Thursday, March 31, 2011

Coronation Everest, by James Morris

For an up-close outsider's view of the 1953 first ascent of Mount Everest, try reading James Morris' Coronation Everest. Morris was the Times correspondent attached to the expedition, who gained exclusive coverage in exchange for his employer's sponsorship. On the march to the mountain, Morris follows about a week behind the expedition, and throughout the narrative he stays well behind the front. He stays up-to-date both through radio reception and contact with the climbers as they descend the mountain. Morris climbs up the lower reaches of Everest on occasion, and actually makes it as far as Advanced Base Camp in time to hear the news of Tenzing and Hillary's ascent. He sends news dispatches using a crew of Sherpa runners who make the trip to Kathmandu in as little as six days. He also utilizes an Indian Army wireless station at Namche Bazaar to send his famous coded message that sounded like defeat but actually meant that Mount Everest had been ascended by Tenzing and Hillary on May 29th.

Morris is continually worried about maintaining his exclusive scoop on the climb. He is preceded up the mountain by Ralph Izzard (author of An Innocent on Everest), causing him great worry, and other journalists make it as far as Base Camp in their efforts. Outside newsmen harass his runners, and Morris has to be doubly sure both in the integrity of his runners and in the sealing of his packages. In addition, several news crews set themselves up in Kathmandu to scrounge any bits of information they can manage. You may remember Goswami, in Everest, Is It Conquered?, trying to sort out all the printed misinformation into a semi-logical storyline.

The author's style is currently a bit dated, though entertaining. A lot of his descriptions of people, especially ethnic, are not the sort of things one gets away with in polite company today. Though he's never scathing or malicious, there's plenty that might cause minor offense. At times, however, these characterizations bear enough truth to provide some insight, if not begrudging entertainment. Morris' sense of humor makes this book worth the read for me. He is able to make light of nearly any situation, but he remains respectful of both the climbers and his Sherpa employees.

Because Morris stays lower on the mountain, his personal narrative highlights plenty of details that don't get full coverage in other accounts. He talks glowingly of Mike Westmacott's daily maintaining of the Khumbu Icefall route during the second half of the climb. He relates stories about Griffith Pugh, George Band, and Michael Ward that I found interesting. He also reminds the reader that Michael Ward played a large part in any full-scale expeditions trying the South Col route by his insistence of a second, more detailed reconnaissance of the Khumbu Icefall and Western Cwm in 1951. Ward's being chosen as a reserve support climber for the assaults on the summit is seen as a poor choice by the author. Now I'm curious what Ward has to say about it in his autobiography, In This Short Span. I will have to investigate!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Soldiers and Sherpas, by Brummie Stokes

I'll bet I found out where Ian Woodall got his phony credentials before leading his expedition; he must have read Soldiers and Sherpas, by Brummie Stokes. According to this book, Stokes is the real deal, having actually been a special forces soldier that fought behind enemy lines as well as teaching mountain rescue and mountain warfare to NATO troops. He ascended Everest in spring of 1976 along with Bronco Lane as a part of the Joint British / Nepalese Army expedition, and went on to lead three additional Everest expeditions in the 1980s. His tale is an exciting one and I found it hard to put this book down.

Stokes primary career was as a member of Special Air Services (SAS) in the British Army, and he trains, teaches, and fights around the world. The first part of the book recounts his varied campaigns, including fights in Malaya, Oman, and Borneo. His sense of humor makes his early career entertaining, while the seriousness of the action makes it engrossing. He also travels to a range of other exciting locations, including British Guiana, Jamaica, Chile, the Canadian Rockies, and two years in Southern Germany for a wide-ranging career from the jungle swamps to the high mountains.

Stokes' friend Bronco Lane convinces him to sign up for the Army Mountaineering Association so that he can try for a spot on an upcoming Nuptse climb that would serve as a trial run for a climb of Everest. Climbing had already been an important part of Stokes' life, and he convinced the expedition leader through his actions on a shakedown trip to the Alps to include him on the team. He performs well on the Nuptse trip, despite multiple fatalities and the team's rejection by the mountain, and is invited along with Lane to the Everest climb. The pair works themselves hard from the beginning of the trek and find themselves selected for the first summit team. They suffer an extra tent-bound day and night on the Southeast Shoulder before their ascent and are caught in a whiteout on their descent, forcing a bivouac in a snow hole at 28,000 feet. Though both later receive multiple amputations because of their severe frostbite, they continue to climb and return to Everest.

Stokes' next expedition is planned by himself and Lane as an entirely SAS affair. They use a trip to Mount McKinley as a shakedown, before heading to Everest in the spring of 1984 to attempt the first British ascent of the Japanese North Face route that follows a series of couloirs close to the West Ridge. Things don't go quite as planned, and Everest sends them packing very early in the trip. (I'll let you read it!)

Stokes is back post-monsoon in 1986 for a go at the yet-unclimbed Northeast Ridge. He brings an all-star British cast, including Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, Paul Nunn, and Clive Rowland. They make it as far as the base of the Pinnacles, but low jet stream winds and eight feet of new snow beat them back. Stokes also talks about what else is going on around the mountain, and discusses the efforts of Jean Troillet, Roger Marshall, and a Chilean expedition. In the epilogue of the book, Stokes talks about his 1988 return to the Northeast Ridge; though he was struck by cerebral edema on the East Rongbuk glacier and eventually had to retreat all the way back to London, two of his team, Harry Taylor and Russell Brice, managed to make the first ascent of the Pinnacles. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Climbing Mount Everest: The Bibliography, by Salkeld & Boyle

I have been aware of Audrey Salkeld's and John Boyle's bibliography, Climbing Mount Everest, for quite some time, but was reticent to pick it up and read it too early in my Everest reading and blogging. It would have been all too easy to copy down everything they've done and make that my reading list (up to 1993, at least), but I think it would have felt too much like a guided ascent of this mountain of books. Now that I'm well into my project and have done quite a bit of my own research looking for Everest books, I feel like reading Climbing Mount Everest is more of a dialogue between fellow literary climbers, and I'm able to get some pointers from some more experienced researchers without feeling like they're taking me by the hand.

