Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Boys of Everest: Chirs Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation, by Clint Willis

I've been on vacation the past couple of days. I kept up my reading, but I've been away from the computer.

Today I bring to you all 529 pages of Clint Willis's superbiography of Britian's climbing elite, circa 1965-1985. The story is framed around the life and climbs of Chris Bonington, with some side climbs to boot, including the exploits of Don Whillans, Joe Tasker, and Peter Boardman. It includes narratives of each of Bonington's expeditions until the Everest Northeast Ridge expedition and is followed by a prologue of Bonington's eventual summiting of the mountain in 1985 via the South Col. Willis gives a summary of the life and climbs of those mountaineers who came into contact with Bonington during his career, including Hamish MacInnes, Don Whillans, Ian Clough, John Harlin, Dougal Haston, Mick Burke, Nick Estcourt, Martin Boysen, Doug Scott, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker, Dick Renshaw, and many others. Willis gives short descriptions of each of their childhoods and early climbing experience and provides details of each man's experiences during Bonington's expeditions. He manages to weave these mini-biographies into the narrative of Bonington's life and climbs smoothly and enjoyably, sometimes setting up the climb ahead and sometimes creating moments of suspense. The book includes more than just Everest expeditions, with trips to the Alps,  Patagonia, K2, Changabang, Dunagiri, and elsewhere. On Everest, it covers in detail the failed 1972 Southwest Face expedition, the successful 1975 Southwest Face expedition, and the 1982 Northeast Ridge expedition, and contains information regarding the 1985 Norwegian South Col expedition, and the aborted attempts on the Southwest Face by the Germans and Japanese.

This book is a great introduction to a pivotal epoch in British Mountaineering. Though it seems like a long read, it condenses many books (and therefore, thousands more pages) on the topic into one enjoyable story. I would not recommend it as a replacement for such greats as Everest: The Hard Way or The Shining Mountain, but it should serve to whet one's appetite for the course of great literature available on and by these talented climbers. Only one thing bothered me: Willis narrates the thoughts and actions of those who died upon their deaths, relating to the reader what cannot be known; especially chilling was the extended narration on the death of Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman, which, other than the placement of Boardman's body, remains a mystery. Willis is talented writer, and these moments are particularly artistic, but for me they call into question the thoughts he relates of the surviving members of the expeditions and leave it up to the reader to discover which are truth and which are art.

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