Monday, November 29, 2010

Mallory, the Swiss, and three for the kids

I finished Dudley Green's Because It's There, I read the Swiss Foundation for Research's The Swiss Expeditions in Photographs, and I reviewed three children's books: Joy Masoff's Everest: Reaching for the Sky, Scott Werther's Jon Krakauer's Adventure on Mt. Everest, and Mount Everest, by Sarah De Capua.

Dudley Green puts together a masterwork in his Because It's There: The Life of George Mallory. This book is a reworking and expansion of his 1991 Mallory of Everest, spurned by the discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 and a return of interest in Mallory's story. Green quotes first-person sources at length, and draws together a range of perspectives to bring back the spirit and drive of the man of Everest. Refreshingly, Green gives fair space to Mallory's life before Everest, and I've learned a lot about him that other biographers generally ignore, such as his passion for education reform and his devotion to the League of Nations. I especially enjoyed reading details of Mallory's tour of the northeast United States, since I knew little about the tour besides his famous quote to the New York Times. 

The Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research released Everest: The Swiss Expeditions in Photographs soon after the success of the British. There's not much to the prose; it gives a brief history of sanctioned attempts on Mount Everest, and also reminds the English-speaking reader that the Swiss had uncharted territory to climb, and that they provided the British with invaluable information about the route, logistics, and acclimatization. The photos are well-taken and printed, so the book is a lasting contribution. There is an amazingly clear shot of the Everest-Lhotse-Nuptse massif taken from Pumori that made a lasting impression on me. Also, the shots of their rope bridge crevasse crossings are not to be missed.

Joy Masoff's Everest: Reaching for the Sky is decent retelling of Edmund Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's summit of Mount Everest. Like other children's books, Reaching for the Sky focuses on the two "heroes" of the 1953 British expedition. Masoff keeps details simple and does a good job of explaining mountain-specific terminology. She occasionally oversimplifies things, and there's one funny editing job where Hillary tells George Lowe that they "knocked the mountain off." (Perhaps she should have just left that quote out, rather than changing out the "bastard.") I appreciate her acknowledgment that the work Hillary and Tenzing did after climbing Mount Everest was what made them true heroes.

Scott Werther writes a disturbing book for children in his Jon Krakauer's Adventure on Mt. Everest. Could be worse, I suppose; I noticed that there's another book in this Survivor series on the Donner Party! Yum! Of all places, it's in this book that I noticed juvenile literature's war of monikers for Tenzing Norgay; either he is Hillary's "guide" or he is Hillary's "climbing assistant" (as here) or worse yet simply "his Sherpa." While "guide" is perhaps the most accurate of these choices, since he had been high Southeast Shoulder before, none of them accurately convey the relationship between these two men. Werther gets the details right on Krakauer's climb, and luckily for the kids, he leaves out a lot of the gruesome details of the disaster. Even so, there is a lot of death in this book for elementary school kids.

Sarah De Capua gives us a good book for beginning readers in Mount Everest. The information is very basic and accurate (except perhaps the illustration of the zopkio as an animal that lives "on" Everest). De Capua is in the Norgay "Sherpa guide" camp, in case you're interested.

Next time, an early memoir that gives a little too much information, and perhaps an illegal attempt!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

No internet + vacation = reading mayhem

I’ve got a bit of a list for this entry, since my internet has been down and my wife’s family’s been in town.  I finished up both Wilfrid Noyce’s South Col (thank goodness!) and David Hempleman-Adams’ Toughing it Out. Additionally, I’ve read the authorless Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Mountain, Robert Roper’s Fatal Mountaineer, Captain John Noel’s Story of Everest, Showell Styles’ Mallory of Everest, and I’ve started in on Dudley Green’s Because It’s There. Also, I’ve reviewed two kids’ books: Michael Sandler’s Mountains: Surviving Mount Everest, and Robert Burleigh’s Tiger of the Snows.