I've learned that I have a lot of languages to learn if I am going to read all the Everest books out there. Besides English, the number one language of Everest literature, I've got enough German to bumble through the books in the number two language, but I don't have any training in Japanese or Polish, the third and fourth most common languages for Everest books, according to Salkeld and Boyle. Besides these, there are books in French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Tibetan, Italian, Turkish, and many other languages. I don't have any intention of learning all of these, but I certainly intend to keep climbing to see where this adventure leads.

I've also learned that my research skills aren't half bad! I thought for sure that what I had dug up would comprise a small percentage of what was in this book, but I'm pleased to say that I've found most of the Everest books in English that Salkeld and Boyle did, and they really only have a major edge on me in languages that don't use Roman characters, such as Japanese and Polish. There are ways around knowing proper transliteration in foreign language research, and if I'm serious about my book lists, then I'm going to have to start seeking these titles out. In their bibliography, they also include promotional or educational booklets put out by expeditions for fund raising or lecturing that I do not intend to include on this blog.

In addition to a bibliography, Salkeld and Boyle include an expedition history for Everest, with cross-references to the books and journals that cover each expedition, as well as a separate section listing Everest-related journal articles. These were fun to read through: the first to get a sense of which expeditions get literary coverage and who's writing about them, and the second to see a wider demographic of authors, since it seems that a greater variety of people were trusted to write for journals and magazines than got to publish full-length books.

This is overall a great reference, though its publication in 1993 makes it somewhat out-of-date. I hope they come out with a second, updated edition. Otherwise, I may have to!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

To the Top of the World, by Mark Sufrin

Mark Sufrin writes a pretty good first ascent of Everest book for young readers focused on Sir Edmund Hillary in To the Top of the World: Sir Edmund Hillary and the Conquest of Everest. The book was written in the 1960s, and it has the inward-focused and naturalistic flavor of adventure books of the time period, somewhat like McCallum's Everest Diary, but more so. Sufrin tells of the expedition, from the gathering of the members right through to the lecture tours, and follows up with a brief telling of some of the adventures Hillary has afterward. There are copious photographic illustrations, including an impressive photo I've only now noticed for the first time, taken by Lowe or Gregory on the Southeast Ridge of Hillary and Tenzing struggling under the additional loads they picked up at Hunt's party's high point, with an eye-popping amount of space between them and the Western Cwm below.

Sufrin does a lot of quoting of characters and relating their thoughts that I don't remember from other sources. It all makes a good story, but it seems to me like he's adding to a non-fiction work. For example, there were quoted conversations from the divvying of loads on the Southeast Ridge that sound perfectly reasonable, but I have doubts since they are fairly interesting, yet never made in into any of the other books I've read. (Perhaps they came from Hillary's High Adventure; I still haven't gotten around to that important work.) The author, unfortunately, did not provide a bibliography.

There's an anecdote from this book about an Everest book I don't imagine I'll ever read. Noyce had brought a copy of War and Peace on the Everest expedition, and loaned it to Westmacott, who passed it along to Hunt when he was finished. Evans took it along on his trips to Baruntse and Kanchenjunga, where George Band acquired it. Band read it on a trip to Yalung and loaned it to Lowe, who read it on his way to the South Pole. Now that's a well-traveled book.

Lastly, there's a chart of a plan-of-attack for the mountain on page 54 of the book that I'm curious about. Does anyone know where this came from? It has routes drawn for Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse, with only seven camps (rather than nine) for Everest, and an advance base camp at Camp II, rather than Camp IV. Camp IV is on the Lhotse face, where the routes for Lhotse and Nuptse split off from the Everest route.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone, by Dennis Roberts

The mystery of Maurice Wilson comes to light with amazing clarity in Dennis Roberts' I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone. Roberts was the first writer to have access to Wilson's personal diary and letters, and he puts together one of the few accurate stories of Wilson's life. After surviving a 35-day fast followed by some heartfelt prayer prescribed by a crank for a particularly nasty ailment, Wilson decides that the world must know of this miracle cure. He knows that it would takes something spectacular to convince the general populace of this difficult, but heaven-sent cure, and hatches a plan to fly to Mount Everest, crash into its lower flanks, and climb to the top alone. Unfortunately, Wilson knows neither how to fly a plane nor proper mountaineering. He'll just have to learn! Roberts recognizes both Wilson's triumphs and shortcomings in his doomed quest to approach and scale the world's highest peak.

Roberts shows that Wilson was a man driven by faith and a sense of purpose, rather than the desire for fame or some sort of general neurosis. Unlike other accounts, I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone reveals that Wilson did much to prepare for his attempt, especially considering the short time-frame he gave himself before he left. He took flying lessons and practiced for long hours, though he was certainly not a natural pilot; he studied everything he could find both on climbing Everest and his proposed flight plan; and he gathered the very best equipment for climbing, including many of the same items as used by the 1933 expedition (They had actually prepared and left by boat several weeks before his own departure.) and a surprisingly lightweight oxygen set. Additionally, Wilson tries first to work with the authorities to get the proper permissions for his adventure, and leaves the country believing that he has or will be able to obtain all the right paperwork. He only works around such authority when they obstinately try to stop him using whatever means at their disposal.

Even if Wilson died in his attempt on Everest, his journey included an amazing amateur flight, given the resources he had available. His plane was an open-cockpit two-seater Gypsy Moth biplane, and he put both its manufacture and its range to serious test. The airfields in Africa and Asia were not well-provisioned, while the authorities were generally less-than-happy to see him, yet he often managed to outwit them while keeping things legal. As he arrived in Cairo, where his permit to fly through Persia should be waiting, he found that no one was willing to produce it. This should have ended his quest, as he would be arrested upon landing in Persia without a permit, but he finagles a re-route over Saudi Arabia and the Indian Ocean, including a flight longer than the apparent range of his aircraft.

