Behind The Closed Doors of the American Alpine Club Library

Mt. Logan, Canada, 1897, by Vittorio Sella

Some people’s vision of heaven is frolicking on a bed covered in $100 bills or being swarmed by two dozen puppies or sitting on the edge of a bathtub filled with cocaine. Mine is digging through the stacks of the American Alpine Club Library in the bottom floor of the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, Colorado.

I have spent rainy afternoons and Saturdays sitting on the floor here between the shelves, in what I call the Library of Congress of Guidebooks: There are more than 20,000 circulating books here, only some of them guidebooks, which I could easily use to plan my next 40 years of vacations. The rest are travel narratives, poetry, photo and coffee table books, fiction, avalanche safety, how-to books on climbing, navigation, backcountry skiing, and anything else you can think of that’s mountain-related. Then hundreds of movies about climbing and mountain culture, and periodicals: Every issue of Climbing, Alpinist and others, as well as mountaineering club journals and newsletters from around the world – shelves of them, dating back to the 1800s.

And that’s only what you can see, the public in-circulation collection. There’s more behind closed doors.

Italian Alpine Club thanks Brad Washburn. Click for full size

In the Rare Books Room in the AAC Library, the temperature is maintained at a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve the film and antique books. The collection includes the Yoshizawa Collection of 2,000 Japanese-language volumes documenting Japanese explorations of the world’s mountains, as well as the 2,500 books in 28 different languages that make up the John M. Boyle Himalayan Library, which contains 400 expedition reports, 100 films and 35 boxes of ephemera from Himalayan peaks. Oh, and one of only five known surviving copies of the 19th-century Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and a full collection of autographed first ascent books from each of the 14 8000-meter peaks. Books in AAC circulation are shipped all over the U.S. to club members free of charge, but the rare books are not — library patrons are given gloves, book cradles and weights, and are supervised while researching during library hours.

The Rare Books Collection was started with a donation by Henry Montaignier, whose namesake collection is comprised of 19th-century books on the Alps. Collection efforts have expanded to acquire bound volumes from all over the world from the 16th to 21st century — a striking example is On the Admiration of Mountains from 1541 – the first book in Latin that was about going up into the mountains for fun. It’s in a glass case in the Rare Books Room. Also in the Rare Books Collection are items like the summit register from Mt. Vinson, the highest peak on the Antarctic continent, holding signatures from its first ascent in 1966 all the way up to 2004. And the book with autographs from the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition.

As I’m taking an iPhone photo of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s signatures inside the cover of the book, Library Director Beth Heller says, “Everybody says that only old people care about this kind of stuff.” Heller says she thinks if younger people knew what was inside the library, they’d care, too – every time she brings someone in the Rare Books Room and they comprehend what’s in here, they are floored.

AAC bookplate

Just as I was when I saw the beginnings of the 30,000-volume Central Asia Library, in the progress of being migrated from a single private donor’s property. It has its own room, gradually filling as the books are moved here pallet by pallet. The shelves are lined with ornately bound rare and antique books, alternately with pedestrian titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rock Climbing, and walking through the room with Heller, you hear her say things like, “This book has hand-pasted photographs by Vittorio Sella – it’s a special edition.” The very next thing heard in my recording of our interview is me saying, “No shit it’s a special edition. That’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.”

In another room, 175 poster-size prints of grand, black-and-white Bradford Washburn mountain photographs hang covered on sections of chain-link fence. On the floor is a box with the name “Chouinard” scrawled on it in black marker. And then in the Artifacts Storage Room: Old ropes, old ice axes, old oxygen masks and regulators. The oxygen masks and regulators are original prototypes. Tom Hornbein’s prototypes. Art Gilkey’s down jacket from the 1953 American Karakoram Expedition, which came back from K2 even though Gilkey didn’t.

There’s a whole museum’s worth here, of artifacts and books of letters and old slides and film, in closets and back rooms, right next to the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, the next-door neighbor to the AAC library.

And they want more. In April, the AAC released a call for archival materials – hand-drawn topos of routes, first ascent notebooks, trip journals, diaries, snapshots, home movies – anything that documents the history and culture of climbing, from lantern slides to cocktail napkins with topos scrawled on them. No one’s really actively collected material for the AAC archives since the 1950s, and as Beth says, “A lot has happened since then.”

For more, visit the American Alpine Club Library online.

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