Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Everest-Lhotse Adventure, by Albert Eggler

The best way to get noticed when you're the second to do something is to one-up the first guy, and that's exactly what the Swiss do in Albert Eggler's The Everest-Lhotse Adventure. The team not only gets two summit pairs to the summit of Everest, but they also send a pair to the summit of Lhotse, the first to climb the world's fourth-highest mountain. They climb Everest in 1956 via the Western Cwm and the South Col, with some variations on the original British route (or should I say original Swiss route...). Lhotse is tackled from a high camp near the crest of the Geneva Spur (set up for the ascent of Everest), and the summit climbers follow a convenient couloir from the upper ice-field to just below the summit.

Just about everything goes in these guys favor. The weather is extraordinarily tame by Everest standards, and the route is only shut down for a total of three days during their siege. For the most part (excepting their sirdar), the climbers and high-altitude porters remain healthy. The Khumbu Icefall allows passage in a record five days. The weather holds for three separate summit assaults. Even when a rope of four Sherpas fall 750 feet down the Southeast Ridge to the South Col, no one is hurt. It almost seems like Everest is apologizing for holding them back in 1952!

This is a whole new team, however, (excepting one) and according to the text, they get along magnificently. Eggler, the expedition leader, makes sure to balance the work-loads so that all can have said that they contributed equally, and none were held back to be the pre-selected pair for the summit. The team rigs a steel-cabled winch for the Lhotse Face to expedite loads and save energy. Additionally, several of the team are trained in explosives and use them to safeguard the route through the Icefall. The summit pairs spend the final night slightly below the level of Hillary and Tenzing's camp and have plenty of trouble with snow drifting over their tent. The first pair, Schmied and Marmet, get a relatively comfortable night's camp, excepting their four a.m. wake-up when Marmet has been buried by snow. They are off relatively early after that, and the marginal weather turns for the better as they ascend. After they ascend and return, the second pair, Reist and von Gunten, have already occupied the high camp. The second pair have a less comfortable night, as the tent has torn and the bivy sack has blown away. They make it up none the less and return fit. Earlier, as teams were stocking the Geneva Spur camp, a pair of climbers, Reiss and Luchsinger ascended Lhotse.

The book is a good read. Eggler gets a fair balance between providing technical information and writing a page-turner. Considering the scope of the expedition, it's a relatively short work. I wonder if everything was actually as rosy as Eggler makes it out to be. Everyone seemed almost too happy and hard-working! Perhaps these guys were actually super-mountaineers, but I get the feeling this was a bit of a revised history. Either way, their accomplishments, both logistical and athletic, are first-rate!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921, by Lieut.-Col. Charles Howard-Bury, part 2

To read the beginning of this two-part entry, click here.

The second half of the book consists of chapters by several of the expedition party members on their individual responsibilities. George Mallory begins with a lengthy entry on his and Bullock's reconnaissance for the future climb of Mount Everest. I wonder how Mallory's relationship with this mountain might have changed if Dr. Kellas had lived, or even if Raeburn had not taken sick on the trek there. I feel bad for these men, but I'm glad that Mallory had the opportunity to write these chapters. His style is more modern than his expedition-mates, and his enthusiasm for the climb to come is catching. He writes an adventure into the unknown, and he's not afraid to admit that he really doesn't know what he's getting himself into as he approaches the mountain. Even the glaciers are different that the Alps! Though he's perhaps under-qualified to lead such a reconnaissance, he for the most part makes up for it with his boundless energy and curiosity. Two major blunders are forgivable, though they cause him and others a great deal of extra work: his missing the significance of the East Rongbuk glacier and loading the camera plates backwards before exposure.  Their ascent to the North Col warranted surprisingly little space in the book; I was expecting at least as big of an ordeal as the later parties faced. I believe it was over in a page! It must have been frustrating staring up at the North Ridge and seeing a relatively easy snow slope ahead, only to have winds block the way!

After Mallory, Wollaston gives an account of the natural history of the area and tells of a side excursion he made with Morshead to a famed monastery and valley about 50 miles from Everest. I had not heard of this trip before, and I enjoyed finding a small forgotten treasure in the literature of Everest. The monastery was disappointing to Wollaston, but on the trip back he got a great view of Gauri Sankar. Additionally to this story, Wollaston describes both the animals and plants of the area they covered. His writing was only a little more thorough than Howard-Bury's, but all of the information can be found in a single chapter, rather than spread over the story of a several-month expedition.

