Sunday, July 20, 2014

Blind Descent, by Brian Dickinson

Brian Dickinson writes about an ideal climb of the world's highest mountain gone terribly wrong in Blind Descent: Surviving Alone and Blind on Mount Everest. In the narrative, he weaves in stories of his experiences of training to be a Navy air rescue swimmer as well as explanations of his faith and values. He goes to Everest as part of a Seven Summits bid, after climbs of Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, and a near miss on McKinley. I like how with such a self-focused and potentially lonely story, Dickinson looks out around himself and writes about his family, friends, and climbing partners in a positive and sincere manner; even when he is alone and blind high on Everest, he recognizes people around the world who were praying for him. (It reminds me a bit of the 1963 American ascent, during which the Jesuits in Kathmandu prayed all night for calm weather and a safe return for the four summiteers, who spent all night marooned near the summit.) I find it interesting that modern Everest writers find it important to reference earlier climbers in their travels, such as James Wilde, the climber philanthropist, visiting Hillary's first school, and Dickinson, the military vet, reading Bear Grylls on his way to Base Camp.

Dickinson's climb, during the 2011 pre-monsoon season, is a relatively minimal commercial affair, with logistics, some meals, tents, fixed rope, oxygen, and a summit-climb Sherpa provided. He does quite well with the altitude, after a bit of adjustment. Things go well for him until he drops and breaks his goggles on the Lhotse Face. One of the two layers of UV protection are still in place, so he continues on. Thanks to initially marginal weather and the illness of his ropemate-for-hire, he gets a summit day to himself. By the time the sun is well up and he is on the summit, his vision has almost completely gone. His descent is harrowing and difficult, but his faith and his Navy training help him to stay calm and make it home to his family.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ganz bei mir, by Kaltenbrunner & Steinbach

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, with Karin Steinbach, tells of her climbs on the world's highest mountains in  Ganz bei mir, Leidenschaft Achttausender. She writes of her life of climbing, leading to her becoming the first woman to climb the fourteen 8000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen and without the use of high-altitude porters. She climbs quite a bit for fun as a student, before becoming a nurse and realizing her dream of climbing an 8000-er on Broad Peak at 23. For a while, she works as a nurse and climbs every chance she gets, before her climbing takes over, and she manages to live the life of a full-time mountaineer. Her quest for the 14 highest mountains starts off well, with a mixture of success and frustration without tragedy, until the year after she goes pro, on Hidden Peak. She has a number of trying moments after that, including an unbelievable survival on Dhaulagiri after an avalanche that killed two others. I only wish she would have written a bit more about her final climb to achieve her record, as there is so little written about climbs on the north side of K2.

She makes two trips to Everest. Her first, pre-monsoon in 2005 after her South Face climb of Shishipangma, was meant to be a Supercouloir alpine climb, in the footsteps of Troillet and Loretan. (See Loretan's Den Bergen Verfallen.) Bad snow conditions turn their attention to the North Col route, with an ascent of the col's west side, and a trip up to Camp V, before one of her ropemates becomes life-threateningly ill, necessitating his rescue. She returns in 2010 to make the summit via the normal North Col route, still carrying her own gear.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Summits of Modern Man, by Peter H. Hansen

Peter H. Hansen presents a history of the idea of climbing Mount Blanc, tied to the larger history of mountain climbing, in The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment. He begins with the earliest history of the area, with tax records and land grants, closely followed by the "discovery" of the area and its exploration. A running theme is the idea of primacy and conflict over firsts; Hansen often shows that those who fight most bitterly to prove their promenance were often followers in others' footsteps, whether Paccard, de Saussure, or d'Angeville. Hansen traces not only the climbing of Mont Blanc, but the ideas and literature inspired by the peak, such as works of Dumas, Shelley, Fanck, and others. He also works in the larger story of mountain climbing, as events on other peaks, such as the Matterhorn, or most notably, Everest, shadow events on Mont Blanc.

His Everest allegory works quite well, as many of the same conflicts played out both peaks. He discusses the early local recognition of Tenzing as the hero of his climb, just as Balmat at first took center stage. Similarly there was a cultural and class difference that played out between the two climbers, whether they liked it or not. Tenzing, like Balmat had climbed much further towards the summit than his ropemate before the final climb and received compensation for his actions that took care of him, but never made him rich.

