The 8 best books about Everest written in the English language

You may be wondering why I’ve never written this blog post before. In truth, there is never going to be a perfect time for it and now is as good a time as any.

The universe of Everest literature is forever expanding and it’s not possible to reach its end. However, I’ve now travelled far enough to be confident of these eight books’ place in the celestial Everest pantheon.

But enough of this nonsense. Before I get on with the listicle, a note to my international readers. As the title says, these are the best books about Everest written in English. The list is therefore Anglo-centric. You can even argue that it reeks of the musty whiff of British Empire, and I won’t disagree. That’s where Everest’s climbing history began.

I’m sure that I’ve overlooked a large chunk of Everest literature that was originally written in another language. I’m not best qualified to write about these books, but you’re welcome to tell me what I’ve been missing in the comments.

Anyway, here they are: the finest books on Everest ever written (in English).

1. Everest by Walt Unsworth

Everest by Walt Unsworth
Everest by Walt Unsworth

The first of two books in this list that deserve the adjective monumental, Walt Unsworth’s Everest is not just the most comprehensive history of Everest ever written, but very likely the most comprehensive history of any mountain ever written (though I would love someone to contradict me by suggesting another one).

Aside from writing this book. Walt Unsworth’s main (and arguably more influential) claim to fame is being the founder of the guidebook publisher Cicerone Press, who continue to produce guidebooks for more active travellers right up to the present day. During the 1980s, however, he must have spent long periods imprisoned within the bowels of the Alpine Club library researching this book.

The history starts in the late 19th century, with stirrings in the British climbing community about the possibility that Everest could be climbed. It dives headlong into Everest politics – the collaboration between the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to negotiate access to Tibet and organise large scale expeditions. It describes the many British expeditions from the Tibet side in the 1920s and 1930s, the opening up of the Nepal side and the race between the Brits and the Swiss to put someone on top.

The history continues through the 60s and 70s, covering every major expedition on every major route. By the time it finishes in the 1980s, Everest had been climbed from pretty much every angle and the modern era of commercial expeditions is just about to begin. History never ends, but this is as neat a place as any to finish. To round things off there are 200 pages of end notes and appendices covering the height and naming of the mountain, and a summary of all expeditions, ascents and fatalities up to that date.

2. Coronation Everest by Jan Morris

Coronation Everest by Jan Morris
Coronation Everest by Jan Morris

Before transitioning to Jan, 26-year-old Times journalist James Morris was given the job of a lifetime to join the 1953 Everest expedition as expedition reporter, a job that didn’t just involve trekking to base camp, but donning boots and crampons and climbing through the Khumbu Icefall into the Western Cwm.

The expedition is best known as the final chapter in the race to put someone on top of the world as Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit for the very first time. But an equally intriguing race was happening in Fleet Street, the former centre of the British newspaper industry. The Times may have had their agent embedded in the team, but that didn’t stop other papers trying to be the first to a story. Jan’s rival, Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail (no relation of that other transgender icon Eddie) was prowling the Khumbu region trying to pick up titbits and send them home.

The expedition happened to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. What more auspicious sign could there be for our beloved monarch on the eve of her long reign than to learn that a British team had conquered the world’s highest mountain? To ensure that rival journalists couldn’t report the story first, Jan devised a secret code to relay the news across continents back to London, but it was a mission fraught with difficulties.

Jan Morris was known for her humour and humanity. This slim book contains both in copious quantities. It is also one of the funniest books about Everest ever written.

3. Tiger of the Snows by Tenzing Norgay

Tiger of the Snows by Tenzing Norgay
Tiger of the Snows by Tenzing Norgay

Tenzing Norgay was the man whose life story was most closely bound to Everest and the one most deserving to be the first to climb it.

From the moment Eric Shipton picked him out from a line up of hopefuls to join the 1935 British Everest expedition, Tenzing stood apart as both a climber and leader of men. By the time he became the first man to stand on the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary in 1953, he had already attempted Everest seven times and written himself into mountaineering folklore.

Tenzing’s first autobiography was written soon after his Everest ascent and covers the first half of his life before fame overtook him. He found the ideal ghost writer in American mountaineering journalist James Ramsey Ullman. The Tenzing of Tiger of the Snows is likeable, brave and dignified. He is not afraid to tackle controversy, but does so with a refreshing humility that you simply won’t find in any other celebrity autobiography (or none that I’ve ever read).

The overall effect is to paint a picture of a deeply wise man who was able to juggle the needs of both his fellow Sherpas and their western employers. You finish the book understanding why Tenzing was the greatest Sherpa mountaineer.

