ways - visiting other avenues of the nature, the outdoors, and our relationship with it.

Underland - as you might expect - takes a look at what's beneath our feet, first in the UK, then in Europe, and finally 'The North' (aka. Scandinavia and Greenland). Considering its eerie focus towards the dark and the unknown, I thoguht this was his most approachable book and, for those that haven't read anything my MacFarlane before, is potentially a good place to start.

For those that have read the other three I suspect you'll fall into one of two camps: you'll either love it (it is, after all, an exceptionally well written book) or you'll come away from it feeling that the trilogy should have stopped at three. Personally, I felt torn, as I did enjoy it, but I also feared that the model used was perhaps becoming a little formulaic and - dare I say it - perhaps too polished?

Either way, I'll leave you to be the judge…

Rock as Gloss

by Mark Goodwin (Longbarrow Press) £12.99

Rock as Gloss  © Longbarrow Press
Many UKC readers will be familiar with Mark due to his contribution to the Crag Notes Series, but many others will have been aware of him long before, as a highly-regarded and well-established poet.

Rock as Gloss is Mark's sixth poetry collection, and one that is very hard to pin down within the space of a few paragraphs - so much so that I have become moderately stressed whilst attempting to do so.

The collection is as varied as the rock within the British Isles, with many different forms being taken - some of which have to be seen (or felt) to be believed. Each poem has a different focus and feel, ranging from explorations of differing rock types through to the characters that have climbed upon it. Rock as Gloss is, much like the British weather, unpredictable at times. There were moments where I really didn't know where it was going, but isn't that the way with all good journeys (and this is no ordinary journey)? And the next moment I'd have landed firmly back on familiar ground.

This 'review' in no way does it justice, but it's been fun writing regardless - if only as an excuse to revisit a truly unique collection. Final word goes out to Paul Evans for the excellent cover drawing too - it is a thing of beauty.

North York Moors

by Franco Cookson (H12 Climbing) £25

North York Moors  © H12 Climbing
Franco is a peculiar fish, unlike any other member of the human race I can think of. For those that haven't met him, imagine - if you will for one moment - a night of passion between climbing legends Johnny Dawes and John Redhead: Franco would likely be what spawed from such an occasion. If you don't want to imagine that, or don't know any of the individuals involved, you're probably best steering yourself away from the Moors entirely, just in case you bump into any of them.

Back to the guidebook at hand, not only does it sport one of the best cover shots ever (a big statement, but show me something that even comes close) but it's brimming with as much character as the author himself. It's rare you could say this, but it's a joy reading this guidebook cover to cover because of all its peculiarities. Easter eggs abound for those that have the time and attention to spot them, but for those just wanting a guidebook you too will be pleasantly surprised as this somewhat scrappy, ill-thought-of backwater gets a light shone on it so bright that it looks bloody fantastic.

Black Car Burning

by Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus) £14.99

Black Car Burning  © Chatto & Windus

Black Car Burning has been on my reading list for ages, but - rather unforgivably - only reached the top last week (sorry Helen). The reasons for this are long and convoluted, but the main one is that I'm just not sure where I stand with climbing and fiction when real life stories can already be so gripping and immersive. I'll repeat my sentiments from my recent review of another work of mountain-based fiction, Sky Dance, by John D Burns: "is it that the appeal of this genre is in its gritty realism, based on actual experiences or events? If so, might not fiction cheapen that experience by making it all up".

What also made me curious about Black Car Burning was why, as a work of seeming significance, by a young and exceptionally talented writer, it wasn't shortlisted for either the Banff Mountain Book Prize or the Boardman Tasker. Is it the 'fiction thing' once again? Does that blow too many minds - or is it just a bit too hot to handle, too out of the ordinary?

