Monday, January 10, 2011

Everest 1933, by Hugh Ruttledge, part 1

Hugh Ruttledge's Everest 1933 (or in America, Attack on Everest) is such an important book in the history of Everest, and there's so much I'd like to write about, that I think it's worthwhile to give it two posts. It documents the return of the British following Mallory and Irvine's walk into the clouds and a grand adventure for a new generation of British climbers. Ruttledge overall has a more direct and descriptive style than Norton, and I've so far found the book considerably more accessible and entertaining than the 1924 account. I think Ruttledge does a great job of providing a sense of place and conveying with good humor the hard work done by the early expeditions.

Sir Francis Younghusband provides the introduction to the book, and he gives a history of the development of the concept of climbing the world's highest mountain. At times, he over-dramatizes, but his idealism is catching, and I believe some of what he says gets at why I read Everest books in the first place. He talks of the concept of Everest "as a symbol of the loftiest spiritual height of man's imagination," and he goes on to say:

"This record of the Everest climbers' undaunted efforts has come to be an inspiration not only to mountaineers and geographers, but also to that far more numerous host of humble yet ambitious strivers after the topmost pinnacle of achievement in the varied branches of human activity. It has even given new heart to many a lonely invalid struggling through all adversity to keep his soul steadfastly set on the highest. Its appeal is universal."

Friends have asked me "Why Everest?," and I often reply that there are more books written about Everest than any other mountain, and because of the relatively accessible nature of the climbing, a wide range of interesting people end up climbing it. I don't usually admit, however, that there's also a bit of idealist in me that likes to read about people striving to achieve their utmost. Also, like Younghusband says, I find a bit of allegory in the striving to climb the world's highest mountain, and I like that at times I find myself thinking, "If there are people silly (determined?) enough to put their lives on the line to climb a mountain, then I can certainly handle some more effort in (fill in the blank)." Because of this project, I read about people climbing Everest almost every day, and their effort, by extension, has become my mantra; instead of "Om mani padme hum," I'm daily reciting "Camp I, Camp II..." It's certainly not for everyone!

Back to the book! Ruttledge starts with a historical introduction to the climbing of Everest. He talks in some detail about each of the expeditions preceding his own, including the reconnaissance of 1921, the expedition of 1922, and that of 1924. I found most interesting the account by Charles Bell of his meetings with the Dalai Lama in December of 1920 and how he came to persuade great leader to allow an expedition to Everest. Along with the chapter is a photograph with the routes of both the 1924 and 1933 attempts drawn upon it.

Ruttledge, with the help of the Everest committee, gathers a crew and prepares to depart. On the ship to Bombay, other passengers are surprised to find out they were on their way to climb Everest; they were expecting a group who looked a bit more like Greek gods or body builders. Ruttledge's subtle wit comes to the fore at the end of this interchange: "They said so in the nicest way possible, and we agreed with them and deplored our lack of symmetry." The climbers and porters gather in Darjeeling, and follow much of the same route as previous expeditions. I found Ruttledge's account of their approach much more outwardly descriptive than Norton, and he focuses more on the journey and the scenery than the logistics.

Though the expedition arrives at Base Camp twelve days before the 1924 expedition, the weather throughout their siege is less than agreeable, and they ultimately get no extra time because of the early arrival of the monsoon and a series of westerly storms that precede it. They establish the lower camps in good time, and they overall have good luck with the health of their crew. Ascending the North Col takes much longer than planned, as their steps are obliterated almost nightly by storms, and they spend much time reworking their path. I was amazed to find out that they ran a telephone wire up the North Col from Camp III to Camp IV, and that Ruttledge had a typewriter carried to the Col for his dispatches. Additionally, the expedition is assisted in the lower camps by a wireless radio crew from the Indian army, and Ruttledge is able to get the news reports he is obligated to write from the North Col to England in under six hours. Quite amazing!

Up next, climbing high on Everest! Everest 1933 continues here.

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