When his plane is impounded in India, Wilson finds other means of approaching Mount Everest. After an illegal trek through Tibet from Darjeeling in record time, he heads up the East Rongbuk Glacier, only to find that his mountaineering skills are less-than-adequate for the trip ahead and above him. His inability to climb the glacier, and then later to surmount the North Col does little the quell his sense of purpose. He throws himself repeatedly at the mountain to the point of complete exhaustion. His final diary entry, from below the ice wall that blocks access to the North Col from the east, sums up his determination: "Off again, gorgeous day." I find it fitting and perhaps ironic that Reinhold Messner, in Everest's first solo ascent (in The Crystal Horizon), followed Wilson's planned route to the top.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey, by Göran Kropp

Ever since I read about Göran Kropp in Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I've wanted to read more about him, yet somehow I've waited until now to get around to Kropp's Ultimate High. Kropp takes climbing Everest to a new level: riding his bike from his home in Sweden to Kathmandu with a trailer for all his gear, carrying everything he'll need for the mountain on his back from Kathmandu to Base Camp, climbing the mountain unassisted and without supplementary oxygen, and then walking / riding back home. During his climb, he gets tangled into the 1996 Everest mess, though because of his schedule, he is recovering at base camp from his first attempt when things start looking ugly.

Kropp, in addition to climbing mountains, knows how to gossip! When he is interviewed by Elizabeth Hawley in Kathmandu, he mentions that Carlos Carsolio, who was also on his climbing permit, came close, but did not actually summit K2, as claimed. About the events of the 1996 season, he includes a lot of details and hearsay that did not make it into other books. He mentions that Linda Wylie spent a great deal of time in Anatoli Boukreev's tent in Base Camp. He mentions that Sandy Hill Pittman and David Breashears' spouses were having an affair together, and that Pittman had a token snowboarder for her tent. According to this book, Pittman is the icon of everything that is wrong on Everest, and just might be the bride of Satan. He calls the South African camp the psychiatric ward, and says that he helped some of the team figure out how to walk on ice. In the process one slipped and knocked themselves unconscious. You may also remember from Ken Vernon's Ascent and Dissent that Kropp put up the South African journalists after they were prevented from entering their own camp. I did not realize that he also put up Charlotte Noble, the South African team's doctor, for a night, but had to kick her out when she started climbing in the Icefall the next morning. I had no idea she even made it to Base Camp.

Gossip and intrigue aside, Kropp does some amazing climbing. After scouting his own route through the Khumbu Icefall and making some acclimatization trips up the mountain, he is the first to approach the summit, but arrives at the South Summit too late to continue on safely. After the dust settles from the tragedy of May 10th and 11th, he makes another attempt as far as the South Col, but is stopped by two days of jet stream winds. He then returns once more, this time climbing to the summit, but barely summoning the energy to get back to Base Camp. All this is the equivalent of ascending two Everests and another 8000-meter peak in less than a month! Also amazing, Kropp's sirdar, Ang Rita, makes his 10th ascent of the mountain, later gaining the moniker, "Ten-Time Ang Rita."

Kropp is very careful to document the assistance he did receive. On Everest, after he turned back from the first attempt, he realized his freeze-dried rations were not going to build him back up for a second try and turned to eating the fresh food being cooked for his film team and girlfriend. He also admits to eating a piece of cheese offered to him by Scott Fischer in the Western Cwm and having the ceremonial food during his team's puja. On his way down the mountain from his third, successful, attempt, he uses the normal route through the Icefall, because he is too smashed to return using his own. He gets an amusing bit of assistance on his bike trek in, when he stops at a "hotel," and is offered the services of the madam's daughter in addition to a complimentary room. He takes the room only.

For someone so critical of others on the mountain, Kropp needs to analyze his own actions a bit more. He complains that Pittman spent $2000 for a helicopter ride away from Pheriche after the disaster, yet he spends $5000 to have someone fly by and take summit photos of himself. He makes an amazing journey and effort, seemingly as a response to the way Everest is being commercialized and trashed, yet he brings a team of people with him who do not bike there or carry in their own food. Also, he complains about people disrespecting the god of the mountain by having lovers in their tents, but I imagine his girlfriend was doing more for him than rubbing his feet.

Though I am blown away by Kropp's adventure, I'm not sure I like this book all that much. I was somewhat disappointed by the incidental coverage of his bike journey and also by the reconstruction of the events of May 10th and 11th through the popular media, rather than sticking to his personal perspective from Base Camp. At other times, however, he gets too personal, especially regarding a certain commercial expedition client. He didn't spend much time talking about his climb on the lower reaches of the mountain, such as his solo trips through the Icefall or any of his acclimatization runs. On a side note, one of the climbers successfully sued Kropp for libel because of this book. This adventure deserves a better book!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Top of the World, by Arjun Vajpai

Before Jordan Romero topped the world at the tender age of 13, Arjun Vajpai, author of On Top of the World, was the youngest non-Sherpa summiteer of Everest. The 16-year-old climbed the mountain only hours ahead of Romero from the South Col route, and remains the youngest Indian to climb Everest. His book is aimed at fellow teens, and it tells the story of his trip to the summit of Mount Everest as a part of Dawa Steven Sherpa's Eco Everest Expedition in the spring of 2010.

This is the story of an Everest climb where everything goes right. The weather works in the team's favor, Vajpai is both in great shape and good health, and the Icefall and snow conditions are more than reasonable. Vajpai handles the altitude better than any of his older teammates, and he even finds the biggest piece of trash in their cleanup effort (a 40-kg rotor from the 1973 Italian expedition's helicopter crash). For those of you who are used to reading Everest literature, a telling paragraph states that he had his own tent in Camp II, but there was no heater in the mess tent and the food wasn't the best. Not exactly high adventure, but all good news for the climber!