4. Everest 1953 by Mick Conefrey

Everest 1953 by Mick Conefrey
Everest 1953 by Mick Conefrey

The definitive account of the 1953 British Everest expedition is not The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt, the official expedition account by its leader; nor is it any of the less insipid accounts by expedition team members, such as South Col by Wilfrid Noyce. By a country mile, the best comprehensive account of the 1953 Everest expedition is Everest 1953 by Mick Conefrey, whose books about mountaineering history have the rare distinction of being both meticulously researched and highly readable.

Published in 2012, Everest 1953 is a far more nuanced account of the expedition than any of the contemporary accounts. It also benefits from hindsight, allowing Mick to put the expedition’s main achievements and legacy into context. By interviewing surviving expedition team members years later and delving into their diaries, he gained fresh insight into their minds and memories, and uncovered some previously unpublished stories.

He didn’t stop at 1953. He followed it up with Everest 1922 about – that’s right – the 1922 British Everest expedition. His latest book Fallen, about – yes, indeed – a certain incident that happened on the 1924 British Everest expedition, is out in May. If you’re looking to explore mountaineering history in a balanced and entertaining way, all of Mick’s books are a joy to read.

5. Everest: the West Ridge by Thomas F. Hornbein

Everest: The West Ridge by Tom Hornbein
Everest: The West Ridge by Tom Hornbein

The 1963 American Everest expedition had a single main purpose – to put an American on the summit for the very first time. It achieved its goal and more. So much more, in fact, that if the expedition were a slice of Christmas cake, it would now be better known for the icing than for the cake itself.

A few days after Jim Whittaker reached the summit with Nawang Gombu Sherpa via the standard route up the South-East Ridge, Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein completed a full traverse of the mountain via the unclimbed West Ridge, descending via the standard route and stopping off for an overnight bivouac, where they met (and helped to rescue) two climbers who had been sent up to look for them.

It’s an ascent that is still without parallel in the history of climbing on Everest. It nearly didn’t happen, and this is one of the things that makes West Ridge so exciting. It reads like a “will they, won’t they” three-part drama, putting its two main characters centre stage.

And what intriguing characters they proved to be. Unsoeld was the more respected climbing leader of the West Ridge party: laid-back, unwilling to rock the expedition boat, but quietly determined to go at it full sail should they get the go ahead from Norman Dyhrenfurth their expedition leader. Meanwhile, Hornbein was the expedition rottweiler: vocal sergeant major, willing and cajoling Dyhrenfurth into giving them enough resources to keep the West Ridge a possibility.

Despite the role that he gave himself, Hornbein was clearly no opinionated extremist, ranting at his teammates on the the so-called easy route. He understood that the team had other priorities; it was just that his weren’t the same. Without him, Everest’s history would be devoid of one of its most colourful stories.

6. Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy by Peter Gillman (ed.)

Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy by Peter Gillman
Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy by Peter Gillman

What are the fifteen main routes on Everest and how were they first climbed? Why was the first ascent from the north side so controversial? Are there really yetis on Everest? Why did someone deliberately try to crash a plane there? What does it feel like to wait below, knowing that up above, your partner is all alone, struggling to the summit? Or to huddle in a storm on the South Col waiting to be rescued as your companions are dying beside you? What goes through your mind when you realise that the figure beneath your feet is the body of a climber who died 75 years ago?

Historian Peter Gillman and his wife Leni scoured the archives of Everest literature, finding the most interesting and significant stories, and assembling them into this remarkable anthology that takes us from the mountain’s “discovery” by surveyors in the 19th century, right up to the year 2000.

The voices of the usual suspects are here, such as George Mallory, Eric Shipton, Chris Bonington, and Reinhold Messner; and so are the voices of the less well known, such as Wang Fu-chou, Sonam Gyatso, Nejc Zaplotnik, Maria Coffey and Ang Rita Sherpa.

Where there were gaps in the story, Peter and Leni wrote original essays to fill them. The end result is a whistlestop tour of Everest’s rich and varied history, and a superb introduction for anyone who is looking to dive in further.

7. Into the Silence by Wade Davis

Into the Silence by Wade Davis
Into the Silence by Wade Davis

I bet when you saw the word Into in the title, you thought I was going to say Into Thin Air, didn’t you? No, that can wait. But I did promise another book worthy of the adjective monumental and this is it. Weighing in at a sizeable 655 pages and taking a full 10 years to write, Into the Silence by Wade Davis is the crowning glory of books about George Mallory and the 1924 Everest expedition (sorry, Mick).