Wilfrid Noyce’s prose gets a bit more interesting to me once he actually gets into the Khumbu Icefall in his South Col. (This book begins here.) The number of camps in the 1953 British ascent really hit me in this one. Noyce spends considerable time on the mountain, and unlike Tenzing and Hillary, he spends many days in each of the camps up to the South Col. This work provides a sense of place to the Southeast side of the mountain more than anything else I’ve read, and while others have worked, eaten, and slept from the Icefall to the Col, Noyce gives the impression of his taking up residence amongst the ice and rock below the summit. Particularly interesting to me is his account of working up and down the Lhotse face, both in making tracks to the South Col, and supplying the camp.

Hempleman-Adams has long since climbed Mount Everest by the time I left off last post in Toughing it Out. He moves on to reach three poles in one year, including an unassisted solo slog to the South Pole, sailing by yacht to the South Magnetic Pole, and leading a group of amateurs to the North Magnetic Pole.  He then makes another go at the Geographic North Pole with a friend, but they are hampered by their sledge maker’s making their sledges out of fiberglass instead of Kevlar, as they had ordered them.  He will get to the pole, he tells us at the end of the book. Just give him another go.

Communist China makes a reply to the West’s criticism of their first ascent of Mount Everest in Another Ascent of The World’s Highest Peak – Qomolangma. A large expedition returns to climb by way of the North Col - Northeast Ridge in 1975 after a skeptical reception of their 1960 ascent of the same route. This time, however, they take plenty of pictures, some motion picture film (so much for your record, American Bicentennial Expedition!), and install a semi-permanent survey tripod upon the summit of the mountain. The ascent is during the Cultural Revolution, and the book oozes with propaganda, both in photography and prose, including pictures of study sessions of the works of Chairman Mao and prose stating the triumph of science and logic over nature and backward religion. One good thing that comes of all this is the insistence that women are equal to men and can do anything that men can do. The expedition includes many women who climb high on the mountain and one, Phanthog – the expedition’s co-leader, who summits. With all of the staged photos and the Chairman-speak prose, this is a surreal book.

Robert Roper’s Fatal Mountaineer is billed as a biography of Willi Unsoeld, but it comes across as a super-biography of American Mountaineering in the 1960s and 70s. Willi Unsoeld is a mountaineer and philosophy professor who was made famous by summitting Everest in 1963 via the West Ridge along with Tom Hornbein. Roper delves into Unsoeld’s philosophical beliefs, and analyzes his philosophy as both a reflection of and the FOIL of American culture and the American climbing scene during his career. Ropes weaves this biography and cultural treatise around the story line of Willi’s 1976 ascent of Nanda Devi with his daughter and several of the well-known climbers of the 1970s and 80s, including John Roskelley, Lou Reichardt, Marty Hoey, and Peter Lev.  It’s overall a thought-provoking read, though it’s clear that Roper has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to John Roskelley.

John Noel’s Story of Everest is a thoroughly enjoyable account of his adventure on and around Mount Everest. I find the work in contrast to the tedious official-speak of Norton’s account of the 1924 climb, and I’ve found some hope for enjoying other early accounts. Noel first makes an attempt at reaching Mount Everest in 1913 by way of Tibet, disguised as a Indian Muslim traveler. He reluctantly turns back 40 miles from his goal after an altercation with the local authorities during which shots are fired, but no one is hurt. He also includes details on the 1921 Reconnaissance, a chapter on Tibetans, and accounts of his trips of 1922 and 1924. The writing is clear, and he speaks thoroughly on his job as photographer and cinematographer. Noel includes a lot of prose about the beliefs and customs of Tibetans, and shares a lot of cultural details that others overlook. Additionally, he never speaks down of the local population, but rather extemporizes from a clear sense of wonder.  A refreshing book!

Showell Styles’ Mallory of Everest appears at first a biography, but ends up a decent recounting of the first three Everest Expeditions. Styles starts with a chapter on Mount Everest and short history of mountaineering, and follows with a short chapter on Mallory’s life up until the Everest expeditions. There follows a recounting of the expeditions, not necessarily focusing on Mallory, but occasionally analyzing Mallory’s motives and words.  A reading of this biography gives the impression that Mallory’s life was these three expeditions, and that he was a protagonist, but yet only a character in his own story. Styles’ overall account of the expeditions is accurate, but this is definitely a book with competing motives.

This is getting long, so I think I’ll leave Dudley Green until next time.