There are perhaps more interesting things to be gleaned from this book than the principal storyline. Vajpai's ascent coincides with Apa Sherpa's (his team's climbing leader) twentieth ascent of Everest, who now climbs principally to bring awareness to the environmental degradation of the area. (You can read about his first ascent of Everest in 1990 in Colin Monteath's Hall & Ball, Kiwi Mountaineers.) There's a photo in the book taken from the South Col of a frighteningly snow-free Southeast Ridge, where even the two principal ascent gullies are almost bare rock. After his graduation from the advanced course with high marks, Vajpai's instructors at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering recommended he attempt Everest. Also, Vajpai's father was a friend of Jai Bahuguna, Harsh Bahuguna's brother, both of whom died on Everest in nearly the same location.

Arjun Vajpai's adventures are just beginning. Look out for his attempt on the South Pole later this year!

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Vertical World, by Jerzy Kukuczka

If Reinhold Messner was the man to break down the psychological barriers of high-altitude mountaineering, then Jerzy Kukuczka, in My Vertical World, was the man to break down the physical ones. Messner may have been the first to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks, but Kukczka did it in style. Save Lhotse, his first summit, all his climbs were first winter ascents or new routes. He states, "I have something inside me that makes me have no interest in playing for low stakes. For me it is the high bid or nothing. That's what fires me." In the early and mid 1980s, Kukuczka participated in the first winter ascents of Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, and Annapurna, with Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu in the same season and Annapurna by the bitterly cold North Face. His new routes included the daunting South Face of K2 and the difficult Southeast Pillar of Nanga Parbat.

Kukuczka brings to light an entirely different Himalayan experience than the Western reader knows. On his first Himalayan expedition, to Nanga Parbat, team members could not even afford a Coke on the trip to the mountain, because every bit of foreign currency they had was needed to pay expedition expenses, even after several days of tense negotiations on porter wages. A telling episode occurred well into his 8000-meter quest on his trip to climb the South Face of K2 as part of Herrligkoffer's international expedition. The team was required to provide proper footwear to the local porters, and Herrligkoffer arranged for them to receive Swiss-made wool socks of a make and brand that Kukuczka had always wanted to own, but could never afford. At the beginning of his career, he helps pay for expedition expenses by painting industrial chimneys on weekends in exchange for donations to his local climbing club. As he works through the 8000-meter peaks, his renown helps him somewhat in his fund raising, but his Polish expeditions are never extravagant affairs. He works the system as best he can, getting in trouble for climbing Gasherbrum II without a permit, ascending Broad Peak as "acclimatization" for K2, and informing the expedition leaders of the Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu winter climbs that he was on both permits at the last moment.

The dual winter ascent is possibly the most amazing voluntary physical feat I've read about. His Dhualagiri ascent involved four bivouacs in the open in -50 degrees and colder, mostly in snow trenches, and three days without food or water. (He received frostbite in both feet.) The day after arriving in Base Camp from said winter hell, he leaves via a shortcut to the nearest airport, heading over two very high and treacherous passes alone, again often spending the night in the open, and finding the flights canceled, walks the distance of the flight in three days. He catches a plane to Lukla and hikes to Cho Oyu Base Camp in another three days, and the next day heads up Cho Oyu, days later summits, and barely lasts through the descent, again without food or water and with open bivouacs. Somehow, he's feeling pretty good as the Cho Oyu team descends to Namche Bazaar. I swear this man loves pain!

On Everest, Kukuczka joins the second half of a Polish expedition in 1980. The first climb was the first winter ascent of the mountain (by Wielicki and Cichy), which he missed to attend the birth of his first child. His was a follow-up spring ascent that put up a new route on the South Face of the mountain. He and a partner ascended slightly to the East of the South Pillar and followed the face (bypassing the South Col) up to the South Summit before finishing the Southeast Ridge to the main summit. Also during the story of his 1979 Lhotse trip, he comments on the 1979 international Everest expedition that put Ray Genet and Hannelore Schmatz on the summit, but did not bring them home. (Hannelore was a bit of an icon in Everest lore, since her well-preserved and comfortably reclining body greeted climbers just above the South Col for over 20 years after her death until her remains finally blew over the Kangshung Face.)

This book serves as an excellent introduction to the Polish Himalayan mountaineering phenomenon. Polish climbers have gained a reputation for ascending extraordinarily hard routes in the worst of conditions. The book is hard to come by (Copies are currently going for $130 and up online.), but I found it a very hard book to put down once I started reading it. I'm not sure any book is worth $130 to read it, but if you can borrow a copy (as I have), or find one at a store that doesn't know what it has, go for it!

Kukuczka died a couple years after completing the 14 8000-meter peaks while trying to mend the asterisk in his list (his normal-route ascent of Lhotse) by attempting the unclimbed South Face of Lhotse. He fell to his death after his second-hand rope snapped during a fall.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Life on an Everest Expedition, by Patricia Netzley

If you're a young reader and want to learn all about what it's like to climb the world's highest mountain, try reading Life on an Everest Expedition, by Patricia Netzley. She writes it textbook-style, both in prose and formatting, and includes a wealth of quotes from Everest climbers. She fills the book with information and includes many details that others gloss over. Also, Life on an Everest Expedition is part of "The Way People Live" series, so part of its purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes about the subjects. As such, Netzley includes a lot of words like "generally," "most," and "sometimes," avoiding a lot of the half-truths found in other books for young readers.  She writes about a range of expeditions from the early trials to the modern commercial expeditions. She focuses most of her attention on the commercial expedition life, however, since this is the most likely way someone will experience Everest currently.

A couple small things bothered me about this book. For a book from a series geared towards dispelling stereotypes, there are still a couple more in the text than I would have liked, most notably about the Sherpas, but also about climbers' motivations. A couple of the photographs bothered me, but shouldn't detract from the overall book, because they had been flipped, and the summit ridge had cornices hanging off the wrong direction (or in one, Lhotse is on the wrong side of the ridge line). There was also an amusing statistic about 400,000 people visiting Everest Base Camp in 1996.

