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!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Wind in My Hair, by Brigitte Muir

Brigitte Muir finds peace and strength during her climbs of the Seven Summits in The Wind in My Hair: An inspiring account of one woman's dream, and how she made it come true. She writes of her development from a woman drawn to the dark places of caves and the shadows strong men to an independent and inspiring climber who sets out and achieves her dream. From her home in Belgium, she seeks out the world and ends up falling in love in and with Australia, marrying and climbing with Jon Muir. After he finally climbs Everest (See Sorrel Wilby's Beyond the Icefall.), and she makes some early forays into the Himalaya (Shivling, Hidden Peak), Muir declares that she will climb the Seven Summits. As an underemployed climber dedicated to her sport, she faces similar financial challenges to Pat Morrow (See Beyond Everest), but without the cachet of having already climbed the world's highest mountain. She lands sponsorships and works farm labor to pay for her trips, but at times (sometimes for years), she has trouble getting together the cash for the bigger climbs. She ultimately guides someone to the summit of Vinson (while still paying many of her own expenses) before landing a dedicated and interested group of sponsors and promoters for her Everest trips.

Muir, like her husband, has a rough relationship with Everest, making several attempts before finally making it to the top. She tries on the North side in 1993 and 1995, and again from the South in 1996, before her success from the South in 1997. She climbs under Jon Tinker and OTT in '93 and '95, along with Pat Falvey (See his Reach for the Sky.), her husband, and several others. She runs into unfortunate circumstances high on the mountain during both her summit attempts in 1995, and returns without a summit. In 1996, she opts for Henry Todd, and gives a much rosier picture of him and his operation than other climbers, even on the same permit (See especially Ratcliffe's A Day to Die For.) Todd does run out of supplies for a second attempt (or is it third), however, and sends his team packing while other groups are reaching the summit. Her record of events on the South Col during the May 10/11 disaster are considerably more lucid than other eyewitness accounts. Her 1997 climb, under Team Ascent, goes well when she finally makes it up during a late weather window.

This is my favorite (so far) Seven Summits book, as Muir clearly uses the quest as a journey rather than a checklist, works in some humor, and writes eloquently about her inner self and her experiences. Her climbing life is quite a bit more than the continental high-points, and her development as a person and a climber kept my interest throughout the book. Highly recommend!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On the Edge, by Alison Levine

Alison Levine takes leadership training to new heights, using examples from her experience on Everest and other extreme environments, in On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership. She uses seemingly counter-intuitive advice, such as moving backward to make progress and practicing sleep deprivation, to make strong points for the things leaders should consider and act upon to better their skills. Her high-impact advice comes from her own efforts in the business world and natural world, as well the examples of great leaders of she has encountered. She writes on the premise that everyone is a leader and has a responsibility both to herself and her organization to practice the things that make great leaders, such as extraordinary preparation for challenges, compensating for weaknesses, building from failure, earning trust and loyalty, fostering healthy egos, and giving maximum effort. I like that she doesn't try to turn the book into the tale of her Seven Summits quest, but rather focuses on her biggest challenges that are most applicable to her points, including Everest, Carstenz Pyramid, and her South Pole journey.  

For Everest, she writes about both her experience in 2002 with the first American women's Everest expedition, and in 2010, when she reached the summit to honor the life of a close friend. Her 2002 trip, for which she was team captain, was ultimately turned back by bad weather at the South Summit, though she felt satisfied that she had had the entire "Everest experience," and was happy that the team got along so well and did everything in their power to reach the top. Eight years later, after many more mountains and a couple of Poles within her experience, she returned as a part of a commercial group to a frighteningly similar summit climb, with threatening weather and deep snow, causing many others to turn back. She compares the two styles of "teams," arguing that the climbers on the latter were not a team at all (as the members were not mutually supportive), regardless of what Merriam-Webster says. She also discusses in detail the speed ascent attempts by Chad Kellogg, and why he showed great leaderships qualities without having made the summit.