All of the above aside, like many great climbing books it's the bits that aren't about climbing that are the best. Black Car Burning could also be seen to be a gritty homage to Sheffield, warts and all, with the shadow of Hillsborough lurking around every corner. Do not expect this to be lighthearted. Its structure is fascinating, which each chapter coming from the perspective of one of the three characters - Alexa, Leigh, and 'Him' - which are then interspersed with confessionals written in first person by (and about) a crag:

Harpur Hill - "you've been standing in my shadow for ten long minutes, fiddling with your harness, strapping on your new Velcro shoes. You can hear the lads racing on their quad bikes, down there at my feet in the mud and spoil heaps"

One thing is for sure, it's different, and a welcome change of pace from the great many generic climbing autobiographies that are coming out these days, so should be welcomed with open arms - even (or maybe I should say especially) if you're unsure about climbing fiction.

Dan Bailey - UKH Editor and Gear Editor

The Munros - The Complete Collection of Maps

(Harvey) £35

Does the world need another Munro book? If every existing guide was piled together, we'd probably have a new 3000-foot peak to add to the list. In such a crowded market it takes something to stand out... and luckily this new book from Harvey really is something.

Over the last 40 years or so this small Scottish mapmaking firm has established itself as a force in UK mountain mapping, with a distinctive clarity of style that makes a Harvey map the preferred choice of many hill-goers. Whether it's the close-up 1:25K detail of the Superwalker series, the colourful contours of the popular British Mountain Map (at a useful 1:40K scale) or the most readable map ever produced of the complex Cuillin, most hillwalkers, runners and climbers are going to own a Harvey sheet. I have 35 at the last count, and use them regularly.

Presenting maps of all 282 Munros in book form was a major job for Harvey, especially since several of the hills had to be surveyed for the first time for this project. The result is something quietly special.

There's little text, and not a single photograph; you can get plenty of both elsewhere. In a massive series of full colour map extracts every Munro is featured, most shown together with neighbours in the logical way they're generally climbed. The ranges sprawl far and wide across the pages, and with most standard starting points on display (except in the case of really remote hills) you can plot the whole day's walk. Surprisingly, on the many double-page spreads they've managed to lose almost nothing to the crease. There's a variety of mapping here, both the 1:25K and 1:40K scale depending, I suppose, on the available sources. It's all reproduced to the quality of a folded sheet.

Of course you'd never carry this large hardback tome up a hill - that's what paper maps and phones are for. The Munros serves as a source of reference at home, and it's one you can find yourself really drawn into. Unlike either your paper map collection or the digital equivalent, this book is genuinely browsable in the way that only a book can be, and map fans could while away happy hours flicking from peak to peak across Scotland.

I've been spending a lot of time with The Munros, revisiting familiar ground and reminding myself of hills I've yet to visit. Having climbed many 3000-ers multiple times, but never set foot on others, I may be pretty much the antithesis of the committed bagger; but even I have found myself getting into the spirit of things by marking off out of curiosity my ticks in the list at the end (49 to go - perhaps I'll start actively bagging after all). Scotland's 282 Munros are an amazing collection of mountains, and having all the maps at your fingertips in one volume is a fantastic resource for any hillwalker or mountaineer, not only the list-oriented.

Above all else, this unique hardback book proves that maps are not just an essential tool - they can be beautiful too.

The Big Rounds

by David Lintern (Cicerone) £18.95

The Big Rounds cover  © Cicerone

For challenge and kudos, few hill routes equal the UK's big three, the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. The Bob Graham may be famous as the Lakeland sub-24-hour test for accomplished hill runners, while the Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay play the same role in Snowdonia and Lochaber respectively, but there is no obligation to do them at a trot. Taking in almost every summit of note in their area, each route is equally worthwhile as a multi-day backpacking adventure.

The big rounds are for everyone. As author David Lintern says:

"Long distance routes are not the province of hill runners only, and the hills are agnostic - and they don't care if we walk, run or crawl. Passion and persistence are what counts, and they aren't exclusive qualities..."

It must have taken both passion and persistence to produce this fine book, which doubles as a very useful comprehensive blow-by-blow guide to the three rounds, and a celebration of British hill running.