All that said, however, this is a good book. Netzley has done her homework, and she cites a number of sources. What's more, it seems like she actually read them! Though to some degree this book is Everest as viewed through books, it's the only Everest I know, and it all was quite familiar and enjoyable to me. I always appreciate a fellow reader, and I appreciate even more a careful writer. Life on an Everest Expedition rates highly with me.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

George Leigh Mallory: A Memoir, by David Pye

I wanted to read a special book for my 100th blog post, but David Pye's George Leigh Mallory: A Memoir took a little longer to arrive than planned. Since the work is now in the public domain (published 1927), you can always buy a print-on-demand version for as little as $15. I had the opportunity, however, to read from a borrowed first edition. I'm a fan of reading from older books, and this one has especially nice paper and printing; the printer, John Johnson, even included his name on the endpapers.

Pye was a close personal friend and climbing partner of Mallory's, and more than any other I've read, Pye's book reveals the personal, rather than the legendary, attributes of the man of Everest. (Dudley Green comes in a well-written, but more academic than familiar second in his Because It's There.) He includes in his memoir a number of letters from Mallory to him and other close friends that show a much more complete man than the energetic climber and man obsessed that you find in the official accounts and the history books. While this book includes Mallory's three trips to Mount Everest, it gives them equal space with his many other passions and activities that filled his life. Instead of the traditional review, I thought it might be fun to share some unlikely or otherwise interesting quotes from Mallory's writing found in George Leigh Mallory:

"A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony. Andante, adantissimo sometimes, is the first movement---the grim, sickening plod up the moraine. But how forgotten when the blue light of dawn flickers over the hard, clean snow! The new motif is ushered in, as it were, very gently on the lesser wind instruments, hautboys, and flutes, remote but melodious and infinitely hopeful, caught by the violins in the growing light, and torn out by all the bows with quivering chords as the summits, one by one, are enmeshed in the gold web of day, till at last the whole band, in triumphant accord, has seized the air and romps in magnificent frolic, because there you are at last marching, all a-tingle with warm blood, under the sun. And so throughout the day successive moods induce the symphonic whole---allegro while you break the back of an expedition and the issue is still in doubt; scherzo, perhaps, as you leap up  the final rocks of the arete or cut steps in a last short slope, with the ice-chips dancing and swimming and bubbling and bounding with magic gaiety over the crisp surface in their mad glissade; and then, for the descent, sometimes again andante, because, while the summit was still to win, you forgot that the business of descending may be serious and long; but in the end scherzo once more---with the brakes on for sunset."

"The great majority of men are in a sense artists; some are active and creative, and some participate passively No doubt those who create differ in some way fundamentally from those who do not create; but they hold this artistic impulse in common: all alike desire expression for the emotional side of their nature."

"I was just wishing the other day that I could know the individual minimum, as I call it to myself, for every one---the least a man would be content to leave behind as his share of life accomplished. Wouldn't one know something if one could know that?"

"We must think with all our minds; . . . think with imagination and sympathetically; think passionately and, not less, think calmly, without prejudice and critically---think, and when we think, devote ourselves to learning what is right for England."

before descending the Lhakpa La at the end of the reconnaissance of 1921: "I begin to feel that sort of malaise one has before putting a great matter to the touch. At what point am I going to stop? It's going to be a fearfully difficult decision; there's an incalculable element about other men's physical condition, and all the more so under these strange conditions. I almost hope I shall be the first to give out!"

during the 1921 reconnaissance: "I sometimes think of this expedition as a fraud from beginning to end invented by the wild enthusiasm of one man---Younghusband, puffed up by the would-be wisdom of certain pundits in the Alpine Club, and imposed upon the youthful ardour of your humble servant. Certainly the reality must be strangely different from their dream. The long imagined snow slopes of this Northern face of Everest with their gentle and inviting angle turn out to be the most appalling precipice, nearly 10,000 feet high . . . The prospect of ascent in any direction is about nil and our present job is to run our noses against the impossible in such a way as to persuade mankind that some noble heroism has failed once again."

before the third attempt that killed seven porters in 1922: "Frankly the game is not good enough. The risks of getting caught are too great; the margin of strength when men are at great heights is too small. Perhaps it's mere folly to go up again. But how can I be out of the hunt?"

from his last posted letter before disappearing into the clouds: "I can write but one line. We are on the point of moving up again and the adventure appears more desperate than ever."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eiger Dreams, by Jon Krakauer

Well before Jon Krakauer became a household name through his bestseller, Into Thin Air, he had written a series of mountaineering articles published under the title Eiger Dreams. The articles cover a number of topics, including the Alps, Alaska, famous mountaineers, and the Himalaya. This book seemed a bit premature to me: though he frames his subjects well and is good at leading the reader down the page, his style and perspective, especially in the earlier articles, seem somewhat immature and isolated to me, especially compared to his later writing. That's not to say the book isn't fun, though! Krakauer includes two articles with plenty of Everest exposure, one about a recent survey that had measured K2 to be higher than Everest, and another about the Burgess twins. Also, in the title piece, he attempts the North Face of the Eiger with future Everest climber Mark Twight.

In the first article, Krakauer turns the news of K2's fast and dirty survey in 1986 into a history lesson of the search for and survey of the world's highest peak. He explains the methods of surveying, both vintage and modern, as well as their advantages and disadvantages. He tells of the survey of Everest and relates the search for the mountains that might be higher than Everest, including Minya Konka and Anye Machin. An American party surveyed and climbed Minya Konka in 1932 as war broke out in eastern China, finding it to be 25,600 feet in elevation, rather than its supposed 30,000 feet. (You can read about their adventure in the jointly-written Men Against the Clouds.) Additionally, though Anye Machin was also claimed to be 30,000 feet, it was later surveyed as a disappointing 20,610. Later surveys of K2 by an Italian party (with vested interest in its being the world's highest, as Italians were the first to summit K2), showed fairly conclusively that the 1986 survey was in error, and Everest remains on top. Kudos for their honesty!

