The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer, Limited Editions Club (1996)

The north face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps presents a mightily treacherous challenge to the most experienced of mountain climbers. While ‘only’ rising 13,041 feet, there is a 6,000 foot nearly vertical pyramid of rock and ice (containing an ice-field known as ‘The White Spider’) which, together with frequent and sudden thunderstorms, blizzards and avalanches, make this one of the most perilous and difficult of summits to attain. Dozens have lost their lives in the effort.

In 1936, Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) made the Austrian olympic team as a long-run alpine skier in 1936. Two years later, at 26, he joined an expedition of four in an attempt to be the first to successfully climb the North Face of the Eiger. Prior to this attempt, many had tried and lost their lives as a result, including two Italians who fell to their death just one month earlier.  On July 24th at 3:30pm, Harrer and team successfully reached the summit, but not without having to overcome serious challenges. The White Spider is Harrer’s book recounting this climb. Before looking at this book, a bit more on Harrer, who had an amazingly adventurous and complete life.

In 1940, while on an expedition to Nanga Parbat (a 26,000 foot peak in the western Himalayas), war broke out between Germany and England. He was detained in India with the rest of the expedition and held in prisoner camps for four years before successfully escaping in April 1944.  Harrer ended up in the forbidden city of Lhasa in January of 1945 where he became a friend and tutor of the then eleven year old Dalai Lama. As many of you surely know, this adventure is detailed in Harrer’s book Seven Years in Tibet (and made into a major Hollywood film with Brad Pitt playing Harrer). He was to participate in many further adventures in his lifetime, including a further expedition to the Himalayas, the Sudan, the Mato Grosso plateau of Brazil, Alaknanda (India’s “Valley of the Flowers”), Surinam and North Borneo in the Mayan Archipelago. Besides these adventures, Harrer was a successful author, with Seven Years in Tibet and The White Spider being the best known. He also made nearly 40 documentary films. Harrer’s philosophy of life is neatly summed up when he says:

…if I had to write an entry in the autograph album of the worshippers of blind Chance and inevitable Fate, I could not find better words than those used by the Athenian, Menander, more than two thousand years ago: “A man’s nature and way of life are his fate, and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition.”

He later further comes back to that theme, when he says:

But I do believe that Fate lies very much in the character, the natural facilities of a man.

Harrer discusses what drives an adventurer, a spirit which seems to have been lost in Western culture:

What lured him on was, of course, the great adventure, the eternal longing of every truly creative man to push on into unexplored country, to discover something entirely new — if only about himself. In that lies the detonating spark, the secret source of strength, which enables men to achieve the extraordinary.

This edition of The White Spider, from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) is, like their 1993 publication of Seven Years in Tibet, spectacular in production value and unique. For this edition, Harrer considerably revised the original 1960 version of his work and added an Epilogue that relates subsequent events and warns future mountaineers. In addition, Harrer has selected photographs from his personal collection for this edition, which have been masterly re-created as gravures by the one and only Jon Goodman, and a map which allows the reader to follow the climbers route. The LEC letter that came with the edition describes the photogravure process:

Producing a photogravure plate is a complex process. Ultra-violet light, gelatin-coated paper, and many other substances are involved before the copper plate in ready to be placed in the intaglio press, at which stage the ink must be properly applied for transferring the image to dampened sheets of top quality paper — in this instance a heavyweight mould-made stock from the Arches mill in Epinal, France.

The format was designed by Michael and Winifred Bixler. They choose Joanna type (which was designed in 1930 by Eric Gill), in 14 point size with four points of leading space between the lines. The type was hand-set and printed on the 100% cotton-rag Arches stock previously mentioned, and the book was bound by hand with a beautiful and unique binding. An oblong of mica-speackled paper, imported from Germany, was recessed into the dark sand cover-cloth side. Minute granules were scraped from the icy rock surface of the Eiger to use on this paper; a coating was added to prevent them from abrading skin. In short, the cover has some of the Eiger, appropriately shaped, as the focal point. The cloth sides are complemented by a grey goatskin spine which has the title blank-stamped in Joanna capitals. Just look at the pictures below!