Norman Collie, the president of the Alpine Club, writes an appreciation of the reconnaissance next. I'm not sure he read Mallory's notes or even listened much to what anybody from the expedition had to say. He extols the virtues of Himalayan climbing and generally has good things to say about mountaineering in general, but for the most part misses his subject. Englishmen, however, (if you ask Collie) are the only people who will ever make good mountaineers.

Some appendices follow, including Morshead writing in a general sense on the survey of the area, Wheeler writing about his trial of photographic surveying in the Himalayas, and Heron writing on his geological findings. I was surprised to find in Morshead's piece that there were four Indian surveyors and their crews in addition to him and Wheeler. It seems like the other men did a lot of the work, and Morshead did a lot of supervising. Overall, they added 12,000 square miles to the map. I also appreciated his review of the history of mapping the area, including the efforts of Hari Ram, the Indian pundit. Wheeler seems to have done a good job with the photographic survey. His duties included a very detailed map of Everest and its environs. The weather constantly frustrated his efforts, and his map was somewhat smaller than planned. (He was not able to include Cho Oyu, etc.) Heron talks about rocks and geologic eras. I'd like to say I got more out of his writing, but beyond there being granite, limestone, and gneiss in the area, all of which is pretty old, I really didn't understand what he was saying.

If you are lucky, there will be a set of three maps in the back of this book. The first is a large-scale map of the survey work done across the area the expedition trekked. The second is a detailed map of the Everest massif, and the final is a map showing a broad outline of the geologic eras exposed to the surface of the earth. I can only imagine the work that went into these!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921, by Lieut.-Col. Charles Howard-Bury, part 1

It a bit strange to be well into my Everest reading project and only now to be reading the beginning of the story, Charles Howard-Bury's Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921. Though I was already quite familiar with the narrative of this book thanks to my previous reading, I enjoyed getting all the extra detail absent from the paraphrased versions found in books such as Shipton's Men Against Everest, or Wibberly's The Epics of Everest. Since this is an intrinsic work to the history of Everest and it has such a broad sweep, I'll be breaking it up into two posts. Additionally, since there are so many good paraphrases of this book available in print and online, I'm going to stick to my own impressions rather than recount the plot in this post.

Howard-Bury actually only authors part of this book, giving a broad account of the expedition from his perspective as expedition leader and relating a bit of the geography of the Tibetan lands the expedition traverses. His account reads in a similar fashion to Theodore Roosevelt's trip to Africa, and he spends a good deal of time talking about the animals he shoots. I realize that I have a biased modern opinion, but after a while it began to grate on me when he talked almost daily about how the wildlife had no fear of humans and then how big the horns were of whatever he shot. It honestly didn't occur to me until he mentioned that one of the animals was served for dinner than he was using a gun rather than a camera! I realize it was more likely the influx of the Chinese rather than the British that eventually led to many of these species becoming endangered, but the attitude is largely the same. It makes me a little sad to realize what great efforts Galen Rowell went through to get photographs of some of the same species while on assignment for National Geographic when compared to Howard-Bury's minimal effort of only 70 years previous. I was vindicated later when (nearly back to India) Howard-Bury receives a letter from Charles Bell, the political agent in Sikkim who secured permission for their trek from the Dalai Lama, requesting that they stop the shooting in deference to the views of the religious leadership of Tibet. I recall that the 1924 expedition had a stipulation in their passport that they not kill animals in the area of the mountain; now I understand why. In addition to the game available, Howard-Bury writes much about the flora of area. I feel a little inadequate when he speaks of many of plants he saw. Whereas I can recall the name of most trees in my local forest, Howard-Bury recites the names of flowers, shrubs, trees, and mosses, sometimes even giving the Latin taxonomy of plants in an unfamiliar land. He seems particularly interested in flowers, and he also has a thing for large trees.

He speaks of their travels, and he clues the reader in on the difficulties of travel in Tibet, especially getting reliable directions, fording rivers, and the hassle of hiring new transport every couple days. The expedition receives warm welcomes most places they travel through, the hospitality including large meals and gifts of vegetables, eggs, and livestock. They cross a large area of land unknown to them except through basic maps made from the surveying of Indian pundits, and he is careful to mention passes, rivers, and compass directions often in his narrative. Howard-Bury seems unusually uninterested in the object of their reconnaissance, and he makes only short references to the mountain. His job is to make sure the expedition runs smoothly, and after the party's arrival near Everest, he makes excursions to check on each of the parties and to reconnoiter a second base of operations east of Everest. Considering the varied responsibilities of the crew, it was good for the expedition to have Howard-Bury's relatively hands-off style of leadership, so that each of the members could focus on their own projects, including climbing, surveying, geology, and biology. Next post, I'll cover the narratives of these projects, including George Mallory's sizing up of his mountain.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Conquest of Everest, by Mike Rosen