What lifts The Big Rounds beyond being a 'mere' guide is the inclusion of a series of mini interviews with the great and good of UK hill running, with contributions from Paddy Buckley, Charlie Ramsay, Jasmin Paris, Nicky Spinks and Jim Mann among others. All speak with enthusiasm and authority about their experiences of these routes, and there's plenty of wisdom here for aspirant walkers and runners.

The Big Rounds mixes equal parts inspiration and perspiration. Whether you're researching a round of your own (at whatever pace), recalling past achievements, or simply browsing and dreaming big, this book deserves a place on your shelves.

Just Another Mountain

by Sarah Jane Douglas (Elliott & Thompson Limited) £7.19

Just Another Mountain cover  © Elliott & Thompson Ltd

We've featured Sarah Jane Douglas' writing a couple of times this year on UKHillwalking, and really like her blend of candour and humour. There's plenty of both in Just Another Mountain.

Books about people in hills can often stray into derring-do, as the protagonist overcomes some self-imposed and entirely arbitrary challenge; will they make it? Do we care? Others err towards a sort of breathy reverence. There's a place for both, but thankfully not here.

Just Another Mountain is as much autobiography and family history as it is an account of walking, and though the Scottish hills are a constant presence, this is foremost a human story. Even on the Munros we're allowed to talk about feelings. Instead of some focused adventurer with a thousand yard stare, our narrator Sarah Jane Douglas is a normal messy human being, warts and all, who just happens to find in the hills a solace and purpose lacking in the self destruction of drink and the rest.

"In 1997, at the age of 24, Sarah lost her mother to breast cancer" the cover blurb tells us.

"...By walking in her mother's footsteps, she learns to accept her own troubled past, finding the strength to overcome her grief - and, ultimately, to carry on in the face of her own diagnosis twenty years later."

There's a tragic back story, too, as we discover that her mother lost the love of her life on Nuptse just six weeks before their wedding day in 1975.

Cancer and bereavement may be big, heavy subjects, but this book never gets bogged down. There's no self pity here; but neither is there the forced positivity of a self help guide. The love and loss is heartfelt, the honesty striking, and the jeopardy very bloody real. But it's leavened with humour all the way. Here's a woman you'd like to meet in the pub, a natural storyteller with a gift for pithy language. Out on the peaks, too, the writing is vivid, engaging and free of artifice. At the end of the day, she clearly loves the hills.

Scottish Island Bagging

by Helen & Paul Webster (Vertebrate Publishing) £17.99

Yet another title from north of the border for me - just a lucky coincidence I guess, though it's no secret we have the lion's share of decent hills. However it's not mountains in this case, but something else that Scotland has in staggering abundance - islands.

Scottish Island Bagging  © Vertebrate Publishing

Written by Helen and Paul Webster, the duo responsible for a series of Pocket Mountains guidebooks and the Walkhighlands website, this is an attractive visitor's guide to all the main islands, covering over 150 of them.

Each island gets a brief intro and a note of how to get there, followed by a series of paragraphs of edited highlights and must-dos. On Hoy, they say, you should go and see the Old Man (or better yet, we say, climb it); experience a bonxie bombing (great skuas - I've met them myself on Hoy, unintentionally, and it certainly left an impression); climb Ward Hill; checkout the Dwarfie Stane and poke around the World War II relics. You get a similar list for each island, and while they major on the obvious options (Neist Point, Talisker distillery, Coruisk boat trip on Skye, anyone?) this selective approach is likely to suit most occasional visitors.

While it's no walking guide, and less still a climbing guide, this book does include a lot of outdoorsy stuff, including some of the obvious hills. Even the most single minded climber must have the occasional rest-and-sightseeing day.

A phenomenal amount of research must have gone into Scottish Island Bagging, and you can bet that the weather wasn't routinely as welcoming as the endless blue sky photos you'll find in the guide (may I venture to suggest that there's a degree of false advertising here?!). Still, the photos do a great job of selling each island, and in general the presentation is very attractive.