Levine writes an entertaining and compelling book. I appreciate the way she lifts up others with her examples, while keeping her bad apples anonymous. She gives at times hard advice, but backs it up with concrete examples. By showing what her non-stop, but intelligent work ethic can accomplish, she inspires others to follow. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Moving Mountains, by James Wilde

James Wilde discovers a passion for philanthropy while exploring the world's high points in Moving Mountains: How the dream to climb the Seven Summits transformed into the charity Global H2O. After climbing Kilimanjaro and growing attached to high places, Wilde quests for the other six continental high points while working some very impressive jobs around the world. His book documents his ten important climbs for his list and his charity, with two tries on Aconcagua and two on Everest, as well as some self-discovery on Cho Oyu. With the exception of his second Aconcagua climb (during which he led a team) and diminutive Kosciuszko, he sticks to guided climbs, learning quite a bit on Elbrus before getting some more serious training for his other ascents. His experience is more international than most English-language Seven Summits literature, because he speaks Russian and is comfortable with Russian outfitters for several of his climbs. His charity, Global H2O, develops from a sideline to an Everest climb to his primary fundraising focus before leaving to climb the world's highest mountain. His first projects, bringing safe drinking water to those who desperately need it through the digging of wells, inspire him to make the charity his life's passion. 

I enjoyed getting an inside view of Abramov's 7 Summits Club expeditions on Everest. According to Wilde, the organization has changed quite a bit between his two climbs, in 2005 and 2010. Abramov instituted new safety rules, increased the physical comforts he offers, and taken more of a leadership role (rather than an organizer or fixer) on the North side of Everest with the departure of Russell Brice to Nepal. Wilde turns back in 2005 after having doubts (and some understandable depression) and never quite fitting in with the Russians with whom ends up climbing high on the mountain. He still enjoys the company of many of his teammates, and ends up climbing with or near them on other mountains. He returns to the North side of Everest in 2010 with a determination to get the job done, especially after the emotional high of completing his first drilling project in Uganda.

The book is enjoyable and Wilde's philanthropy is laudable. He mentions a side trip to Khumjung while in the Khumbu region, visiting the first school built by Edmund Hillary. Here's hoping Wilde's success in Africa is every bit as effective Hillary's efforts in Nepal!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Man Versus Mountain: Mount Everest, by Bonnie Hinman

Bonnie Hinman provides an updated introduction for young readers to the world's highest mountain in Man Versus Mountain: Mount Everest. She focuses on the climbing of the mountain and its history, with some additional information on the surrounding natural, political, and cultural geography, as well as a section on Himalayan legends. Hillary and Tenzing take center stage in the book, followed by Mallory and the early attempts. There is (comparatively) quite a bit about modern climbing of Everest and its troubles, covering the 1996, 2006, and 2012 climbing seasons. Hinman keeps the information interesting while writing intelligently and pretty accurately. I appreciated her notations, as well as the long list of resources at the back. Photographs were my only hang-up, as Ama Dablam (page 5) and K2 (page 40) stand in for Everest. The format is pleasing, however, with chapters on focused topics, concluded by asides on related information.

I feel I must apologize once again for my vitriol in defending false information. George Everest did sight (or at least recorded his sighting) the peak that bears his name, even if he did not recognize it at the time as the world's highest mountain. I worry that my declarations to the opposite might have had something to do with page 15's: "Some historians think Everest may never have seen in person the mountain that was named after him." So many of the things I tend to whine about regarding Everest's juvenile literature are right on in Hinman's book, such as her explanation of the thin air at the summit, that I worry that I might have violated some sort of Prime Directive for the observation of literature. C'est la vie!

Monday, March 3, 2014

George Mallory, by David Robertson

David Robertson writes a personal, but limited biography of the early Man of Everest in George Mallory. Robertson had unprecedented access to Mallory's (and many others') personal papers, and he released, in 1969, a ground-breaking look into the person behind the hero of 1924. Though several biographies have since surpassed Robertson's work in detail, both in Mallory's career and personal details (See Gillman's The Wildest Dream or Green's Because It's There for examples.), none provide the reader (including Pye's George Leigh Mallory) with such a wealth and variety of first-person sources. Robertson's book contains almost as many quotes from letters and diaries as it does narrative, and he reveals Mallory in a delightful and charming manner, fit for a relative of a great man. Robertson's family connection is likely why he glosses over personal details than later biographers would wallow in (See Unsworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History.) or explain away (See Hoyland's Last Hours on Everest.). I also found it frustrating (or perhaps interesting) that Robertson often does not go into details about Mallory's family life, but rather discusses his time spent away from his family, such as his climbs in the Alps or on Everest, most of all.

