Sunday, December 12, 2010

Men Against Everest, by Eric Shipton

Eric Shipton writes a short history for young readers of climbing attempts on Mount Everest in his Men Against Everest. He includes each of the official attempts from 1921 to 1953 (including the Swiss), as well as the story of Maurice Wilson. He includes personal details from the expeditions he participated in as well as a general history of the others, with a brief analysis of their successes and failures.

Shipton speaks of these expeditions as a fellow explorer as well as a great storyteller. Writing about Mallory and Bullock's reconnaissance in 1921, he insists that their missing the significance of the small inlet next to Changtse is a common occurrence on such expeditions, and the traveler can be expected to miss many things when he is in uncharted territory. Correspondingly, his description of the view once he reached the North Col in 1933 could only come from a true lover of faraway places. Included in this work is a great quote I've happened upon a couple of times before about his and Smythe's dressing before leaving Camp VI for higher ground: "I felt about as suitably equipped for delicate rock climbing as a fully-rigged deep-sea diver for dancing a tango."

Earlier, when speaking of the Sherpas, Shipton tells us that Tenzing Norgay was a Tibetan from a village near Kharta, something that was not included in his biographies until Ed Douglas' 2003 Tenzing: Hero of Everest. Even Norbu Tenzing Norgay, his eldest son, did not fully believe his father was from Tibet until Norbu traveled there with Ed Webster's and Stephen Venables' Kangshung Face expedition, and met many of his relatives en route to base camp. Shipton, who traveled extensively with Tenzing when Tenzing was a young man, could certainly be one to know, and I was excited to find this information in a 1955 work!

Shipton also gets an early introduction to Edmund Hillary. He gives earlier details to the story of Hillary and Riddiford joining up with the 1951 reconnaissance expedition to the Khumbu region than I've read in Hillary's biographies. Shipton received a letter from the President of the New Zealand Alpine Club requesting that two of their members already in the region might join his expedition. Shipton was impressed by the New Zealand member of his 1935 expedition and welcomed the suggestion. In the Hillary biographies I've already read, the story begins when Shipton sends Hillary's climbing party a letter requesting two of their members to join his reconnaissance. I found reading the rest of the story quite interesting.

I was relieved to read Shipton giving nothing but praise to Col. John Hunt in his leadership of the 1953 expedition. I've always wondered how he really felt about being replaced by the military man, but I was glad to read nothing of the sort here, especially since Men Against Everest is a book meant for young readers. At least in print, Shipton is a true gentleman.

A bit that dates the book is Shipton's analysis based on his 1935 monsoon reconnaissance of the north side of the mountain, that the Yellow Band and the whole of the upper North Face is "absolutely unclimbable" during this season. It is actually this very route that Reinhold Messner determines as the line of least resistance and uses in his 1980 monsoon solo ascent of Everest. (You can read about Messner's adventure in his book, The Crystal Horizon.)

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Shipton knows how to write a story and to keep a history going for young audiences. This is also an easy, but enjoyable read for adults looking for a quick introduction to the early history of Mount Everest. Hope you like it!

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