Overlooked for the 2012 Boardman Tasker Prize, the leading UK literary prize for mountain writing, it went on to win the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize (now known as the Baillie Gifford Prize), the main UK literary prize for non-fiction in general, the only mountaineering book ever to do so.

The story of George Mallory’s obsession with climbing Everest and his disappearance on the North-East Ridge in 1924 has captured the imagination like no other mountaineering story, perhaps because it’s a mystery that has never been solved. Since climbers started returning to the north side of Everest in the 1970s, a profusion of books have been written as hints gradually emerged about Mallory’s fate. None are as good as this.

What Wade Davis did that other writers didn’t was draw parallels between the 1920s Everest expeditions and the First World War. The war only ended in 1918, and by 1921 the Alpine Club and RGS were already sending a team to climb Everest. A generation of British climbers had been killed in action. Mallory and his teammates had been lucky to survive. They had seen things that modern Everest climbers couldn’t possibly comprehend (except perhaps ex-Special Forces soldier Nirmal Purja).

By setting the scene and putting the lives of 1920s climbers into context, Davis’s readers are able to appreciate the spirit of the age and better understand why Mallory did what he did. This “why” is more important to Davis than speculating about what happened on that fateful day. It’s one of the many reasons why this book stands head and shoulders above its rivals.

8. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Oh yes, I’m afraid so. You probably weren’t expecting me to include this book and some of you are probably shaking your heads that I did, but love it or hate it, Into Thin Air is arguably the most influential book about Everest ever written, and alongside Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void is the mountaineering book that has been read most widely by people who aren’t even into mountaineering.

When journalist Jon Krakauer was commissioned by Outside magazine to join one of the earlier commercial Everest expeditions and write about the experience, he unwittingly found himself fighting for his life in what came to be known as the 1996 Everest disaster. Eight guides and clients died in a storm, including the leaders of two commercial expeditions, and several survivors returned home with horrific injuries.

Over the years Krakauer has been criticised for his (understandably) imperfect recall of events, and for apportioning blame to the wrong people. But for a journalist and climber who was hired to write a critique on guided climbing on the world’s highest mountain, he was surprisingly non-judgmental. Unusually for an alpinist, he sympathised with the commercial clients he found himself climbing with. As for pointing the finger, he was wracked by the guilt of a survivor and as critical of his own actions as those of anyone else.

The book has universal appeal because he assumes his readers have no prior knowledge of mountaineering. The first half of the book doesn’t even cover the tragedy at all, and includes historical context as well as descriptions of the landscape and expedition life. The denouement is as powerful a piece of writing as you will find anywhere, and the raw emotion of a man caught helplessly in an unfolding tragedy oozes through every paragraph. It is probably the best-selling book about mountaineering ever written, and deservedly so.

Bonus book: Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest by Mark Horrell

Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest by Mark Horrell
Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest by Mark Horrell

Of course, I’m not claiming my own book is up there with any of the great books listed above, but having got this far, I hope you don’t mind indulging me as I give it a little plug. In any case, I believe you might enjoy it.

Seven Steps from Snowdon the Everest offers a couple of things that most of the above books don’t, along with a little piece of each. To start with, there aren’t many genuinely funny mountaineering books and this one has a higher joke-to-page ratio than any book about mountaineering since The Ascent of Rum Doodle.

Secondly, I’ve already noted that the history of Everest has entered a new phase: the era of commercial mountaineering. Jon Krakauer wrote about what can happen when things go wrong, but how about the positive side of guided climbing? Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest is about my journey from hill walker to high-altitude mountaineer, a step at a time as I gradually climb more extreme peaks in the course of a 10-year journey.

I have tried to write about the achievements of the pioneers in an engaging way as I follow in their footsteps, interweaving my story with the early history of the mountains I climb. The stories include George Mallory rock climbing on Snowdon, Shipton and Tilman exploring the Himalayas, Hans Meyer romping up Kilimanjaro, and Edward Fitzgerald wheezing his way up Aconcagua.

The book is about appreciating the journey as much as the destination itself; stretching the boundaries little by little until the impossible becomes the achievable; feeling richer for the experience, and above all, having a good laugh along the way, because life’s too short to take these things too seriously.

To receive email notifications of my blog posts about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.
Note: I get a very small referral fee if you buy a book after clicking on an Amazon link.

19 thoughts on “The 8 best books about Everest written in the English language

  • February 21, 2024 at 6:12 pm

    Well you might not rate your own work but having read a fair few I’d like to say your book has been right up there. Loved it. A great read.