Robertson's details on Everest are by now the standard canon. So much was new at the time, such as the details of trip to America, or his forgetfulness in Tibet, or even his difficult decision to go back to Everest in 1924. His American tour actually gets more attention here than in any other biography yet written, and Robertson includes some quotes from papers prepared from lectures and some letters that are not quoted elsewhere. Beyond that, only Robertson's perspective and opinion is unique, with his argument that Mallory sought to be a member of the 1924 oxygen party as a measure to safeguard all of the climbers' descent, and that he chose Irvine as a companion, because there was no one else with as much experience to pair with the relatively well-acclimatized, but novice climber. Robertson writes an excellent book, and a fitting tribute to one of Everest's greatest climbers.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best of Outside: The First Twenty Years, by Outside editors

The editors at Outside magazine present an anthology of inspired writing in The Best of Outside: The First Twenty Years. Confessedly, I picked this one as a way to get Jon Krakauer's original article "Into Thin Air" (which would later be developed into the book of the same title) into my reading, but I found a great collection and some first-rate literature to boot. There's quite a range in this one, from the deeply personal "The Blackfoot Years," by Annick Smith, about her relationship (and a nation's) with a small and beautiful part of Montana, to the tale of a man who sets records by sticking angry ferrets down his pants in Donald Katz's "The King of the Ferret Leggers." The editors do a good job showing the breadth of what Outside can mean, with backyard stories and sports profiles mixed with trips to Peru, Everest, and New Guinea.

Krakauer gets the bulk of his point across in almost a tenth of the space of his book in "Into Thin Air." It's awkward to have read the book before the article, because I can't help but compare one to the other rather than let the article stand on its own merits. It's good writing and compelling, but it's also tough for me to sort out the information and assumptions I've gleaned from the book versus what's here. Though this is quite a long article for a magazine, it's relative brevity means that details are saved for summit day, and much of the rest of the story and gets quick coverage (especially the trek to the mountain, and retreat from the South Col). I'm actually impressed by how much detail overall Krakauer packs into 30-odd pages, defining characters within a paragraph, sorting through multiple teams' logistics, and showing just how complex a modern climb of Everest can be, all the while narrating the hypoxic tragedy that unfolds around him. He doesn't propose many (or any) solutions here, stirring less controversy than his book, and shows, with the death of Bruce Herrod, that few lessons were learned. It's a great read and an important and historic contribution to the Everest literature.

Monday, February 3, 2014

After Everest, by Paul Little

Paul Little profiles the man behind the image in After Everest: Inside the Private World of Edmund Hillary. Unlike most of Hillary's biographers, he shies away from describing Hillary's adventures or accomplishments in detail, focusing instead on the development of Hillary's character and the growth of his family and foundation. Little asserts that though the private and public Hillary are largely the same, few know the man as he is---most think of him as they expect him to be. Using interviews of friends, foundation members, and family (in addition to the myriad of print sources), the author shows Hillary to be a focused, driven, yet down-to-earth adventurer, who sticks to his beliefs and puts amazing reserves of energy into whatever he attempts. He ferrets out details of the inner workings (and at times dysfunction) of the network of foundations which support Hillary's work in Nepal, as well as the family conflicts which have such a great effect upon their operation. I appreciated Little's seeking of the man behind the adventurer, as all too often Hillary books, both biographies and his own writings (think High Adventure or Nothing Venture, Nothing Win) become "Jimmy Job" stories, with great tales of adventure and little substance. Also, as a reader well versed in the literature, I enjoyed Little's commentary and back-stories to several of the most well-known Hillary biographies, including Pat Booth's The Life of Legend, Alexa Johnston's Reaching the Summit, and Hillary's (and Tom Scott's) own View from the Summit.

Regarding Everest, Little shows that Ed (as he refers to Hillary throughout the book) had the right mix of qualities to reach the summit first. Not only did Ed and Tenzing have the motivation and physical stamina to push themselves beyond the abilities of their teammates, but they also shared an inferiority complex versus the British that drove them even harder. While other members of the expedition would succeed at their appointed roles, Ed and Tenzing actively sought out ways to exceed expectations and display their physical stamina, such as their "oxygen trial" or their leading a party to the South Col. Little also puts in a good word for Norm Hardie's unrealized Everest prospects, citing his success on Kanchenjunga.

