Mountain Passages

Jeremy Bernstein

Read August 2005

Jeremy Bernstein, a physics professor, is also an avid mountaineer and essayist for magazines like The New Yorker. This is a collection of his essays on climbs and trips, usually with his friend and guide Jaccoux. While he offers good accounts, what I expected to make this book especially interesting was the insights his scientific training would give him about his avocation. Sadly, he keeps the two spheres strictly separate (would an equation startle the delicate sensibilities of his New Yorker readers?); only once, describing his early efforts learning to ski in the Alps, does he present a scientific insight.

While the essays are overall quite good, therefore, they fail to truly stand out from many other such collections, and they are marred by repetition and poor editing. One thing that does distinguish them, and put them above the mean, is Bernstein's (almost certainly excessively modest) view of himself as an amateur and novice, happy to play second-fiddle to a host of interesting personalities.

There is, nevertheless, a wonderful gem that occupies about a third of this book: Bernstein's land trek from Geneva to the eastern edge of Pakistan. There is something remarkably (and depressingly) similar about the dangers of the late sixties to those of today. Yet it was also that much harder to travel by road then. Also, some wonderful artifacts, such as the statues of Bamiyan, were still standing then, though already under threat: ``the tops of the faces have been cut away, one would almost say deliberately'', Bernstein says with great prescience (p. 240). Bernstein's self-effacing style, and his sympathy for the lands he travels, make this portion worth the collection.