Michael Sander writes a poorly researched and occasionally squirrelly book in Mountains: Surviving Mount Everest. Sander frames the overall history and culture of the mountain and its environs with the story of 16-year-old Temba Tsheri Sherpa’s 2001 ascent of Mount Everest from the north. It’s pretty clear that Sander read an in-flight magazine article on Temba and decided to write a children’s book. The information on Temba is sparse, and the illustration of the route he took is laughable (from Nepal, up the Lho La, across White Limbo, up the center of the North Face, and over to the West Ridge for the final 1500 feet).

Robert Burleigh’s Tiger of the Snows is a poem and illustrated account of Tenzing Norgay’s climb of Mount Everest.  The information is good, the poetry is enjoyable, and the chalk illustrations (by Ed Young) are snowy and warm.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A polar explorer's cakewalk, an early work, some kids, and the book that might beat me

I'm still working on Noyce's South Col, I'm halfway through David Hempleman-Adam's Toughing it Out, and I've read a short-ish section on Mount Everest in Buchan's Last Secrets. Additionally, I've read a couple kids books: Audrey Salkeld's Mystery on Everest and Christine Taylor-Butler's Sacred Mountain. 

Hempleman-Adams's Toughing it Out is a fun read for me since I enjoy the occasional polar traveler book on the side of my Everest As a young boy, he decides he will climb Everest. At the age of 16, he writes to Chris Bonington offering his services as a porter for his second Southwest Face attempt; Bonington kindly refuses, but encourages his passion. A couple years, and several mountains later, he informs a 1979 German and Polish team that he's coming up with them. He finds when he arrives in Nepal that he can only afford a trekking permit, and heads to Base Camp to at least check things out. The following year, Reinhold Messner ascends Everest alone and without supplemental oxygen, and Hempleman-Adams decides that there's nothing left to strive for in the mountains. He instead heads to the North Pole, coming up shy in a solo air-supported attempt on foot after cracking two ribs in a fall. He then bags the Magnetic North Pole in an unsupported solo run, and then heads to the Geomagnetic North Pole a couple years later with friends after a school boy informs him at one of his lectures that it exists. He settles down to run the family business, but then finds an ad for Himalayan Kingdoms in the paper. For the low (compared to a North Pole trip) price of 25,000 pounds, he can have someone else do the organizational work for him, and all he has to do is train hard and show up for a chance at Everest. There are no openings for the Everest climb when he calls, but someone drops out 2 months before departure, and he puts it in high gear. His expedition uses the South Col route during the 1993 post-monsoon season, and compared to his polar excursions, he makes it sound like a walk in the park. Two years later, he's finished the Seven Summits, and currently (where I am in the book) he's walking solo, unsupported to the South Pole. This guy can't sit still! (This book continues here.)

Buchan's Last Secrets is a 1924 volume of places that at the time, are still somewhat mysterious to westerners, such as Lhasa, Mount McKinley, the Brahmaputra, and of course, Everest. Since the work is compartmentalized and more of a collection than a storyline, I read only the Everest chapter, about 30 pages long. Buchan is surprisingly up-to-date, and had dreamed of his own trip to Everest until the Great War took over Europe and also the life of his traveling companion. He covers little early exploration of the region, but gives a good summary of the 1921 reconnaissance and the 1922 climbing expedition. He writes just a hair early for the big news on Everest in 1924. He is a staunch supporter of climbing with supplemental oxygen.

Salkeld repeated delivers on both facts and style, and Mystery on Everest keeps with the trend. This one is a photobiography of George Mallory, and she gives facts and photos that rarely seen elsewhere, including his naming Pumori ("honored daughter") after his daughter, Claire, and a picture of his taking a class of students climbing in Snowdonia. Salkeld gives a measured view of his life, choosing not to dwell on his walking off into the mist, or her own participation on the location of his body in 1999.

Taylor-Butler gets everything but the climbing right in Sacred Mountain, but it luckily (and rightly!) plays only a part in her book on Mount Everest. She gives an insightful look at life and culture in the Nepali side of Everest, and constructs a beautiful tome. The climbing facts are a bit wacky at times, such as calling the Sherpas on the 1953 expedition "guides" or that people generally climb the "South Face" of Everest. It is great, however, to have someone cover the recent Sherpa and Sherpani expeditions to the top of Everest! A very well-researched book from an outsider looking in.

