Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, by Brig. Gen. Charles G. Bruce, part 2

For the first entry on The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, click here.

Mallory and Somervell return to the North Col to climb the North Ridge without bottled oxygen with Norton and Morshead. Their advanced camp is considerably lower than expected, and after a night at 25,000 feet, three of the climbers ascend to just below 27,000 feet. They pick up Morshead on their return, and head back to the North Col. I had read several times before about Mallory's quick move that saved his falling companions on their descent, but I did not realize that in his own account of the close call, he chooses not to name who saved whom.

Mallory's description of their climb is followed by a section by Captain Finch regarding the second attempt with bottled oxygen. Finch's writing style is altogether more direct and he comes off at times as self-centered. I was a bit amused by his comparison of Tibetan music to the awful noises of the jazz band back home. His preference for climbing with supplemental oxygen is clear and he campaigns hard for it. He, Geoffrey Bruce, and Tejbir, a Gurkha officer, place a slightly higher camp with porter support than the first party, and even after a night and a day spent fighting a blizzard, two of them climb with bottled oxygen the following morning both higher and closer to the summit than the first crew. In his conclusions, Finch shows, based on climbing speeds, that the benefits of supplemental oxygen far outweigh the bulk and burden of the apparatus. He also talks about other supplies, and I was surprised to read his belief that cigarette smoking helped regulate the climbers' breathing while camping high on the mountain.

Mallory writes next about the fatal third attempt and also gets to write some conclusions of his own. He does a good job of carefully crafting his narration so that both he and his climbing partners elude blame for their being caught in an avalanche that killed seven men. I wonder just how much they truly believed there was so little risk in their traveling up to the North Col after such a snow storm and how much they let their desire to climb the mountain cloud their judgment.

I was happy that the authors of this book were allowed to disagree in their overall conclusions, and I agree with Mallory that it makes the book considerably more interesting. Finch and Mallory differ in many ideas, especially as regards oxygen and the number of camps above the North Col that should be used in future attempts. Ultimately, it was Mallory who returned to the mountain, in 1924, and for the most part his ideas were put into use. The 1924 expedition succeeded in climbing much higher on the mountain; it's too bad Mallory did not come back down the mountain to write about it!

Somervell writes next, about acclimatization, the colour of Tibet, and its culture. I was most interested in the third section, because he writes at length about Tibetan music. He gives a fairly good overview of both folk and religious music, and I appreciated both his discussions on the scales and intervals used in the music and his descriptions of the instruments used.

Longstaff follows with an update on the natural history of the area the expedition traveled. He talks mostly of their troubles making a collection when there was such a wide swath of land in which they could not kill any animals. It did not overall sound as bad as a Teddy Roosevelt safari, but I found it a bit painful from a modern perspective to read about Geoffrey Bruce killing and skinning a Red Panda for the museum's collection.

The book is a classic. This isn't a book about a summit so much as a trip into the unknown. It puts things into perspective when the authors discuss scientific opinions given before they leave that they would not survive a climb into such thin air. I'm not sure I would want to put my life on the line to prove an expert wrong! Because of the tone of the work, I'm not sure this is a work for an adventure reader, but I would highly recommend it as a work of history and debate between great climbers.

On a side note, if you enjoy reading Mallory's contributions to this book, his collected Everest writings have recently been published by Gibson Square Books under the title Climbing Everest.

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