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!).

11 comments:

  1. Vernon mentions a bit of history of Everest I hadn't heard before. He states that Everest appeared on a map from 1733 by D'Anville, in which the cartographer called the peak "Tschoumou-Lanckma." The earliest record I had known previously came from the recording of Peak XV in 1807. Hope to read more about this soon!

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    1. If you happen to read German, Czech, or Swedish, Sven Hedin gives the full details of the 1733 D'Anville map in his book "Mount Everest." The map also features prominently in Michael Ward's "Everest: 1000 Years of Exploration."

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  2. Hi Grant - Ken Vernon here. Thank you for the review but for your (and everyone's) interest I have recently completely updated and revised A&D - its new title is Everest '96 - and it has a vast amount of compelling and disturbing information on this dysfunctional expedition and its strange leader

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    1. Can't wait! Thanks for the update!

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    2. You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B014VMISCE

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    3. Mr. Vernon, I just finished Everest 96'- LOVED it! Not sure how you endured the crazy "leader" as long as you did, but I'm happy you shared the experience with your readers. Thanks and best wishes! Kristi Jones - Roanoke VA (USA)

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    4. Mr. Vernon, I just finished Everest 96'- LOVED it! Not sure how you endured the crazy "leader" as long as you did, but I'm happy you shared the experience with your readers. Thanks and best wishes! Kristi Jones - Roanoke VA (USA)

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  3. Mr Vernon, I'm almost through reading Everest 96. I met Ian Woodall in person just after he returned from Everest, when he gave a speech in Midrand and he certainly twisted the facts to present himself as a hero of extraordinary dimensions. What a strange person..

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    1. I also met him when he did a talk about his experience and "heroics" on Everest. He ran over by an hour and a half. We could not get him to wrap it up. In the end I felt very pressured to purchase his book. I am sending it back to this very egotistical and delusional man.

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  4. Mr Vernon, I'm almost through reading Everest 96. I met Ian Woodall in person just after he returned from Everest, when he gave a speech in Midrand and he certainly twisted the facts to present himself as a hero of extraordinary dimensions. What a strange person..

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  5. http://www.enca.com/coverage/everest-96?page=4

    very interesting read, one of the best i have read on the 1996 Everest sagas (all sides and expeditions)

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