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.

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