  • February 21, 2024 at 6:14 pm

    Wow, thank you! That’s very kind of you, Iain. I have yours on my Kindle. I haven’t read it yet but I keep meaning to and it’s just jumped right up my reading list.

  • February 21, 2024 at 6:16 pm

    That’s a great list Mark. I started to get a little wound up when I saw you included Krakauer but you made an excellent case for that book.

    I want to suggest adding “The Moth and the Mountain” by Ed Caesar. It’s in my top three Everest books.

  • February 21, 2024 at 6:55 pm

    Robert, I think you’ve spent so long in Nepal that you’ve acquired magical powers. By coincidence (or is it?) I just started reading this very book last night.

  • February 21, 2024 at 7:51 pm

    Reinhold Messner’s “The Crystal Horizon” is sorely missed in this (excellent) list. By far his best book !

  • February 21, 2024 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you for this great list! There are a couple I have not read, but will be doing so soon. I also agree with others. Your “Seven Stepts…” is one of my favorite on the topic. It was so well told and entertaining as well as informative. Keep it up! Cheers!

  • February 21, 2024 at 8:50 pm

    All very great reads. I would need to add one title that I think is also right up there with the best: Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamming Tenzing Norgay. It is written by the grandson of the famous Tenzing Norgay of 1953 Everest fame. He is Sherpa and of that culture, but he is also western college educated, and his perspective and insights are refreshing.

  • February 21, 2024 at 9:15 pm

    My friend Bill Buxton has been working for eons on a project called “From sight to summit”, i.e. from “Peak XV” to the very first ascent in 1953. This 4-time professor has a marvellous collection of pretty much everything related to Everest, so I suggest you all check out his site with recommendations and worthwhile comments. [Search for “sight to summit” while you’re at it.”]

    More here;

    I agree – though not wholeheartedly – with the inclusion of the book by the Krakhead; it’s entertaining but should be considered “fiction”, in my humble opinion. There’s a special section on Everest 1996 on Bill’s page, highly worth the read.

  • February 22, 2024 at 10:45 am

    Great list Mark – I’d say the only one I haven’t read is Everest 1953 so will have a look at that. And yours of course makes my top 3 for people to read before they go climb Everest themselves for your very insightful writing about climbing high on the North Ridge and the real joys of altitude.

  • February 23, 2024 at 4:51 pm

    Great list Mark.
    I would have included “Everest, the hard way” by Chris Bonington, on the first ascent of the SW Face (1975). The hard-cover edition, with plenty of pictures and interesting technical appendices, fueled my desire to visit the Himalayas.
    I was only surprised that you included “Into Thin Air” in your selection. Although well written, and opening the world of mountaineering and commercial expeditions to a wider audience, I feel that the book owed its success in large part to the voyeurism for this kind of tragedy…

  • February 24, 2024 at 7:37 pm

    I agree that Everest The Hard Way by Chris Bonington deserves to be on the list!

  • February 27, 2024 at 7:55 pm

    I’ve read and liked most of the list. I’ll look for the Peter Gillman book; I remember his reporting of the 1996 Harlin Eiger Direct climb (summitted by Haston, Kehne, Strobel, Hupfauer and Votteler).

    Your own book is splendid. I’ve often referred non-climbers to it, especially the Everest chapter, explaining that “he had years of experience, months of acclimatisation, tons of support and gas, fixed ropes and a great Sherpa all the way on a lovely summit day — and the effort, especially the descent, took everything he had and nearly killed him. It’s not an easy day out, and you don’t just buy a ticket on the Everest Conveyor Belt.”

  • February 28, 2024 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks, Brian. You’ve summed it up nicely.

  • March 3, 2024 at 6:26 pm

    I’ve just been reading your books for the past couple weeks, I can’t put them down! I’m not a climber, the most I do is walk my dogs on trail, I like that your books are easy for anyone to read, and I appreciate your humor and attitude. I would recommend your book series to anyone! Thanks for the recommendations!

  • March 5, 2024 at 7:55 am

    That’s very kind of you, thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

  • March 26, 2024 at 1:25 am

    Thank you very much. I am also a travel writer from Nepal in Nepali language . Only one in English Journey to Tibet is published in English. I am from Nepal. While you will be in Nepal, if possible we can meet. Thanks a lot for information. I am following.

  • April 3, 2024 at 8:41 pm

    ‘Into the Silence’ is without a doubt one of the two or three books I have ever read.

  • April 4, 2024 at 7:17 am

    Heehee, did you mean to say it’s one of the two or three best books, or are you a very slow reader? 😉

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published, but it will be stored. Please see the privacy statement for more information. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend, please read the commenting guidelines before posting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.