I thought I'd do another pair, so here's another young readers' book about the history of climbing Mount Everest with a conquering title, Mike Rosen's The Conquest of Everest. This one reads at about the same level as Brian Williams's Conquerors of Everest, but it overall has more information, and it's a little more entertaining. Additionally, it was written later, and it brings the reader a little more up-to-date. Rosen has a much better comprehensive history of Everest than Williams, including sections on Shipton's 1951 Reconnaissance, some information on the Swiss (though he reverses the order of the expeditions), gives more information on the 1975 Southwest Face expedition, and includes a section on the 1975 expeditions that included female summiteers. Additionally, Rosen includes relatively (pub. 1990) recent milestones on the mountain, including Messner's solo ascent and attempts upon the Northeast Ridge direct. Like Williams' book, Rosen spends a relatively large amount of space on the 1953 ascent.

Like William's book, Rosen includes a page of infamy. Though he really only has little slips here and there, the "Faces of Everest" page is a little frightening. According to this page Woodrow Sayre Wilson (actually Woodrow Wilson Sayre) made an illegal attempt in 1954 (actually 1962), which caused Nepal to close the mountain for two years (the Americans climbed Everest the following year), and Chris Bonington led a "small" team in an attempt on the Southwest Face in 1972 (actually 1973 and relatively large).

I want to like this book---I wish it was a little more accurate. The history is overall more balanced and comprehensive than any other kids' Everest climbing history I've read, but the fiction in the book deals it a heavy blow. Rosen is clearly well-read in Everest literature, and I respect a fellow Everest reader. Perhaps a second, revised and updated edition is in order!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Conquerors of Everest, by Brian Williams

Brian Williams writes a pretty good book in his Conquerors of Everest. It has an unfortunate title, but generally publishers come up with overly dramatic and generally stupid titles as a stipulation of a book's being published, so I won't hold it against Williams. His content, thank heaven, is not so over-the-top! Williams takes the story of Mount Everest from the initial mapping of the mountain up to the current (1979) climbs, focusing the book on the story of Tenzing and Hillary and their 1953 ascent.

His information is mostly good, with a couple blunders, but considering the amount of info he squeezes into a 30-page book, he does a decent job. Perhaps the one section to pass up is the two-page spread labeled "Chomolungma," in which the surveyors of the 1850's measure the mountains with trigonometry (mostly right), they never got closer than 90 miles to the Himalayas (Everest...), and the locals told them the name of the really tall peak, Chomolungma, and its satellite peaks Changtse, Lhotse, and Nupste, (named by George Mallory), but the surveyors still wrote it down as Peak XV (jerks!). A couple small things in addition include a map that shows the early expeditions climbing from the main Rongbuk Glacier up past the North Col to the Northeast Ridge, and also a passage that erroneously says that Doug Scott and Dougal Haston spent the night on the South Summit on their way to the top in 1975.

This book is an OK read if it's immediately available, but there's no reason to seek it out. For a young readers' history of climbing Everest, I'd recommend Audrey Salkeld's Climbing Everest. For a kids' book about the 1953 first ascent of the mountain, I had a lot more fun with Ian Graham's You Wouldn't Want to Climb Mount Everest.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, by Jeff Connor

Jeff Connor's Philosophy of Risk serves as a great supplement to Haston's In High Places. Though Connor recounts many of the famous climbs of Haston in good detail, his book overall focuses on Haston's personal life, motivations, and psyche. It's quite a challenge to get to the bottom of someone so inward, especially posthumously, but Connor gathers a wealth of resources (including Haston's diaries and letters), and he interviews many of Haston's close friends.

Whereas Haston's book has a very controlled perspective, Connor is more balanced. Philosophy of Risk includes several perspectives when things get controversial, such as Haston's deadly driving accident or the 1971 Everest expedition. Also, Connor is more thorough about the things that Haston actually did, so a large part of the book takes place in bars, Connor includes Haston's Eiger Sanction work, and he includes more than a sentence (as in Haston's autobiography) on Haston's marriage. Connor will probably get in trouble, however, for ranking mountaineers throughout the book.

