Loosely modelled on a 1937 account of Bill Tilman’s Nanda Devi expedition, The Ascent of Rum Doodle riotously parodies the familiar tropes of 1950s mountaineering literature. Bowman’s intrepid cast of characters may come from all walks of life, but are similarly at a loss when it comes to their supposed specialties – Prone, the expedition’s doctor, is constantly incapacitated by sudden illnesses; Jungle, charged with navigation, is forever losing his way and cabling for money from obscure locations; and Constant, who alone speaks the native language of their guides and porters, through linguistic error provokes not just one but several riots. Led by Binder, whose narration would have you believe his crew and mission to represent nothing short of historic bravery and grit, these daring incompetents cut their path to the summit (sort of).
Though W.E. Bowman was a civil engineer and published little in his lifetime, The Ascent of Rum Doodle proves itself a classic parody, sustained with winning humor and charm. Rescued from obscurity by writer and humorist Bill Bryson, it is now revived for the enjoyment of readers, and is listed among James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman, 2018).
Wonderful…Rum Doodle does for mountaineering what Three Men in a Boat did for Thames-going or Catch-22 did for the Second World War.—The Sunday Times