And lastly, I'm still reading South Col. I can't get through more than 10 pages without nodding off. It's well-written, but it's just too stylized for me. I'll be reading this book for a long time. I will finish. I WILL!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wibberly, Ridgeway, Noyce, Stewart, and Hall

I finished up Wibberly's Epics, read Rick Ridgeway's Boldest Dream, and have started in on Wilfrid Noyce's South Col. Additionally, I have a pair of kids books to share: Kimberly Stewart's Sir Edmund Hillary and Tim O'Shei's Left for Dead. 

Leonard Wibberly resides in Hermosa Beach, California, and I don't get the feeling he's ever been to the Himalayas. (His book begins here.) He's a good reader and disciple of the Everest literature up to his time, but he also dramatizes and adds superlative to a lot of the facts. He also states opinions that make him sound extraordinarily dated, such as climbing Everest without oxygen is impossible, the West Ridge will never be climbed, the Northeast Ridge will never be climbed, small parties have no chance on Everest, and several others. He gets most of the facts right in the history of Everest, and the book is a fairly good condensed version of the attempts of the 1920s and 1930s. The account of the 1953 is a bit spare in the details, but I imagine the literature available at the time was equally sparse. Epics does not recognize Earl Denman's attempt upon the north side in 1948 in its history, but his and Denman's books were published concurrently.

Rick Ridgeway covers the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition (1976) in The Boldest Dream. It's a tale of what he believes is the first amateur expedition of Everest, but perhaps should be billed as the first American amateur expedition. Up to this point, with the exception of the illegal attempts of Denman and Wilson, Everest expeditions had been huge national undertakings, with the nation's best and brightest hand-picked by their top Alpine club. While the ABEE is still a huge undertaking, it is organized and run by what we would today call "weekend warriors" who happen to have a couple connections in Kathmandu and a lot of luck. They gather together 12 unlikely heroes, and head up the South Col route, and not only place two climbers on the summit, but also gather the first motion picture film from the summit.

Stewart's Sir Edmund Hillary is a nice change from other children's biographies of The Man in that she actually does a bit of journalism, and the biography is partly based on interviews with Hillary and his wife, June. It's also clear that she's read and taken notes on his other writings and the books by his first wife, Louise. Overall, a great volume for kids.

Tim O'Shei briefly recounts the tale of Lincoln Hall's Beck Weathers moment on the north side of Everest in 2006 in his Left for Dead. The book tries to be edgy and educational, and I think it fails in both regards. It is a story that kids are going to find interesting, though kids' parents might find it a bit of a tough sell, since it deals so plainly with death. It gets the story correct that it deals with, but the author should not have bothered with the additional "facts" about Mount Everest, such the bit about Edmund Hillary and "his Sherpa" Tenzing Norgay or saying the scientific name for altitude sickness is cerebral oedema.

Wifrid Noyce recounts his involvement in the 1953 Brtitsh expedition in his South Col. It's a much more personal account than the official Ascent of Everest by expedition leader John Hunt. It's nice to hear some of the finer details of the expedition that would make official accounts less tidy, such as the George Lowe joking around by removing his dentures, or George Band telling a newspaper man that was haggling him that their summit assault would commence with Spitfires circling the South Col. Should be a fun read! (Noyce continues here.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lute Jerstad, Erik Weikenmeyer, Lincoln Hall, and Leonard Who???

I finished up McCallum's Everest Diary and Erik Weihenmayer's Touch the Top of the World, read Lincoln Hall's White Limbo, and started in on Leonard Wibberly's The Epics of Everest. I decided to take a break on the kids' books for a couple days.

