To the sea-level skeptic, the mere fact that "they are there" has never seemed an adequate explanation of why otherwise sensible men insist on climbing mountains. In a thoughtful autobiography entitled Starlight and Storm (Oxford University Press, New York; $7) the famed French mountaineer Gaston Rébuffat offers a more personal insight. Consider this recollection of one of his early efforts. "As we climbed," he writes, "I seemed to understand the meaning of our exploit. It was not the increasing nearness of the summit, or the climb in itself, that filled us with a quiet joy, but the feeling that mind and muscles were fulfilling their intended function."
Even though half his life seems to have been spent dangling from frozen ropes or perching on sub-zero nights in eight-inch niches on vertical walls, Rébuffat writes of his mountains with reverence and simplicity. They are, one soon comes to realize, his-whole life.
Thanks to the 43 magnificent photographs Rébuffat has included in this book, the reader can experience the swirling snow and terrible cold of the heights, and the sharp ring of steel pitons being driven into rock seems to echo clear across the cols.
All the elements that enliven life are recounted here. There is terror, and a measure of stolidity, too, in the face of uncontrollable dangers. There was that time on the Piz Badile when the author was caught on an icy shelf, his legs hanging off into space, while a lightning storm raged. "Each time it whitened the night for a second, we cowered fearful against the rock, mere shadows of life. "Or on a later climb when "great blocks as large as the towers of the Notre Dame were detaching themselves, rolling, rebounding...."
Mountains demand resourcefulness, and there is much of that. Once Rébuffat's partner fell 80 feet through space, and Rébuffat (reflexively, in a split second) had to pull up the rope to shorten his fall, being careful not to cinch it too tightly around the rock and thus break it from an abrupt jerk.
Of course, there is constant danger, like electricity in the air, keeping the senses sharp and the eyes unblinking. But, best of all there is joy, sometimes at odd moments, but always at the end of successful climbs, such as on the Barre des Écrins. "We stood for a long time on the summit, proud at heart and gravely rejoicing in the unfolding of the world around us, in the tiredness of our muscles, in the smiles exchanged. That midday at the top of the Écrins it seemed to me I was born a second time."
Even vicariously, the reader may experience a kindred feeling.