Connor includes details of Haston's three trips to Everest. Many of the details of the first trip are a paraphrase of Haston's book, but the 1973 and 1975 trips are original material. Connor includes a lot of controversy that didn't make into Bonington's very tidy official accounts (Everest: Southwest Face and Everest: The Hard Way). I also didn't realize Bonington was so democratic in his team configuration, nor that Haston cast the deciding vote on Whillans' non-inclusion for the 1973 attempt. This book also gives attention to many other Everest climbers, as Haston climbed or was friends with many of them. Though occasionally Connor goes out on a limb (such as Haston's interest in the supernatural), I think he does a good job of analyzing the man who was such a public figure, yet decidedly inscrutable.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In High Places, by Dougal Haston

I've been having fun with the pairs trend I've been keeping, so today is Dougal Haston's In High Places, and next post will be Jeff Connor's The Philosophy of Risk. I can already tell that this will be a pairing of contrasts, because, like Reinhold Messner, Haston seems to leave out a lot of the unpleasant stuff.  Perhaps its more fair to call this a directed autobiography, covering his climbs and relationships to the mountains, leaving in a bare minimum of personal details. It seems strange to me, at least, that he leaves out his deadly car accident and subsequent prison time. I vaguely remember this from reading Clint Willis' The Boys of Everest. It seems like it would have a much greater impact on his career and climbing than the motorcycle accident that he does mention.

Haston makes a natural progression from his home cliffs in Scotland. He works from the local crags, to occasional visits to Wales, to the Southern Alps, the the Western Alps, and then to the Himalayas. I don't feel like I can really tell the difference between the big important climbs from the others in his Scottish climbing, but I definitely get the impression he was at the top of his league. He climbed often with Robin Smith, who died along with another Everest climber, Wilfrid Noyce in a fall in the Pamirs. His work in the Alps culminates in his participation in the first ascent of the Eiger Direct on the Norwand. Chris Bonington participates both as a support climber and journalist on this climb, and he later invites Haston on his Himalayan big wall expeditions. Haston, along with Don Whillans, attains the summit of Annapurna after a huge siege upon the South Face. Both climbers are then invited on Norman Dyrenfurth's 1971 International Everest Expedition.

The Everest Expedition was a failure. I don't often say that, but it really fell apart! It took them three weeks to penetrate the Khumbu Icefall, and then after a short climbing stint, the mountain is shut down for a week by a storm. The climbers are troubled by huge logistical problems: gear generally arrives late, most of the climbers are sick, and food is sent up daily but only occasionally arrives. Towards the end, Haston, Whillans, Uemura, and Ito are still working out front, and the others who haven't quit or died are too weak to be of any help, even if they won't admit it. There's an extended account of this attempt by Peter Steele, the expedition doctor, called Doctor on Everest.

Unfortunately, Haston's book ends here. I wish he had waited a couple more years, because I would have liked to have read his impressions on the 1973 and 1975 Everest Southwest Face expeditions. The book is enjoyable, though to the uninitiated he speaks a bit too familiarly about his home turf. The style is original, with short thoughts written as often as sentences. A great book for climbers!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nima, a Sherpa in Connecticut, by Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller's Nima, A Sherpa in Connecticut is a role reversal story for all you Everest climbers out there. Nima Dorje (at the age of 16!) was an Icefall Porter during Chris Bonington's successful 1975 Everest Southwest Face expedition. Afterward, in addition to portering for other big mountain expeditions, he served as an assistant guide for Bobby Chettri's Mountain Travel company in Kathmandu, where he meets Elizabeth Fuller. Nima was responsible for Fuller's and her husband, John's, daily care during their trek from Kathmandu to Thyangboche Monestary and back to Lukla. The couple was impressed by Nima's work ethic, his charitableness, and his friendliness despite the fact that he was slowly dying of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen. After their trek, the couple arranges to bring Nima to the United States to receive the intensive medical care he would need to survive.

It takes the Fullers six months to manage all the red tape and get Nima on a plane to the US. When he arrives, he is but a shadow of his former self, having dropped to 84 pounds and looking close to death. They arrange for his immediate medical care, and within six weeks he is well enough to take up a carpentry apprenticeship. He is still on the mend, and they supervise his health and recovery for the six month stay allowed by his visa. Additionally, the couple enrolls Nima in a nighttime English language program and provide him medical training before he returns to Nepal.

Nima is in for a culture shock as he adjusts to the comfortable living in Weston, Connecticut. He is introduced to a number of Western experiences normally taken for granted, such as television, retail shopping, and electric appliances. He also assumes many of his own traditions are practiced in the United States, such as Buddhism, homesteading, and polyandry. The cultural exchange makes for an overall entertaining story.