McCallum, I imagine, makes an excellent sports writer for his era. He takes a bit of getting used to for modern-day climbing readers. He can at times be very dramatic, almost overly so, and doesn't always get the mountaineering stuff correct. He spins and excellent narrative, however, and Jerstad's diary entries are insightful, and at times poetic. Jerstad climbs during the 1963 American ascent of Everest and is one of the lead climbers, with Jim Whittaker, on the South Col route. (The expeditions has climbers on both the South Col and the West Ridge routes.) He spends an amazing amount of time high on the mountain, and it's a real testament to the human spirit that he spent as much time as he did at altitude, and still managed to climb to the top and back down, including a night out on the upper Southeast Ridge. I recommend this book, both for the narrative, but especially for Jerstad's perspectives on life and mountaineering.

Erik Weihenmayer never gives up. He climbs and falls and climbs and gropes and has the time of his life beating himself up on the way to the summit. I got a little nervous when he gets to the Epilogue and he still hadn't climbed Everest, but had made it to the top of Aconcagua. Luckilly, there was an added chapter for his later summit of Mount Everest, by the South Col route in 2001. After a 13-hr ascent of the Khumbu Icefall, he wasn't so sure he was cut out for Everest, but true to his attitude, he works it again and again, until by the fourth trip up, he makes it in 5 hours. He gets into his element near the top, when everyone is moving at his pace in the dark, and the terrain allows for a pattern for the first time. He summits with 19 others, and faces a lot of reactions, from elation to criticism of his achievement. He doesn't seem to let any of this get him down.

Lincoln Hall's first Everest book is a gem. Though the narrative is a bit bare at times, the story is hard to beat. Five friends climb a new route on Everest in a semi-alpine style without supplemental oxygen and live to tell the tale. They are constantly in danger, and have several close calls with avalanches. I believe they climb during or after the monsoon up and around the Great Couloir on the North Face in 1984. There's plenty of snow on the mountain, and they take a lot of breathtaking photographs (Margo Chisholm, eat your heart out). He preaches a bit, at times, about the environment, but he walks the walk, and they carry out all their trash but their high camp tent (due to one of the climber's injury). An interesting side note: their liaison officer is Mr. Qu, the man who lost his toes and several fingers to frostbite after climbing the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge with bare appendages in 1960 to set ropes on the final summit assault.

Speaking of assault, I finally figured out the book that everyone keeps talking about, when they say that people shouldn't talk about declaring war on or conquering a mountain; they're talking about Leonard Wibberly's The Epics of Everest. He sets up his army against Everest in the first chapter, and as of page 60, hasn't yet given up on his metaphor. I hope that by the time he gets to the 1953 expedition, that Everest is no longer the enemy. This could get post.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

So, Sir Edmund, a Bear, a blind guy, and a Lute walk up Everest...Have you heard this one?

I've read Bear Gryll's The Kid Who Climbed Everest (or is it Facing Up?), am halfway through Weihenmayer's Touching the Top of the World, and have started in on McCallum's Everest Diary, based on the writings of Lute Jerstad. Also, I've read three young readers' biographies of Edmund Hillary: Kristine Brennan's Sir Edmund Hillary: Modern Day Explorer, Broughton Coburn's Triumph on Everest, and Dan Elish's Edmund Hillary: First to the Top. 

Gryll's book is certainly one of the more entertaining amateur Everest books. He may be an amateur climber, but he's certainly a professional survivor. I imagine someone in the TV biz read the book and called him up thinking the same thing. He keeps a positive demeanor even in the worst of times, and it makes the overall read rather enjoyable. He climbs in the 1998 spring season under Henry Todd, along with a couple friends, including Neil Laughton, who climbed during the 1996 disaster, arriving very early and summitting quite late, due to the weather. He is saved a first attempt by an illness, when none of his teammates make it past the South Summit. Three of his teammates join him on his successful ascent 10 days later. Now, if only he'd publish a book on his rowing of the Thames naked in a bathtub!

Weihenmayer is is another strangely positive guy. In Touching the Top of the World, he falls on his face thousands of times over, and keeps on slogging up mountains and rock faces, always happy to be there. After successfully climbing Mt. McKinley (oh yeah, he's blind, by the way), he decides to attempt the seven summits, and the Nose of El Capitan as well. It's inspirational to have someone shatter others' perceptions of the limitations of someone with a disability. Can't wait till he gets to Everest! (Weihenmayer continues here.)