The Burgess boys, Adrian and Alan, are a late holdover from the Bonington crew of rowdy, hard-drinking and hard-climbing mountaineers. Everest readers may remember them from Joe Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way or Alan Burgess' Everest Canada. Krakauer tells of the controversial pair's exploits on and off the mountain, discussing both their struggles to make a living as climbers and their difficult, but often unsuccessful climbs, including an alpine attempt of Lhotse Shar, a winter attempt of Everest, and an attempt at the Pinnacles of Everest's Northeast Ridge. They also now have an autobiography out, The Burgess Book of Lies, that I plan to cover sometime in April.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Epic of Mount Everest, by Sir Francis Younghusband

If the official accounts of the Mount Everest climbs of the 1920s were a little too dry and lengthy for you, but you still want the feel of an older book, try out Sir Francis Younghusband's The Epic of Mount Everest. He takes the official accounts of the 1921 Reconnaissance, the 1922 Assault, and the 1924 Fight and distills them down into a 300-page unified narrative, pouring on the drama. Everest readers will remember Younghusband for his 1904 campaign through Tibet to Lhasa to secure British interests in the country, his chairmanship of the Mount Everest Committee, and his Forewords of the Everest accounts of the 1920s and 1930s.

The book does add some information to the literature of Everest. Younghusband includes his perspective as well an account of his participation in these early trips. He tells of the formation of the Mount Everest Committee and writes about the choosing of leaders for the expedition (which differed slightly from other sources). Though the storyline is taken direct from the official accounts, Younghusband often adds analysis or explains things for the uninitiated. His narrative is quite Mallory-centric, and he uses quite a bit of superlative when describing the climbers and their actions. The part I appreciated most was Younghusband's inclusion of the eulogy given by the Dean of St. Paul's (who somehow surpasses Younghusband in his grandiose style). I found the gathering of the climbers of all three expeditions, the royal family, and the members of the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society to celebrate the fallen a much better end to the story than the varied appendices at the end of Norton's 1924 Fight for Everest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Our Everest Adventure, by Sir John Hunt

Sir John Hunt's Our Everest Adventure is one of a number of titles released soon after the 1953 successful ascent of Mount Everest. This is perhaps the compromise title between Hunt's The Ascent of Everest and Alfred Gregory's The Picture of Everest, with both text and pictures throughout. It's a good read for people who have a magazine attention-span who would like to read and see the story of the first ascent. (The layout looks strikingly like a concurrent issue of Life magazine.) The text is actually a abridgment of The Ascent of Everest, and since it has been a while since I read the larger work, I read this one through. The condensed version is good, though I think it doesn't quite give the feel of the seriousness of the effort, either logistical or physical of climbing the mountain. (However, Hunt does admit the difficulty of this in his introduction.) Some of the photo captions help get the scale of Everest, though, when they give distances in miles for things that appear quite close.

There are pictures pretty much every page in this one, and the book is worth a look through even just for the photos. The pictures are for the most part in a documentary style and include photographs from many of the climbers. The icefall work gets good coverage, and there are also many photos from high on the mountain, including several of Hillary's photographs from the summit climb. I had not seen the other two pictures of Tenzing holding the flags aloft before reading this book. I can understand why only one has become famous. One turned out poorly, with Tenzing an unlit silhouette, but the other is interesting: Tenzing in an awkward posture holding his ice ax with both hands, one on top and one on bottom with the flags flying in between. Overall, a fun read for a lazy afternoon!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Mountaineers Anthology Series, Vol. IV: Everest, edited by Peter Potterfield

Mountaineers Books have released a number of titles on Everest, and Peter Potterfield provides a sampling in the fourth volume of The Mountaineers Anthology Series. This is one of a number of titles that takes advantage of the 50-year anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest. It includes excerpts from Mountaineers' previously published works on the mountain, covering the range of the mountain's expedition history. I've read three of the books before I started this blog, Shipton's Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1951, John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, and Tom Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge. I've covered four of the books on this blog already: Reinhold Messner's Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, his The Crystal Horizon: Everest - The First Solo Ascent (my first post!), Jochen Hemmleb's Ghosts of Everest, and his Detectives on Everest. I plan to get to the rest of the books in this anthology before the end of the year, including Peter and Leni Gillman's The Wildest Dream (about George Mallory), Frank Smythe's Camp Six, H. W. Tilman's Nepal Himalaya, Jim Whittaker's A Life on the Edge (already waiting on my bookshelf), and Walt Unsworth's Everest: A Mountaineering History (just ordered it, very excited!). There are three parts, however, that are unique to this book in print: Tom Hornbein's Foreword, Peter Potterfield's Introduction, and a Mountainzone article by Dave Hahn about the Death Zone rescue he and his teammates made in 2001.

Hornbein's Foreword is essentially a truncated history of climbing Everest. He states that moutaineers' relationship to the mountain has matured and shows how the approaches, both physical and psychological have changed over the years. I was intrigued by his final section on "Everest as Literature," since that is pretty much why this blog exists. He states that Everest literature has grown apace the boom in climbing it, and calls it "a growing mountain of words." I'm glad I'm not the only one to see the metaphor; I wonder sometimes, however, if I'm the only one purposely reaching for the summit.

Potterfield also gives a history of climbing the mountain, though of a different flavor. His is a bit more nuts and bolts, with altitudes reached and climbers' names. He brings up the 1996 disaster and explains that so much has been written about it that he saw no reason to reprint any of it here. He also talks about his own small role in the story, when Scott Fischer called him to join his expedition after Fischer found out Krakauer had moved on the Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants group. He also talks about his role in the 1999 expedition that discovered George Mallory's body, publishing dispatches on his Mountainzone website and greeting the climbers at the Friendship Bridge upon their return to Nepal with warnings of the circus they're about to meet and plenty of beer.

