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.

1 comment:

  1. Tensing Norgay plays a large role in this book. He ropes up with Tilman for the first attempt on the North Ridge, and he returns to pick up a second load left partway up from Camp VI after a hard day's climb. Additionally, if you know what to look for, Tensing is discernible in several photographic illustrations.