Known as “The Slim Fox” in climbing circles, Allen Steck has earned the title “living legend.” Now 91 years old, there are few mountaineers like him left, and his beautifully produced memoir A Mountaineer’s Life is a both a clear record of his career in the sport, and a call to those inspired to follow in his footsteps. Written with dry humor and featuring archival and contemporary photographs, the hardcover is a newly-minted memoirist’s celebration of the “urge to climb.”
Steck begins in the late 1940s, in the American West. “When I started in 1946,” he writes, “climbing was little known or understood in America… in Yosemite Valley, climbing was simply tolerated… it was clear that [the rangers] considered us rogues and vagabonds at best.”
Through injuries and deaths, advances in gear (initially, much of it was army surplus from World War II), Steck dauntlessly pursues higher and tougher mountains. He eventually finds himself on vertical faces in the Dolomites, Sentinel Rock, British Columbia, Cordillera Blanca, El Capitan, Clyde Minaret, Mount Logan, Makalu, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, and many more.
Throughout, Steck never loses perspective. “We do not deceive ourselves,” he says, “that we are engaging in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless and totally without redeeming social significance.”
Still, it’s hard not to be inspired by a pioneer fearlessly doing what he loves. Over 54 years, from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, Steck forges new routes through icefalls, blizzards, and avalanches and becomes a gear designer, a founding partner of Mountain Travel Sobek, and a longtime editor of Ascent Magazine, providing firsthand insight into the development of the sport.
Steck’s memoir will be of interest to beginning climbers looking to clip carabiners in the same pitons as the master. “I have tested myself against wind, rain, rock, and snow, and have become a stronger person,” Steck writes. “Was it worth it? Absolutely, though I would prefer not to be caught in avalanches.” He appropriately finishes his detailed remembrance by speaking plainly: “Perhaps many of the readers of this book are beginning climbers. To you I will simply say: Follow your bliss slowly and carefully.”