The trustees of the world’s most prestigious mountain book award have announced updated rules for entries following new research alleging that hundreds of historical mountaineering books have been published without reaching the true end of the story.
In 2021, an article in the New York Chronicle asked the question What is a mountaineering book? The piece was one of the first in the mainstream media to discuss concerns raised by mountaineering book critic Conrad Bartelski, custodian of the website 8000mountaineeringbooks.com. Bartelski has been a primary consultant to the Bookman Plaster Award since its inception.
Bartelski and his team have spent the last 10 years investigating the provenance of mountaineering books of over 8,000 pages in length. Their conclusion is that many well-known writers have finished their books early. Moreover, writers have been using a variety of means to complete the story. These have included artificial aids such as Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign and even typewriters. Others have used support workers, such as typists, proof-readers, structural or developmental editors, and even commercial publishing companies with their own fleet of helicopters. The Bookman Plaster Award panel feels that many of these workers have not received the recognition they deserve. Moreover, many readers would consider it cheating.
For any mountaineering book to qualify for the Bookman Plaster Award in future, it must now meet three key criteria:
- The book must start with the words “Once upon a time” and finish with the phrase “The end”, so that readers are clear the true end has been reached.
- Books must be written by hand, on paper, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end, with no going backwards and forwards, scrubbing things out and/or starting again (a process known in the trade as “drafting”).
- Consideration will be given to the use of proof-readers and editors only in the case of medical emergencies. Word-processing software is allowed only if used while skiing or when using non-motorised winged craft such as paragliders.
As of September 2023, all relevant books affected by these new rules have been archived as “legacy” books. People are welcome to read them, but they must bear in mind they are not reading the full story.
Patron of the Bookman Plaster Award Trust, Sir Hugh Jorgan, said: “The Bookman Plaster Award Trust has not taken this decision lightly, but we feel it’s necessary in view of the many previous award-winning books whose production has come under question. This should, of course, in no way detract from the incredible pioneering achievements of the writers in question. We know that some books have needed a series of drafts at regular intervals, while other, purer books have been written ‘alpine style’ in a single push. It’s also come to our attention that some books have even had the plot mapped out in advance so that the author can simply jumar up it. In the same way that you can’t win the 100m by riding piggy-back on Usain Bolt’s shoulders, or by tripping over your shoelaces 2m from the finish line, we must insist on honest production techniques and once-upon-a-time-to-the-end storylines, as per the updated guidelines on the 8000mountaineeringbooks.com website.”
The controversies that Sir Hugh refers to include the writer Patrick Fitzmichael, who won the award in 2008 with his book Verto-Psychopath. Bartelski has discovered that Fitzmichael is dyslexic and needed the support of a proof-reader to correct typos. Unfortunately, his proof-reader failed to notice a missing full stop after the phrase “The end”. Fitzmichael said that he didn’t realise the full stop was needed when he wrote the book, otherwise he would certainly have added one. But the end is the end, and without the full stop it must surely have been obvious that there was more to come.
Michael Hedgehog won the very first award in 1971 with his book Tum Teedle, about the first ascent of a 9,000m peak. It’s long been considered one of the great survival stories. Hedgehog lost both hands and one foot to frostbite, and had the latter hewn off with a scythe at a station platform in Wazzochistan in one of the book’s most memorable passages. But Hedgehog actually lost his other foot up Tim Tweddle the following year, which meant it hadn’t survived at all and the story was unfinished.
Perhaps most heinous of all, the great Rinzing Heyday – whose book Pussycat of the Rains is considered one of the greatest mountaineering autobiographies of all time – didn’t actually write any of his most famous work. The book was entirely ghost-written by the spirit of Tracey Ullman, who isn’t even dead yet. Bookman Plaster Award trustees are proposing that books such as these cannot be classed as proper books at all, because of the amount of support the author has needed. They are now considering a new category “phantom books” for such works.
Following the publication of these new guidelines, it has been announced that the only true mountaineering book is Mountaineering in New South Wales, first published in 1946 by the Australian mountaineer W.C. Dunny. Dunny wrote the first draft on toilet paper while confined in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy during the Second World War. Unfortunately, he was forced to use up all the pages during a severe bout of diarrhoea. Luckily, he had a spare toilet roll and was able to write it all over again before his release (if you’ll forgive the pun).
Dunny’s achievements have now been officially recognised by the Bookman Plaster Award committee. Last week he received the very first new-look Bookman Plaster Award in a posthumous ceremony attended by his ghost-writer.
But in a further twist, it has emerged that Dunny also omitted the final full stop from the phrase “The end” out of respect for the mountain gods. When we questioned them about this apparent anomaly, a spokesperson for Bartelski’s team of researchers said: “Dunny knew perfectly well that the final full stop was supposed be there; he simply chose to ignore it out of respect for local customs. He was also a great bloke. This is within the rules, and we’re satisfied that he could easily have added the full stop had he wanted to.”
A full-scale review of all previous Bookman Plaster Award winners and nominees in now underway. Any works defined as legacy books under the new rules will be burned at next year’s ceremony.