The storyline is a mix of past and present, with the tales of the Fuller's trek and Nima's experiences in Weston intertwined. I found it ironic that the couple traveled to Nepal to write a book, without success, but Elizabeth Fuller found material to write when they brought a bit of Nepal into their lives back home. Upon his return, Nima is promoted to a trekking sirdar, and he uses the money he earned and his skills as a carpentry apprentice to build his family a tea house in his home village.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Everest 1938, by H. W. Tilman

Better late than never for H. W. Tilman's Everest 1938! Likely because of the war, it took ten years before Tilman's account of the 1938 expedition was published. The trip was an experiment in the small and thrifty expedition, taking only seven climbers, and cutting costs wherever effective. The results are impressive, considering the details, and the climbers make it above 27,000 feet on the North Ridge in atrocious snow conditions.

As the reader crazy enough to try to read the entire literature of Everest, I was struck by the first page of the book:

"Some day, no doubt, someone will have the enviable task of adding the last chapter, in which the mountain is climbed, and writing 'Finis.' That book, we may hope, will be the last about Mount Everest, for we already have five official accounts, besides a few unofficial, and no one can tell how many more will be written before the epic is complete."

An epic, indeed! So far, I've come across 400 books about climbing the world's highest mountain, and I know I'm nowhere near the completion of my search. Tilman's account is the first I know of to speak of the genre of the Everest book, and I get the feeling he never thought it would go this far. I feel somewhat as though he has thrown down the gauntlet to me personally, for one day I do hope to put an end to this project by climbing this pile of books as high as any mountain! On page 11, he continues:

"Books, though they endure a little longer, are a less baneful form of publicity than newspaper articles because few read them. [Ouch.] 'No man but a blockhead,' says Dr. Johnson, 'ever wrote except for money,' a remark which is quite true of the writers of Mount Everest books who wrote in the first place to defray the expenses and who must now write to preserve the continuity of the story. Unlike the desert and the sea, mountains have not yet found a writer worthy of them."

Perhaps this is less true today, but I'm not going to offer up any suggestions of winners at the moment to avoid quarrels and a bit of critical thinking.

Tilman also, in a way, hints at the future of climbing the mountain. In both his account and in Appendix A, he states that if the mountain is surmounted with oxygen, people will continue to climb the mountain until someone has climbed it without. What's interesting to me is that he gets this half-correct. After Mount Everest was surmounted with oxygen, people continued (defying such logic) to climb it with oxygen tanks, accepting that additional oxygen is the way to get up the thing. Habeler's and Messner's successful ascent in 1978, the first serious (excepting Denman, etc.) attempt without supplemental oxygen since Tilman's, only seems to have raised the bar to those who choose to acknowledge such a possibility. We are still climbing the mountain, and with supplemental oxygen! In a similar fashion, there have been several grand adventures on Everest by small parties, such as in Hall's White Limbo, or Webster's Snow in the Kingdom, yet for the most part we trudge up the mountain in giant expeditions catered to the occasional mountaineer.

Tilman is definitely for the small expedition. He makes the point that all major ascents of Himalayan peaks so far (1948) have been climbed by small parties, including his own surmounting of Nanda Devi and Smythe's ascent of Kamet. His trip to Everest sounds considerably more interesting to me than any of the earlier official accounts I've read, more of an adventure and less of a chore. Additionally his wit made the text quite enjoyable. Here's an example from his descent from Camp VI:

"Amongst the crevasses at the foot of the ridge, where the storm had obliterated all old tracks, we had a discussion, about the right route, which threatened to be interminable until Lloyd settled the matter, or at any rate pointed out the wrong route, by falling into one; thus bringing an inglorious day to its appropriate conclusion."

I assure you this is only the beginning of this particular comedy!

Something that I did not realize about this expedition was their use of both open and closed-circuit oxygen apparatus. The closed-circuit machine either was not working properly or it did not work for the climber as it functioned, because those who wore it were worn out within a 100 yards of walking on the North Col. Lloyd was the only climber to ascend the North Ridge with an open-circuit set, yet Tilman kept up with him during the ascent. Both Shipton and Smythe got another shot at the mountain without oxygen, but were turned back by waist deep uncompacted snow above 27,000 feet. There is an amazing photo towards the end of the book of the top half of Frank Smythe sticking out of a snow drift with the summit pyramid over his shoulder. In the climbing gear of the day, that had to be cold! Speaking of Everest celebrities, Sir John Hunt makes a cameo in this book, by the way, in of all places the appendix on the Abominable Snowman! Now that's a good place to make your first appearance in Everest literature! I'll let you read that one.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ascent and Dissent, by Ken Vernon

Ken Vernon's Ascent and Dissent is easily the most disturbing book on Everest I've ever read. He chronicles his involvement as a journalist attached to the South African Everest Expedition of 1996. This sounds boring enough, but nothing is ever quite right on this trip, and the storyline gets stranger and more outrageous the closer this crew gets to the mountain. Vernon is in the sticky situation of being both a journalist and the representative of the expedition's main sponsor, South Africa's Sunday Times. Not only does he have to chronicle events as they happen, but his employer needs this trip to go well. Fate was not so kind to Ken Vernon.

