Peeks at Peaks
Mountains from Space: Peaks and Ranges of the Seven
Continents. Stefan Dech, Reinhold Messner, Rúdiger
Glaser, and Ralf-Peter Mártin. 244 pp. Harry N. Abrams, 2006. $50.
For most of human history, mountains have been worshiped as the
homes of gods or demons, simply accepted as being there or ignored
completely. However, the big mountain ranges of the world—the
Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes—have always held a special
mystique and fascination for humankind. It was perhaps Hannibal's
crossing of the Alps at the outset of the Second Punic War between
Rome and Carthage from 218 to 202 B.C. that, at least for the
Western world, sowed the seeds for further mountain exploration.
The modern age of mountaineering was ushered in by Jacques Balat and
Michel Paccard, who made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in France in
1786. Edward Whymper subsequently conquered the Matterhorn in 1865.
Since then we have seen Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climb
Chomolungma (Mount Everest) in 1953 and a single person ascend the
highest mountains on each continent (the "Seven Summits");
the first to do so was Dick Bass in 1985, followed by Pat Morrow in
1986. (On six continents, there is no difficulty in identifying the
proper targets: They are Kilimanjaro in Africa, Denali [Mount
McKinley] in North America, Elbrus in Europe, Aconcaqua in South
America, Vinson in Antarctica and Everest in Asia; for Australasia,
however, there is some controversy over which should be regarded as
its summit—Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea or Mount Kosciuszko
in Australia. Bass climbed Kosciuszko and Morrow climbed Carstensz.)
For mountaineers, impressions of their surroundings during the climb
and at the summit are always somewhat constrained by the viewer's
perspective and in some cases also by clouds and storms. But
Mountains from Space: Peaks and Ranges of the Seven
Continents overcomes this limited ability to see the grandeur
of the Earth's highest places. Working in collaboration with
scientists at the German Aerospace Center, authors Stefan Dech (a
professor at the Geographical Institute at the University of
Würzburg), Reinhold Messner (a mountaineer), Rüdiger
Glaser (director of the Institute for Physical Geography in
Freiburg) and Ralf-Peter Märtin (a mountaineer and a freelance
journalist in Frankfurt) have compiled an outstanding collection of
satellite imagery. These views of individual peaks and ranges were
obtained on various terrestrial observation missions. True to the
title, the majority of the images have been prepared digitally from
optical satellite data with a spatial resolution ranging from one
kilometer to 60 centimeters. The majority of the images were
obtained from satellites in space, but some of the views included
are elevation models garnered from various high-flying aircraft or
produced from digitizing maps.
The book also brings together an esteemed literary group of
mountaineers, scientists and writers who contribute their thoughts
and philosophy in a series of brief but illuminating vignettes on
topics as diverse as plate tectonics, remote sensing via satellites,
environmental and climatic change, spirituality, weather at high
altitude, the details of individual climbs, and the cultural history
of mountainous regions. These authors of these snippets include
novelist Christoph Ransmayr; mountaineers Hillary, Messner,
Märtin, Stephen Venables, Oswald Oelz and Alexander Huber;
Dech, who works on remote sensing in cooperation with the German
Aerospace Center; and geologist Glaser, who has provided informative
introductory essays for each chapter.
The book's introduction is followed by six chapters that present
imagery of the mountains of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and
Antarctica, North and Central America, and South America, in that
order. A useful appendix provides information on which satellites
were used to collect the data for each image, when the data were
obtained and how they were processed, what the spatial resolution
was of the satellite sensor, what organization processed the data,
and a brief, but informative, description of the image.
As someone who has been a mountaineer and university scientist for
more than 50 years, I found Mountains from Space
fascinating and beautiful. Satellite imagery is an art form, and the
book is a work of art. The pieces of text that accompany the
pictures are clearly written for nonspecialists—that is, for
people who are neither scientists nor mountaineers. Readers will
obtain valuable insights into mountains and the men and women who
climb them as well as a wealth of information on the geography,
geology and cultural history of mountainous regions.
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