This is a great book for those who like to think about climbing, not just read about it. Hansen does a lovely job do turning the story of some rather ambitious climbers into the story of the world around them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

No Summit out of Sight, by Romero & LeBlanc

Jordan Romero and Linda LeBlanc inspire with the tale of a family that lives out a boy's dream in No Summit out of Sight: The True Story of the Youngest Person to Climb the Seven Summits. Romero decides at the age of nine that he wants to see the world from the top of the highest peak in each continent...right away. Any normal set of parents would have told him that he can do whatever he wants when he's a grown-up; Jordan, however, has super-parents (in my humble opinion). His dad and step-mom have a clear understanding, as adventure racers, of what he's in for, and not only believe he can do it, they set aside many of their own adventures to help him train and pave the way for him to follow his quest. Not content just to experience the mountains, they, when possible, set up their own logistics, carry their own gear, and make their own decisions on the mountains. They race up Kilimanjaro when Jordan is ten. Not only does Jordan set a record for youngest recorded ascent, but he climbs better and faster than most of the adults. By age thirteen, he achieves similar success on Kozciosko, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Carstenz Pyramid, McKinley,  and heads for Everest.

Though there is controversy back home over his climb and the ethics of taking someone so young somewhere so dangerous, he finds only support for his efforts on the mountain. For the pre-monsoon season in 2010, they choose the North Side, as it avoids the Khumbu Icefall, and hire three climbing Sherpas to help them in their pursuit of the summit. Jordan climbs quite well, survives an avalanche while approaching the North Col, and even skips spending a night at the highest camp near the Northeast Ridge, opting to climb to the summit from a lower camp. He finishes his quest a year later on Vinson, after navigating the red tape of getting a minor into Antarctica.

The book is well-written, focusing on Jordan, but also acknowledging the contibutions of the many people who made his quest possible. I like, especially, that Jordan seems like a real person in the prose---not quite a hero, not quite Everyman. It's a pleasure to read---a positive story, with a kid who grows up to face his fears and keep on climbing!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Flying Off Everest, by Dave Costello

Dave Costello writes about two intrepid Nepalis, Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and Sano Babu Sunuwar, who on short notice decide to be the first to paraglide off the summit of the world's highest mountain and descend all the way to the Bay of Bengal via paraglider and kayak, in Flying Off Everest: A Journey from the Summit to the Sea. The plot thickens, as Lakpa does not know how to kayak, or even swim, yet will face a tough series of rapids descending the Dudh Kosi, while Babu has only previously tried a trekking peak once, but retreated from the summit with altitude sickness. Also, they decide six weeks before the 2011 Everest pre-monsoon climbing season to pull off this feat, starting with little cash or climbing equipment, without an appropriate paraglider, or even a kayak. What follows is an amazing adventure, with good faith, good friends, great luck, and determination accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

Costello does a favor to the Everest literature, as so many modern Everest books lack the adventure once associated with the world's highest mountain. Similarly, he tells a story of Nepalis (one Sherpa, and one "Sherpa, " err... Rai) doing great things on their home turf, with the Western climbers, for once, in the background. He hashes out the story in all its complex details, with Lakpa and Babu at times working together and others against each other, with their friends and contacts within the adventure sports community both helping the pair and themselves, while often at odds with each other. This is a story not to be missed. You're going to like it!


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy, edited by Peter Gillman

Peter Gillman covers in detail the history of Everest with a splendid anthology in Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy. I wish that I had read this earlier in my Everest quest, as it informs so much of the history that is otherwise vague or missing in the Everest literature. In addition to the usual expeditions (early climbs, 1953, 1963, 1975, Messner, 1996, finding Mallory, etc.), which by the way are covered quite well and often from less common sources, Gillman finds or commissions translations of accounts of the 1979 Yugoslavian West Ridge Direct climb, the 1980 Polish winter ascent, the 1982 Soviet Southwest Pillar climb, and the 1995 Zakharov Couloir masterpiece. He covers a lot of the modern history in a way that shows what is important, rather than what is written about, such as covering the 1986 Canadian West Ridge ascent by Sharon Wood and Dwayne Congdon rather than the 1982 Canadian South Col mess that was more tragic than triumphant. Similarly, he provides Carlos Buhler's 1983 Kangshung Face account, rather than one of the many American attempts or climbs via the Great Couloir. I feel there is still a bit of British-centricism here, with two accounts of the 1975 Southwest Face climb, two of the 1953 first ascent, and some Brummie Stokes and Rebecca Stephens thrown in, to boot. Overall, however, Gillman gives a fair account of Everest's climbs like no other.