The expedition was organized by Ian Woodall. Woodall's account of the expedition, Free to Decide, would lead you to believe that everything was peachy: three friends climb Mount Everest, they're a little inexperienced, but they not only survive a killer storm, they make it to the top, one doesn't come back, but it's OK because he's a MAN. Vernon points out that Woodall presented himself as a highly-experienced high-altitude mountaineer, a covert ops military man, and a military instructor of high-altitude operations to the Sunday Times to get their sponsorship. After the expedition, Vernon finds out that other than working in a camping store as a teenager and going on a couple commercial expeditions in which he came down with AMS at relatively low altitudes, Woodall had no relevant experience to climbing Everest. Additionally, his military experience was limited to serving in the British military reserves. Vernon also states that Woodall advertised the venture to the Sunday Times as a South African expedition. Woodall is in fact, not South African, nor was his assistant expedition leader, Bruce Herrod. Additionally, Woodall sold a place on the climbing permit to a Frenchman without telling any of the expedition members, and includes his own father's name on the permit instead of one of the female team member's. 

The controversies get stranger as the story moves along. Woodall will not allow any of the team members to help with the organization of the trip, even insisting on his buying their boots for them. Woodall tells team members not to bring money on their trek to base camp (They walk from Jiri, as a team building exercize.), because all their accommodations have been provided for. Overall, the trip is a farce and even a couple bucks could have saved them plenty of headaches. Woodall does not actually participate in the trek into base camp until the group wanders aimlessly above Namche Bazaar for a week. In his absence, Herrod fires the team doctor for going to make a phone call without asking permission. When Woodall arrives, he reinstates her, but later dismisses her again for dispensing over-the-counter medication to a Sherpani with severe burns on her face without his permission. (Oh yeah, she's not allowed to do any doctoring unless he agrees with her prognosis.) There had been much friction up to this point, and the three climbers on the team with actual mountain climbing experience resign from the team at her dismissal. Somewhere in there, Woodall also happens to lie about making it to the summit of Kala Pattar in front of his teammates, who were with him when he turned around early after puking up his guts.

Vernon is in an especially tough place with his employer. It's clear that his supervisors tacitly trust Woodall and definitely do not understand the rigors or the remoteness of a Himalayan trek. Woodall tells his supervisors that Vernon is the one causing problems on the trek, and the paper should be held responsible. They would like happy reporting, and all Vernon ever sends them is controversy! Additionally, nothing is making it to them in time. (Woodall insisted on being in charge of the delivery of his copy.) He tries to make things sound a little sunnier, but the poop hits the fan when the team breaks up. Vernon's editors insist that he put things back together. Additionally, Woodall tells Vernon that it will cost him an additional $250 to transport his gear to base camp from Namche Bazaar. (Don't forget he was instructed to leave his money in Kathmandu!) He has no choice but to return to Kathmandu with those who have resigned to retrieve additional money, and then becomes the enemy for traveling with them. After Vernon's boss travels to Kathmandu and finds out what's going on, he insists that Vernon get to base camp to continue his story since there is nothing they can do about the climbers who resigned. Additionally, his boss intends to make the trek to base camp. Vernon makes it to base camp, but it left to his own devices to get his gear there. He runs into Woodall on the way, and they get into a swearing match after Woodall tries to take the team-provided down jacket off Vernon's back. Woodall was running down the mountain because he's heard that Vernon's boss is on the way. They also get into a swearing match, and then Woodall threatens to cut the man's head off and shove it up his nether regions. The boss tells him their sponsorship is over, and that he will be suing Woodall to the full extent of the law. Meanwhile, Vernon has reached the South African base camp, and is told to screw off by team members. He ends up spending a night with Goran Kropp and then another with Scott Fischer's group before packing it in and calling it quits.