About the Edition

  • Designed and printed by Michael and Winifred Bixler
  • Photographs by the author from his personal collection, recreated as gravures at the studio of Jon Goodman, along with a map tot follow the climbers’ route
  • Hand-set in 14 point Joanna with four points leading-space between the lines (designed by Eric Gill)
  • 100% cotton-rag heavyweight mould-made stock from the Arches mill in Epinal, France
  • Bound by hand with an oblong of mica-speckled paper, imported from Germany, recessed into the dark sand cover-cloth side; Granules were scraped from the icy rock surface of the Eiger and attached (a coating was added to prevent them from abrading skin); all with a grey goatskin spine, blank-stamped with the title in Joanna capitals
  • Epilog by the author
  • Limited to 300 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Solander Box
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Solander Box
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Solander Box
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Solander Box
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of  Spine
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Cover
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Cover
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Granules
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Granules
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 (map)
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 (map)
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
The White Spider, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

6 thoughts on “The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer, Limited Editions Club (1996)

  1. Don Floyd:
    you made my day! I am glad that you are changing your mind about the Shiff era books. Many of them are pieces of art and are the source of eternal joy. You got very beautiful ones, but there are quite a few more exciting books, IMHO. Among my favorites – The revelation of St John the Divine, Three poems of Octavio Paz, Down by the Riverside, A portrait of Shunkin. Sooner or later you may come to the point, when you will want them all! L’appetit vient en mangeant!

  2. Response to Don Floyd:

    If you were going to dip your toe into the ultra-expensive Sidney Shiff-era LEC books you could not have chosen more wisely. The three books you have acquired as amongst his best, representing the ideal combination of great content AND superlative book design and execution. There are many Sidney Shiff LEC books that are quite beautiful but of little or no interest to me (e.g., Le Paysan de Paris by Louis Aragon, Un Coup de des Jamais by Stephane Mallarme, etc.) but you have hit home runs with your selections.

    Congratulations !!

  3. So many great books, from one publisher, over such a long period! I’m always amazed when I see yet another stunning book from the LEC on this site.

    This one deserves the comments it has attracted. An epic, dangerous adventure told by a participant and supported by his own images in a beautifully produced package that is so thoughtfully planned that, as a finishing touch, we get a bit of the mountain on the cover of the book! Wonderful – a real beauty.

  4. I have been one of those who have vociverously attacked and complained about Sidney Shiff’s livres d’artiste LECs. But now, after having acquired three of the Shiff era productions, I have to recant my former objections. I have now obtained The Man Who Planted Trees, Wuthering Heights, and the O’Hara – de Kooning Poems, and I must admit that these show an excellence in book- making which was not previously exhibited in LECs. I am now of the opinion that many of the diatribes expressed over these books have been because of the high prices of most. But as time goes onward, these prices will be reduced as sellers find they cannot easily sell at their listed prices. I don’t mean to say that prices will come down to the level of LECs produced before Shiff, but the books currently listed at $4000 to $6000 will be available in the $2500 to $3000 range since sellers are not realizing their now listed prices. But regardless of price, the workmanship of these LECs remains the apogee of modern bookmaking.

    I wont be able to collect very many of these LECs, but I hope to get a few more in the months to come.

    1. Great comment Don, and I am happy to hear your admiration for these books. I agree with you, they are the apogee — it is unfortunate that the apogee these days means lots and lots of dollars, and I can understand people’s frustration with that…but at least when the quality is soon one can understand the high cost just to cover the production. For the sake of buyers, I hope the prices settle where you suggest, though I also sometimes feel bad for the producers and sellers, since it really does cost some serious dollars to create these. None the less, what is most important is getting into the hands of real book lovers, not speculators or those who just want trophies….so lower prices definitely help with that.

  5. This is one of the best of the LEC books designed and published during the Sidney Shiff tenure as he transitioned the LEC into a private press which focused on livres d’artiste books. Unlike many of these books, which are enormous in size and unwieldy, this is a “normal” sized book measuring 13″ H x 9.5″ W and it can be read comfortably without a book support or lectern. Although Heinrich Harrar is far better known for his (mis)adventures in Asia during World War II as he desperately fled to avoid internment in a prison camp, then subsequently began a lifelong friendship with the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet (Seven Years in Tibet), he was first and foremost a world-class mountaineer and technical climber. He also had the gift of being an excellent author who was able to convey to his readers the challenges and excitement of conquering mountains and previously unclimbed routes. The White Spider is an engrossing and thrilling adventure story and the LEC book design is distinctive and imaginative, reminiscent of the best of the Arion Press books in their first 15 years of publication. Quality of materials (paper, binding, felt-lined and cloth covered clamshell box are flawless.

    One of Sidney Shiff’s best LEC books and one of my personal favorites, FWIW.

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