I appreciate the variety of sources in this book. Many of entries are adapted from journal articles, which the majority of readers of this book (such as myself) would have missed, even if they had an interest in Everest. Perhaps a third of them come from books, many of them the standard literature of the world's highest mountain. Besides the translations mentioned earlier, the original entries are what made the book for me, whether Buhler's diaries, Zakharov's essay, or Ang Rita's interview. In addition to the wealth of sources, Gillman has secured permission to include photographs to show the drama and range of climbing on Everest. The back also includes statistics, including all recorded Everest ascents up to the publication of the book (2000), all deaths on Everest, and number of other interesting data. If you love reading about Everest, read this book; if you're not hooked on Everest yet, read this book, and you will be!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Morning Light, by Margaret Griffiths

Margaret Griffiths writes of her husband's sailing from Britain to British Columbia, his son's climbing and dying on Everest, and her husband's subsequent trip to Everest in Morning Light: Triumph at Sea and Tragedy on Everest. George Griffiths decides to, upon his retirement, sail a small vessel across the Atlantic, to Hawaii by way of Panama, and home to British Columbia. (He was, among other things, an officer in the Royal Navy.) He chooses a wood-hulled boat in need of plenty of work, cleans it up, and weathers many storms in an unusually wet and windy solo Atlantic crossing. He meets his two sons, Mark and Blair, in the Caribbean, and sails for home with Mark, along for help and companionship. Meanwhile, Blair is invited to film the 1982 Canadian Everest expedition, based on his successful mountain filming in Peru.

On Everest, things go south quickly for the Canadians, with an avalanche killing three Sherpa. During the funeral, a party restoring the broken route in the Khumbu Icefall falls prey to an even larger avalanche, this time killing Blair Griffiths. Margaret Griffiths, in her writing, gives us Blair's perspective of the climb, based on his diary and his letters home, as well as a general telling of the expedition based on eyewitness accounts and other sources. I appreciate her empathetic writing throughout, and her wonderful way of interpreting and relaying the feeling and experience of things that she knew largely second-hand. She also relates George's climb to the base of Mount Everest to memorialize and connect with the death of his son, trekking in his old age from Jiri to above Lobuche. I'm glad I picked this book after this year's tragedy on Everest, as it makes death, even on a place as cold and far off as the Khumbu Icefall, seem human and natural, without diminishing the awful loss that it inflicts on those left behind. [Only] four people died in the tragedy of 1982, and yet it was an awful experience to live through; I can't imagine the impact on the families and survivors of this year's loss.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Everest: The Testing Place, by John B. West

John B. West returns to the Himalaya to lead the first medical research expedition to Everest in Everest: The Testing Place. He gathers an amazing assortment of doctors, climbers, climbing doctors, and Sherpa to carry out one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken on Everest, with laboratories set up at Base Camp and the Western Cwm, and physiological experiments involving complex equipment conducted at all camps and even at the summit, all back in 1981. With a post-monsoon berth, their expedition is a fight against time, both to collect the data they need for their experiments and to make a serious bid for the summit. To facilitate the quick transport of blood samples, they even end up climbing a new route, just east of Polish South Pillar route. They come up with some surprising results with their experiments, observing the extremes of the human condition and the environment, even finding a relatively high barometric pressure at the summit. Five climbers eventually make the summit, including two doctors. It's a great book, well written, with an approachable presentation of high-altitude physiology.