If you want to read about what happened on the actual climb, you might try reading Woodall's book. I'm not one to trust a liar, but I get the impression that at least their climbing schedule is truthful. I would not say that the journalism in Ascent and Dissent is spectacular, but with a story this outrageous, it doesn't need to be. I had to do a bit of research on my own to find the other "experienced" climbers' resumes, and other than Woodall's background and the happenings at the paper, I didn't see a lot of effort put into finding out the surrounding facts of this strange episode. I still don't understand how someone could pull off such a grand fraud as Vernon purports, and yet be free to climb Everest another day, as Woodall climbs on Everest again in 1999, and sets up another expedition to the north side of Everest in 2007. The events in this book left a bad taste in my mouth. I am, however, looking forward to reading resigned team member Andy de Klerk's autobiography, Sharper Edges to get another perspective on this one (as soon as I can find a copy!).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, by Reinhold Messner

To go along with Peter Habeler's The Lonely Victory, I've read Reinhold Messner's book about the same expedition, Expedition to the Ultimate. In addition to these, there is a third book, the official account of the expedition, Gipfelsieg am Everest, by expedition leader Wolfgang Nairz, but it would put me above my current book budget, so it will have to wait!

In case you missed the post on Habeler's book, Messner and Habeler are the first to climb Mount Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen. They do so in 1978 in the pre-monsoon season as favored part of an Austrian expedition. On their first attempt, very early in the season, Habeler gets food poisoning, and Messner climbs to the South Col with two Sherpas to make an attempt alone, but is pinned down for 50 hours in a storm. They return to base camp, and after four other men make it to the summit, the pair heads up again in strong winds to reach the top. Two other men climb to the summit after them and confirm their accomplishment.

Messner is in his element and in a world of his own on this expedition. I find it interesting how unintentionally honest Messner is in his writing. He rarely mentions Peter Habeler and only seems interested in the larger expedition when something directly involves him or someone returns from the summit. Of course, only the parts he includes are honest. The parts of the expedition that Habeler writes about in The Lonely Victory that make Messner look fallible or even human are generally left out of this book. Messner is very interested in his own thoughts and emotions, and he includes plenty in the book. Additionally, he occasionally transcribes taped conversations during important moments in the expedition, such as Robert Schauer's return from the summit or Messner and Habeler on the South Col together. In contrast to the way they treat each other in their books, their taped conversation from the South Col really sounds like a talk between friends. (I also found it amazing how comfortable they were at 8000 meters, sitting in a tent and having a chat!) It's too bad they came to such conflict after the expedition; they were quite a pair.

Overall, Expedition to the Ultimate is for me an entertaining read. I don't think it's one of Messner's better books, but that's a bit like saying an expedition was not one of Messner's better climbs. I always find it interesting to get into the head of this mad climbing genius. He's not for everyone, though! On a side note, there's a little bit of information about Junko Tabei in an appendix to this book. It's the most I've come across in an adult book written in or translated to English so far. (Matt Doeden includes some info in his kids' book, Mountaineering Adventures.) Even though it's not much, I appreciated seeing it, especially from someone like Messner!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Lonely Victory, by Peter Habeler

As promised, I've read Peter Habeler's The Lonely Victory, and will be bringing you Messner's companion work soon. The Lonely Victory is an enjoyable quick read. Habeler seems strangely human when compared to anything I've read so far by Messner. I get the feeling Habeler and Viesturs would have made good climbing buddies, with their focus on safety and following intuition. Habeler, along with Messner, climbs Mount Everest in the 1978 pre-monsoon season, and they become the first men to surmount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Up until this climb, these two mountaineers were closely associated, climbing harder and faster than anyone else around, including a single-day push up the Eiger North Face and an alpine, no-bottled-oxygen ascent of Hidden Peak. Afterward, their climbing relationship ended. According to both Messner and Habeler, The Lonely Victory is partly to blame.

In this book, Habeler states that he didn't mind letting Messner take the limelight in his earlier climbs. Although they climbed together, Messner often got the praise for their accomplishments, and if Messner's books are anything like real life, he is extraordinarily self-centered. Habeler lets slip a lot of details that Messner might not want people to hear if Messner is to be the world's greatest mountaineer, such as Messner's crying and begging Habeler to bring Messner with him down from the South Col after Messner goes snowblind, Messner's competitive nature with Habeler shown in the trek into base camp, or Habeler overall being more fit than Messner on this trip. Habeler writes in a matter-of-fact style, and it seems odd to hear someone portray Messner as a regular guy. Habeler's writing is so frank and unpretentious that it is hard not to take him seriously. I think if Habeler was fed up or angry at Messner, he could have made some lower punches.