Dave Hahn, along with two climbing partners and two Sherpas give up their summit bid to help other climbers down who spent a night out exposed high on the mountain in his "Emotional Rescue." The story is covered in Hemmleb's Detectives on Everest, but Hahn provides a first-person perspective to events. Below the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge, Hahn's team comes upon three Russians in duress. The administer food, drink, and drugs in addition to one Sherpa giving up his oxygen to the men. Afterward the men begin moving down under their own power, and Hahn's team finds out their teammates are on their way to help them. Hahn and friends continue their way up the mountain. Just below the Third Step, they come across Andy Lapkass and Jaime Vinals in deep trouble and realize their summit bid is over. They provide the weakened climbers with their remaining supplies and share their oxygen with the pair. Hahn's teammates help Lapkass down, and he becomes responsible for Vinals. His man is going nowhere fast, and after hours of dogging him down the ridge, they are only at the top of the Second Step. Their expedition leader, Eric Simonson, calls on the radio, and Hahn puts it to Vinals' ear so that he can hear clearly that if Vinals doesn't start moving fast, Hahn must abandon him for his own safety. Vinals' head clears after hearing the news, and they head down at a much more reasonable pace, with more and more helpers as they descend the mountain. Of the five they helped, only one (one of the three Russians) died.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

High & Wild, by Galen Rowell

I've been frustrated again by the writing of Galen Rowell, this time his anthology, High & Wild. It's all quite nice writing---thoughful, articulate, and great photographs to boot, but I really want to read about his 1985 Everest West Ridge expedition, and it's not here either. (I've previously covered Rowell's Mountain Light.) High & Wild, a series of articles from across his career, is the closest thing we'll get to an autobiography of Galen Rowell. I recommend picking up the third, Spotted Dog Press, edition, as it has ten more articles than the first, and five more than the second editions. The majority of his adventures take place in the Sierra Mountains of California, with additional trips to the remote mountains of Alaska, Canada, Patagonia, and the Himalaya.

Rowell's adventures are often with other Everest-associated climbers, including (in this book) Ned Gillette, John Roskelly, David Roberts, Peter Hackett (1981 American Medical Research Expedition summiteer), and Michael Graber (from Rowell's West Ridge climb). Also, Everesters including Jim Bridwell and Reinhold Messner make cameos in the book. Before Ned Gillette made his circumambulation of Everest in Everest Grand Circle, he and Rowell made a glacial circuit of Mount McKinley in a similar fashion. They also pair up for a winter traverse of the Karakorum in between. After these wild alpine excursions, the only occasionally-snowy trip around Everest must have been a bit of a let down to the professional skier Gillette. The Khumbu region gets decent coverage in this book from Rowell's first ascent of Cholatse, along with Roskelly and Hackett, in alpine-style. He also comments on the massive Russian expedition that concurrently attempts the Southeast Ridge route on Everest.

There are two photographs of Everest in this book. The first appears next to the Foreword, with a misty and mysterious Everest lurking behind clouds from a perspective somewhere in Nepal. There is a rainbow halo around the shadow of the photographer, such as described in Ricart de Mesones' Qomolangma. The second is a twilight view of the peak, along with Lhotse and Makalu taken during the author's Cholatse climb from the team's bivouac high on the mountain.

If anybody knows of a book that tells of Rowell's 1985 West Ridge climb, please let me know! I feel like I've been reading my way away from Everest the past couple of books. I'll play it safe and stick to things with Everest in the title for the next few.

Friday, March 11, 2011

In the Ghost Country, by Hillary & Elder

I wanted to continue reading about Peter Hillary, so I picked up his In the Ghost Country, an intricately woven autobiography and polar narrative. Hillary's life is broadcast across his vision in the sensory deprivation of the great white of Antarctica as he a two others try to "complete" Captain Scott's tragic journey. His life story is told as it recurred for him in the frozen south. Though his remembrance is anything but chronological, the parts come together to create the complex life of a mountaineer who has seen too much death.

Hillary's polar journey is a torturous affair. The three travelers each pull a gut-busing 400-pound sledge to start, and the wind is rarely in their favor for kiting. His sensory deprivation is aided by his companion's lack-of-interest in communication, which also threatens the journey as a whole. In this book, Hillary's trip comes off as much as a trip through the dream world as a slog to the South Pole.

During these trips through Hillary's subconscious, he is kept company by many of his dead companions, including his family and many climbing partners. He spends a good deal of his visions remembers trips to Everest, including the 1982 Lhotse trip, the 1984 West Ridge, the 1989 South Pillar, and his 1990 South Col ascent. Other visions include his childhood, his role in the 1995 K2 disaster, his nearly fatal trip to Ama Dablam, and his mother. I found it strange after reading Hillary's Ascent, how similarly worded are the events that overlap in both books. Some of the memories even include strangely similar passages to Sir Edmund's section of the book, such as the sensory details noticed when visiting the Aspinalls or the climb of Mount Fog.

Overall, this book is a nice change of pace from the average adventure biography. In addition to his interesting intertwining of the stories, Elder stylizes his prose to be more in tune with the adventure reader (though I found it occasionally over-the-top) and folds in quotes from literature, including The Odyssey, Kafka, and more. A little something for everyone!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hillary & Norgay: To the Top fo Mount Everest, by Heather Whipple

Thank heaven for Heather Whipple and Hillary & Norgay: To the Top of Mount Everest! This is the Everest children's book that all those others are trying to be. It's not over-the-top exciting, but it has relatively accurate information, good formatting and illustrations, and the standard focus on the first ascent pair framed by a general history of climbing Mount Everest.

Whipple brings together a wealth of information relevant to a young reader's introduction to Everest. In addition to biographical information about Hillary and Tenzing, she includes the cartographic history (minor issue: 29,035 did not become the accepted height until 1999), the ethnographic makeup of the area, and the many facets of expedition life, including equipment, weather, health, and load-carrying. She includes many subtleties often overlooked by other children's authors, such as the possible locations of Tenzing's birth or the Sherpa language not having a written form. A couple small problems included her writing that Mallory was the leader of the 1924 expedition, and (now that I've read about the laughs Sherpas get out the mistake) including "yak" rather than "nak" butter in a local recipe. I'm overall impressed by Whipple's attention to detail and her ability to sort through the mass of information available on the mountain. If you're looking for a current kids' introduction to Mount Everest, try this one.

