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!

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