Lute Jerstad is on the South Col team of the American ascent of Everest in 1963. McCallum, in his Everest Diary, weaves Jerstad's diary entries into a personal story within the greater expedition. I probably should have read Ullman's official account of the expedition before taking on one of the personal accounts, because I'm not sure how this story differs from the "polite" version of things. It is somewhat interesting to hear about the smallpox epidemic from another perspective. It seems that the Americans were unaware of the dire circumstances of the world below them on their way up Everest, that Hillary's Kantega / Taweche expedition had to face head-on. Hillary remarks in Schoolhouse in the Clouds, that the Sherpas find the Americans strong, since they carry loads as well; while Jerstad here remarks that he can't believe how eager the Sherpas are to do things for him, such as setting up his tent and washing his clothes. I'll be interested to see how Ullman deals with the death of Jake Breitenbach, as well as with the woman with burns on her face. I get the feeling that these moments, in particular, are likely to be different here than for official audiences. (McCallum continues here.)

Kristine Brennan's Sir Edmund Hillary is a mostly-respectable title. She keeps to the facts, and only over-simplifies occasionally. I'm not sure I like her telling children that Tenzing Norgay was "slighted" by receiving the George Medal rather than a Knighthood. I think the facts and circumstances are a little too complex and clouded by time for her to present her opinion as fact to children.

Broughton Coburn's Triumph on Everest caused me to notice a trend. People who write pretty decent adult non-fiction, such as Coburn and Salkeld, seem to write pretty decent children's non-fiction. Though Coburn's prose could be considered a little dry, his book is well-researched and not dumbed-down. He includes some of the famous photos, but he also digs up some that I haven't seen before.

Dan Elish's Edmund Hillary is my favorite of the three. His is the most thorough and interesting, and he is not afraid to discuss complexities such as Hillary's motivations or the treatment of the media after the ascent. A problem with the book, however, is its heavy focus on the Everest expedition. I would hate to think that Everest was 70% of his life, and the rest was kind of boring. Since Everest is my thing, though, I think I'm allowed to be a little biased.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The end of Norgay, an angry Messner, and the worst book ever

I finished Jamling Norgay's Touching My Father's Soul, I read Messner's The Second Death of George Mallory, and I survived reading Andrew Donkin's Danger on the Mountain. 

Jamling Norgay has many lessons to share on Buddhism that mountaineers and many others will find insightful and relevant. After the expedition, he returns to Kathmandu, and retells the rest of his family story up to the present, including the details of his father's life after Everest, the deaths and funerals of his parents, and the futures of their children. I suppose the publicists added the bit about "climbing leader" on the dust jacket, because he doesn't really get into that bit in the book. Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

I blazed through Reinhold Messner's The Second Death of George Mallory in two days. It's a relatively short book, and it looks like it was formatted to look a little longer than it is. It appears that Messner felt like he needed to reply to the news of the discovery of Mallory's body and perhaps also found an opportunity to rant. He recounts the climbs of Mallory as well as those that followed on the north side in basic prose, and includes excerpts from the diaries of Mallory and his teammates. He also adds his own (I mean...Mallory's spirit's...) personal feelings about what transpired throughout the book. There's not really any new information in the book, but it is interesting to see what Messner has to say about things, especially about the Chinese expeditions of 1960 and 1975. He also includes a chapter on the 1999 expedition that found Mallory's body.

...and the worst book I've ever read about Everest is.....Danger on the Mountain! Yea! It has all sorts of fun facts for children to learn, including: the elevation of Mount Everest is actually 29,050 feet (which is true if you round to the nearest 50, but who does that!?); Sandy Irvine had been on several Everest expeditions before 1924; after climbing out the the crevasse near the North Col, Mallory was only one day's climb from the summit; climbers must wade through hip-high snow to reach the Khumbu Icefall; and the 1953 expedition used rope ladders to bridge the crevasses in the Icefall. There's lots of half-true stuff that's not worth mentioning, and a bit of a faux pas when Donkin says that Tenzing worked as a Sherpa, and then he became a climber. The best idiotic moment in the book is saved for the Karakoram, with a picture of what I believe is the Trango Towers, which is labeled as K2, the world's second highest peak! Way to go, dude!