Is bagging islands actually a thing? Apparently so, and while I doubt it'll catch on to the scale of, say, the Munros, it's clear that you don't have to be deliberately collecting them all to get a lot out of this book.

Walking the Lake District Fells series

by Mark Richards (Cicerone) £14.95

A revamped family of eight area-specific walking guides adapted from the original Lakeland Fellranger series, these handy pocket sized books from local aficionado Mark Richards would be an attractive - and very useful - addition to any keen fell walker's collection.

Walking the Lake District Fells cover  © Cicerone

Each covering a logical region of the Lake District, the books deal individually with every major (and some not-so-massive) fell in their area, offering a thorough breakdown of the many routes to its summit. There's always more than one way to skin a cat, after all, and in promoting some of the less obvious and less-trodden routes Mark Richards is doing a service both to the environment (encouraging less concentration of footfall) and to readers who may be jaded by the crowds on the more popular trails.

The coverage is impressively comprehensive. Great Gable, to pick a notable example, gets a full 14 pages, with detailed approaches from five different valley bases plus a couple of variations including the spectacular South Traverse (with a mention, but not in great depth, for the scrambling line). The various routes are all shown on Harvey map extracts, and it doesn't take long to get used to the initially confusing numbering system Cicerone have employed. You also get Mark's Wainwright-inspired, detailed-but-clear line drawings for every fell, plus in the case of major fells, summit panorama diagrams to help you identify what you're looking at in every direction.

The photography gives a good impression of the terrain and scenery you'll find on each fell, and while it would have been nice to see larger versions in many cases that's the tradeoff that Cicerone have made to ensure that these little books are properly portable. So far I've seen only the Wasdale and Langdale titles, and the quality of these two bodes well for the rest of the series.

Andy Ovens - UKC/UKH Developer

Crack Climbing - Mastering the Skills and Techniques

By Pete Whittaker (Vertebrate Publishing) £25

Pete Whittaker's first foray into writing has clearly been much anticipated, with the first round of pre-orders selling out startlingly fast. Covering all aspects of crack climbing, from finger jams to offwidth, and everything in-between, it accommodates all abilities, starting from basics such as taping.

Crack Climbing Book - Pete Whittaker  © UKC Gear

This book opens your eyes to the sheer number of nuances in crack climbing, yet it does so without being overwhelming or overdetailed. Incorporating humour, relatable metaphors, and uncomplicated diagrams, it is easy to become immersed, yearning to put your newly learnt skills into practice.

What I personally enjoyed most about the book was how well it lent itself to being used not just as something to read in bed at night, but also as a quick fact-check resource at the wall/crag, to help you really perfect the methodology described. I found this approach, using it more as a guidebook and referring to the pages that are relevant at the time you need them, helped deal with the vast amount of skills covered, without making it feel overwhelming.

Interspersed between the countless techniques explained in simple terms, inspirational photos and interviews of the very best crack climbers helps make this book the ultimate gift for anyone interested in the art form that is crack climbing.

16 Dec, 2019

Well, that's me sorted for a while!!

Love the hypnotic cover for Black Car Burning, that one of those odd eBay/Amazon "climbing ropes" with the sewn/spliced-in krab at the end?

Assuming it's not a dangerous knock-off, when do climbers use such a thing? Or should I read the book to find out?

16 Dec, 2019

Remember perusing through Alpineglow at a hut recently. Blown away by the quality of photographs. Not an alpinist myself but in that moment I for sure wanted to be.

16 Dec, 2019

All good books im sure, I would also add crazy sorrow to the list

17 Dec, 2019

Rock/ice climbers? Practically never. Tree surgeons use spliced eyes the whole time.

17 Dec, 2019

Franco's book looks really good. If I was ever likely to go to the NY Moors, I'd buy it.

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