I find it amazing just how fast and fit this pair is! They travel between camps in remarkable time, such as Habeler's six-mile descent from Camp II to Base Camp in an hour and fifteen minutes. They do a lot of the grunt work on the expedition (with 10 other climbers), establishing camps II, III, and IV, and setting fixed ropes up the Lhotse Face in addition to their climb. Messner spends three days in a storm on the South Col, and after his survival, they return to climb to the summit and back. Several other climbers make it to the summit and back, including two after them, who bring back a rope Habeler tied to the Chinese survey tripod as proof of their ascent.

Climbing to the top of Everest without supplemental oxygen eliminated one of the last unknowns about high-altitude mountaineering. Habeler and Messner had to face a lot of criticism both before and after their climb. It has to be quite a mind game to do something that so many experts are telling you will either kill you are harm you irreparably. Habeler cites the climb of Norton in 1924 to 28,124 feet as his inspiration to believe he was doing the possible. Habeler had both lighter and more effective gear and an intense fitness regime on his side. Overall, the pair came back with minor injuries not directly related to the altitude, and while they are both intense athletes, I would say their triumph was as much mental and psychological as it was physical. I really enjoyed this book!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Everest: Free to Decide, by O'Dowd & Woodall

I've been waiting quite a while to read Cathy O'Dowd's and Ian Woodall's Everest: Free to Decide. I had heard about it a couple years ago when I read Nick Heil's Dark Summit, a book about the 2006 Everest season. Free to Decide is actually about the 1996 South African Everest Expedition,`and it portrays a very different climbing season than many other 1996 Everest books. The South Africans get a bad rap in many books about the 1996 Everest disaster, including Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Boukreev's The Climb. In those books, the South Africans are portrayed as uncoorperative and hostile, and though they had the opportunity to save the day, they chose to do nothing. Free to Decide isn't written as a response to such criticism (It was published concurrently.), but I think it shows clearly how quite a bit of confusion on the mountain led to wrong impressions.

The book is set up with a mixture of perspectives. There are parts narrated by O'Dowd, some by Woodall, and also a third-person perspective that comes off sometimes as a decent mountaineering book, and occasionally as a cheap thriller. Also included are copious transcripts of radio conversations, though it's unclear if most of them are reconstructions or actual quotations. Overall, I found the prose tedious, yet dramatic. It perhaps shows a more truthful perspective of expedition life (bickering included) than the bestsellers, but a certain amount of restraint perhaps moves the plot along.

Free to Decide is the first Everest book I've read that covers the expedition from base camp forward. I think perhaps the authors are intentionally leaving out some unpleasant details from earlier in the trip, but I'm forced to speculate at the moment. The team members follow a similar schedule to many of the other expeditions on the mountain, and end up on the South Col on the same day as Rob Hall's and Scott Fischer's commercial operations. They arrive late, and chose to wait a day before heading to the summit. As a result, they get front row seats to Everest's most famous tragedy. Somehow, they end up being the only people high on the mountain besides Rob Hall who can maintain radio contact with base camp. Woodall makes two trips out of their tents during the storm to check on other expeditions and to try to organize a rescue and comes back with frostbite on his toes. The winds are enormous and the whiteout conditions and the cold prevent them from heading up the mountain to help. After the storm, the South Africans maintain communications with base camp, and render what assistance they can. They offer to go up the mountain to rescue people, but the Sherpas say that the South Africans will slow them down rather than help. After a frustrating day of being able to do little to help, they head back down the mountain. They later return to climb to the summit, putting two South Africans, three Sherpas, and a British teammate on the summit. Bruce Herrod, the British guy, does not return to the South Col, and after 24 hours is presumed dead. He was later found tangled in the ropes on the Hillary Step. It bothers me that Free to Decide states that he was sitting below the step, clipped into the rope, while Boukreev, the leader of the Indonesian expedition that was first up the mountain the next year, states in Above the Clouds, that he found Herrod hanging upside down part of the way up. It seems to me that the book contains a mix of fact and fiction, and it seems that the authors carefully control the information in the book.

I'm not going to provide more analysis of fact versus fiction just yet, because I know there is more information in Ken Vernon's Ascent and Dissent. Free to Decide makes no mention of Vernon, or anyone else who was dismissed or resigned from the original team on the trek into base camp. I think it's fair to see a different perspective and some critical analysis before I come to any conclusions, and I'll be reading Vernon's work soon. I don't think the South Africans were quite the villians others have made them. It seems more likely to me that they were too inexperienced to know what to do. For further reading on the authors' later adventures, see O'Dowd's Just for the Love of It, and Woodall's The Tao of Everest.