A few years ago I wrote a blog post lamenting the relative dearth of genuine laugh-out-loud-funny books in the genre of mountain writing when compared to the broader world of travel writing in general.
The post was partly inspired by a poll of mountaineering literature by the Sheffield-based outdoor book publisher Vertebrate Publishing. Now, thanks to Vertebrate and their Norwegian translator Bibbi Lee, I’m happy to report that the meagre pot of mountaineering mirth has become a little merrier with the unearthing of a little known gem of Norwegian literature.
Well, I say “little known”, but for all I know Alf Bonnevie Bryn’s magical little book Peaks and Bandits might be as famous in Norway as A-ha. Bryn came from a family of successful scientists, engineers and politicians. He co-founded the Norwegian mountaineering club Norsk Tindeklub in 1908 and wrote a series of detective novels.
In 1909, at the age of 20, he went on a climbing holiday to Corsica with the Australian climber George Ingle Finch, where he presumably kept copious notes and a diary. He wrote Peaks and Bandits, about that holiday, in 1943.
This distance of more than 30 years from the events, when he would have been a much better writer, produced a comedy classic. In 1909 Bryn and Finch were barely out of school, a pair of whippersnappers who may well have taken their antics quite seriously. A generation later, Bryn must have known they were essentially frivolous. While the book is written in the first person, its narrator will have felt more like a witness than a protagonist and his writing is infused with a sense of the ridiculous.
George Finch is best known these days for being the star of the 1922 Everest expedition, a gifted climber, scientist and champion of the newfangled oxygen apparatus. In 1922, he set a world record for altitude on Everest’s north face. Mountaineering historians speculate that had he been chosen for the 1924 Everest expedition, he and George Mallory may well have reached the summit and returned alive. But Finch was overlooked for that expedition after falling out with the Mount Everest Committee, the old boys’ club who ran British mountaineering expeditions in the early 20th century.
After reading Peaks and Bandits, one of the reasons Finch fell out with the committee becomes clear. He was – for want of a better term – a psycho.
In the very first chapter of Peaks and Bandits, he appears as a spectator at a boxing match. When the announcer invites members of the audience to come into the ring and take on the professional boxers for a reward, Finch volunteers – and beats his opponent. His penchant for fighting becomes one of the book’s main themes. In Genoa, on their way to Corsica, Bryn and Finch get into a fight with locals over a game of bar billiards, and Finch ends up braining one of his opponents with a gas light. Later in the book, Bryn laments “George’s unbelievable ability to get mixed up in fights whenever the slightest opportunity arose”.
Fighting isn’t the only mischief the pair end up getting into. There are times when the story becomes so surreal that it feels like you’re reading a work of fiction. In Pisa, for example, Finch escapes with a one-lira fine after scaling the outside of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (It should be noted that while this may sound like a story from a comic book, many elite mountaineers have similar tales: Stephen Venables, for example, wrote about narrowly avoiding arrest after scaling the outer walls of an Oxford college, while Mick Fowler has a story about ice climbing a frozen drainpipe on St Pancras Station.)
Another comic side plot revolves around a snake that Finch catches and relieves of its fangs. A number of comic incidents ensue as our heroes proceed to terrorise a pair of hapless gendarmes with the now-harmless reptile.
Many mountaineering books suffer from overly detailed passages about technical climbing moves. While these passages might appeal to people who climb a lot and are familiar with the techniques, they are a turn off to general readers who find their eyes glazing over. Peaks and Bandits is not one of these books. It is more about the journey and the people than the routes and the summits, and is peppered with incidents outside of climbing.
“The difficulties concerning the ascent were first and foremost that we were too lazy to get up early enough in the morning,” Bryn says during one of the minority of chapters that cover actual mountaineering.
This quote may suggest that they didn’t take the climbing part of their holiday very seriously, but climbing was the basis for their trip and they were no slouches on rock. Bryn classifies his mountains into one of three categories: (1) those that are difficult to ascend at all, (2) those that are difficult to ascend from one side or another, and (3) those that are not difficult to get up, no matter which route you go. He dismisses the third class of mountains as being of “no interest”. They do manage to make a first ascent of a first-class one, Capo al Dente, and climb another, Tafunatu.
While Corsica was a civilised place in 1909, parts of the story have a pioneering feel. From the top of Tafunatu, Bryn spots a village below them which isn’t marked on any map. They decide to check it out, and discover a secret community ruled by women who are reluctant to let them leave. While this scenario has the makings of a porn film, Bryn avoids the temptation to go down that route, and our heroes make their escape after just a few days.
All of which leads us to the final chapter covering the “bandits” of the book’s title, who are not in fact bandits as we know them, but “outlaws” living in their own self-governed mountain communities away from the traditional rule of law down in the lowlands. The snake incident results in an invitation to visit one of these communities, where Bryn and Finch are treated to warm hospitality.
Peaks and Bandits is a little gem of a book, beautifully produced by Vertebrate in pocket-sized hardback form like a Beatrix Potter classic. It is a fun story set in a world that no longer exists. What turns it into a great book, IMHO, is the humorous style of writing. The humour starts in the very first paragraph as Bryn dangles from a rope at the top of an alpine ridge, and continues throughout.
Do yourselves a favour, get your hands on a copy, and enjoy it with a nice cool glass of Corsican beer.
If you enjoy humorous travel writing, then you might want to give my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, about a comic climbing and cycling adventure in Ecuador, a whirl. It’s not quite as surreal as Peaks and Bandits, but you’re guaranteed to spill your drink laughing, which is particularly useful if, like me, you’d like to cut down.