This is a great book for readers already familiar with Ed Hillary. Though not a great introduction to Hillary, the book colors the character of the man like no earlier work. Little sounds the depths of his depression after the death of his wife and daughter, tests the lengths of his ambition, and shows how the drive that got Edmund Hillary up the world's highest mountain found an even more challenging and wonderful outlet in his philanthropic work for the people of Solu Khumbu. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Invisible on Everest, by Parsons & Rose

Mike Parsons and Mary B. Rose write a history of the stuff climbers use in Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers. Though they write a history that covers much of the specialized equipment used in the quest for the summit, they write in the most detail about their own areas of interest and expertise, with focuses on fabric development and women's early climbing attire, as well as the exponential growth of the domestic outdoor gear market (and those who made a living from it) in the 1960s through the 1980s. They trace the development of active cold-weather clothing from early polar journeys to the top of Everest, through the development of Gore-Tex, and argue that early explorers and climbers were not so ill-equipped as they appeared. Rose argues that women's climbing in skirts during the 19th century was more of an exception than a tradition, and follows the growth of climbing clothes for women from the earliest examples to the use of (gasp!) shorts beginning in the 1930s. Parsons traces the origins of climbing hardware, including karabiners, nuts, cams, ropes, axes, and harnesses, with detail on British and Continental developments, and some nods to US innovations.

Everest warrants its own chapter, with details on the equipment development for the expeditions from 1921 to 1953. The authors credit Mallory with a practical eye for equipment and a care for detail. Smythe gets major credit for his continual and conscientious attention to the developers of his equipment. I wish I could have read some details about Pugh. Everest was a phenomenon apart from the development of gear for the masses, but it had an effect on it, with early examples of down clothing (1922), the mummy sleeping bag (1933), synthetic boots (1953), and zippered pockets (1924), among other innovations. The public nature of the expeditions brought suppliers great advertising, and jump-started the careers of some young guns, while exclusion meant especially bad press for some of the established firms.

Overall, the book is an entertaining read, I imagine both for climbers and armchair enthusiasts. I appreciated the authors' arguments, but I craved more detail (which is probably why they followed up this book with the Mallory replica clothing project). I felt like the hardware chapter could make a book unto itself with some expansion, and that the clothing of climbers could easily make another. I loved the illustrations from old gear catalogs, and the many quotes from them as well. I think you'll like it!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ice, Steel, and Fire, by Linda Parker

Linda Parker writes a series of profiles of some of Britain's most intrepid travelers of the Modern Era in Ice, Steel, and Fire: British Explorers in Peace and War 1921-45. She picks an interesting and perhaps overlooked set, as many writers have already covered the great explorations of participants in the Great War, such as the Mount Everest reconnaissance, or the turn-of-the-century journeys of Younghusband, Wollaston, Bailey, and others. Parker's explorers head out to decidedly remote locations, whether crossing Greenland, surveying Antarctica, sailing the Aleutians, scrounging in the southern Amazon, or penetrating the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, and then apply their unique skills to the battles of World War II. Parker picks subjects with decidedly interesting stories both in their explorer days and their war careers, so some famous British explorers, such as Eric Shipton (who served as a trainer during the war), are left out. She includes, however, the explorations and war careers of George Binney, Spencer Chapman, Quintin Riley, Peter Fleming, Andrew Croft, Sandy Glen, Martyn Sherwood, R. E. D. Ryder, Lancelot Fleming, Augustine Courtauld, and Bill Tilman. 

Tilman is the Everest connection to this set, and a bit of an exception to the list, as he participated in both world wars. Parker writes of his crossing of Africa on a bicycle, a little of his African mountaineering, his exploration and climbing of Nanda Devi, and his 1938 attempt on Everest, before writing significantly more on his World War II career in North Africa, the Middle East, Albania, and Italy. The 1938 attempt gets about two pages of summary, with Tilman quips about oxygen and the weather, but overall dry treatment. Tilman's participation in the 1935 Everest reconnaissance is but a two-sentence interruption to the story of Nanda Devi. Parker analyzes a bit more Tilman's army career, such as suggesting why he remained a relatively low rank. It's too bad the narrative stops at 1945, as Tilman's exploration and war service blend uncomfortably as he pushes the limits of "being lost" while wandering round politically sensitive areas in Central Asia soon after the war.

Overall, I felt like Parker could have done more to analyze and explain, as this is a narrative of the grey areas between exploration and service to one's country. Too much of it was summary and exposition, and not nearly enough it the interesting stuff that can go along with a good story. The Martyn Sherwood chapter, especially, had a lot of potential to ask or even answer some fascinating questions. The stories are entertaining, but the book is more an introduction to the topic than a definitive volume.