I have a history with this volume, as it was the first Everest book I ever read, back when I was thirteen years old. I wasn't mature enough to appreciate the good writing or the accomplishments of this great team, and I actually avoided Everest books for several years, assuming that all of them were science-heavy, or at least written for adults. I worked my way back to Everest, through a mess of other books, especially a heavy dose of Reinhold Messner and sorting through the 1996 literary pile, before I discovered the broad range of literature available to the Everest reader. I'm sorry I took so long to get back to this one! I'm glad I did!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lost on Everest, by Peter Firstbrook

Peter Firstbrook writes a biography of George Mallory, in addition to telling of his own participation in the search for Mallory's body, in Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine. The book is a shorter and perhaps less fond telling of the tale of George Mallory than most other biographies. Firstbrook covers Mallory's life, with a focus on his role for the Everest expeditions, showing that Mallory was not quite the hero that many assume, but rather a man with poor judgement who often caused troubles. Firstbrook's Mallory isn't quite the horrid dilettante portrayed in Unsworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History, but neither is he the fascinating personality of Gillman's The Wildest Dream or the ambitious career man of Green's Because It's There. Perhaps Firstbrook's portrayal of Mallory is fair, as certainly it cuts him down to human proportions, and provides an easy explanation for his disappearance. That's the trouble with history---unlike observation, which is a compromise between one's perception and reality, history is a further compromise between the observations of others (many of whom are long dead) and the perception of the writer. There are so many plausible Mallorys out there, that the greatest mystery about him (to me) isn't whether he made the summit, but who, exactly, was doing the climbing!

In addition to the biography, Firstbrook traces the history of the clues that led to the discovery of Mallory's body on Everest. He tells of the formation of the team (Firstbrook led the filming of the trip) that would go looking for him in 1999, with only a limited personal perspective. He was there, after all, in the role of a professional observer. In his writing, at least, he avoids some of the pettiness present in other books about the same trip, and instead focuses on the actions that led to the discovery of Mallory and the climbing of the mountain. His own conclusions about the plausibility of Mallory's making the summit revolve around the timing of Odell's observation versus climbing times by members of the search team.

Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 Everest disaster: some early thoughts

Everest climbers have faced their worst disaster in history, with at least 12 high-altitude porters killed (4 still missing) in the Khumbu Icefall by an avalanche. So many of the comments I've read on news articles are by people who have read an Everest book or two. (Krakauer's Into Thin Air is often cited.) What does one say who has read the history of Everest from beginning to end and back again? What can one say?

My first instinct is to think back to the closest incident in scale, when seven porters died in an avalanche in 1922 on the North Col, and climber Howard Somervell bewailed "Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed - why, oh why could not one of us Britishers [or fill in the blank] have shared their fate?" He continued, "I would gladly at that moment have been lying there dead in the snow, if only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had indeed shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk." After the 1922 climb there was quite of bit of searching for a scapegoat within the climbing community, with sides blaming the climbers (George Mallory, specifically, even if there were three climbers alternating leads) and others defending. Ultimately, little was done about that tragedy beyond fighting over blame, or at least little else is mentioned in Everest's recorded history. Two of the climbers who survived both the avalanche and the war of words actually returned to Everest two years later.

I also think of some of the predictions of Everest writers, whether Krakauer's belief that little, if anything would be learned from the tragedy of 1996, or Jenkin's (Call of Everest) comments that the concentrated crowds of people on Everest are inviting such a tragedy (though he imagined troubles on the Lhotse Face). I worry that because the victims of this tragedy are Nepalese porters, rather than foreign climbers, that we, the observing public, won't sit and analyze what went wrong here the way we did in 1996, when [only] eight foreign climbers died; we supported the publication of no less than 17 books about 1996. How many books will I be able to read about 2014?

There are very few books available that treat Sherpas and other Himalayan people as people, rather than some kind of "other," either to be studied (many anthropological studies are available), employed, or left out entirely. Even Tenzing Norgay's "autobiography," Tiger of the Snows, while subtly pushing back at some cultural stereotypes, accepts many others. Here's a short list I've encountered:

M. S. Kohli's Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends
B. N. Mullik's The Sky Was His Limit
Jamling Tenzing Norgay's Touching My Father's Soul
Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest 
Zuckerman & Padoan's Buried in the Sky

My prayers go out to the victims and their families. What a dark day on Everest!