This seems to be my week of Hillarys. I've got one more coming, and then I'll move on to other subjects...I hope!

Ascent, by Sir Edmund & Peter Hillary

A double autobiography sounded awfully suspect to me, but I think Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary's Ascent works. This is a bit of a strange book. It comes off a bit like a passing of the torch, with a depressed and aging Sir Edmund declining, and Peter continuing with adventures much like Sir Edmund's from his prime. Sir Edmund comes off much more human in this book than his earlier works; perhaps he is no longer keeping up appearances; his style is much more natural---more documentary, less stereotyped. Additionally, we get a literary introduction to his son, Peter, who has jumped headlong into the adventure lifestyle.

Ascent begins with the elder Hillary, and in a couple short chapters brings the reader up-to-date on his life up to the publishing of Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. Shortly thereafter, Hillary's wife, Louise, and daughter, Belinda, die in a plane crash in Kathmandu and Hillary's world is turned upside-down. After a serious fight with depression, Hillary has some minor adventures, and then heads up the Ganges in jet boats, making an unintentional Hindu pilgrimage from its mouth to Himalayan snows. On his team's trek to the top of a mountain at the Ganges headwaters, Sir Edmund falls unconscious from HACE. His team, including his son, drag him down the mountain in his sleeping bag to a helicopter rescue waiting below. His teammates soon after complete the trek without him. The Hillarys' Ganges trip is covered in much greater detail in Sir Edmund's From the Ocean to the Sky. After the Ganges trip, Sir Edmund tries his hand at movie-making, and then goes back to India for some serious tourist travel, his first such trip. In 1981, he is invited along as a Chairman Emeritus for the American Kangshung Face expedition. He, unfortunately gets severe altitude sickness even in base camp, and has to head down. The expedition is greeted by atrocious snow conditions after they scale an immense rock buttress that leads to the upper face, and calls it quits. The core of the group returns in 1983 to finish off the job.

Meanwhile, Peter Hillary is coming into his own. Peter begins his story with his childhood, and works his way to his young adulthood fairly quickly. He works at several passions at the same time to start, including climbing, flying, and skiing. Eventually, after gaining his commercial pilot's license and competing in ski racing, he makes up his mind to focus on climbing, at least in the short-term. He heads to New Zealand's Southern Alps, and works on progressively harder routes. He also completes the first ski descent of Mount Aspiring, an Ama Dablam-shaped snow spire. He heads to Ama Dablam for his first Himalayan foray, attempting the unclimbed West Face with a couple friends. An avalanche throws them off the mountain, and a friend dies and Peter gets serious injuries, including a broken arm, high on the mountain. After his descent and eventual recovery, he heads off to complete a traverse of the Himalayas from Kanchenjunga to K2. His narrative finishes with the tale of his difficult, but unsuccessful Lhotse climb, along with friends Fred From, Aid Burgess, and Paul Moores. They become inextricably tangled with the Canadian Everest Southeast Ridge expedition, covered in Al Burgess and Jim Palmer's Everest Canada. It was interesting to read about the Canadian Mountain Soap Opera from an outside perspective. It seems to me based on this book and others that Peter Hillary is always there when the poop hits the fan high in the mountains, but somehow is always the one to come home, including a tragic Everest West Ridge attempt, the 1995 K2 disaster, and other unfortunate climbs.

Monday, March 7, 2011

High Drama, by Hamish MacInnes

If you've read Hamish MacInnes's Mammoth Book of Mountain Disasters, for the most part, you've also read his High Drama. With a few exceptions, such as Ludwig Gramminger's piece on the Matterhorn, the contents of High Drama is is found within MacInnes' later book. I looked over the contents of High Drama at the library, and it looked exceedingly familiar, but I brought it home just in case. In both books, you'll find MacInnes' own writing on the 1973 Everest Southwest Face expeditions' loss of Tony Tighe. There are other Everesters who have contributed to the books, including Paul Nunn and Doug Scott. In High Drama, in addition, there are rescue stories from the Alps, Grand Teton, and Mount Cook.

Since I wrote about Doug Scott's Ogre ordeal and the Everest expedition in my Mammoth post, I'll talk a bit about Paul Nunn's contribution here. Paul Nunn should be familiar to Everest readers from Joe Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way, in which he participates in Tasker's Everest winter West Ridge expedition in 1980. Here Nunn writes about his participation, along with several other British climbers, including Doug Scott, in an international mountaineering meet put on by the Russians in the Pamirs. His group attempts to climb Pik Lenin from the East Face, but after atrocious snow conditions, they retreat and later climb via the Northeast Ridge. Though Nunn descends early, his companions continue to the summit and retreat just ahead of another snow storm, the worst in living memory. A Soviet women's expedition gets trapped near the summit, and in their retreat the members slowly die off over several days. Due to the weather and the snow conditions, no one is able to help them. You can also read Doug Scott's perspective in his Himalayan Climber. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mountains in Colour, by Frank Smythe

In light of my last entry, I decided to read one of Frank Smythe's photo books, Mountains in Colour. I should clarify that I read the section entitled "The Himalayas" [sic], I glanced through his chapters on the British Hills and Switzerland, and read "The Mountains and Hills of North America" after seeing a picture of the Green Mountains of Vermont, one of my favorite places. The book contains several color photographs taken on his many trips across the globe and a general outline of the trips in prose, with some anecdotes thrown in for entertainment. This is a fairly old book (1949) for color photographs, and like Alf Gregory's The Picture of Everest, the printing impedes the potential beauty of the photographs (at least in the American edition I viewed). The photographs are nicely composed, though I did not find them to be spectacular. I appreciated seeing a couple things that I hadn't before, such as the southern Tibetan plain during the monsoon season, and a beautiful photo of Everest from the Lhakpa La at sunrise.

I found the prose to be enjoyable. He speaks of many of the places (with the noted exception of the North Face of Everest) with a sense of nostalgia. Everest, he says, is for the sufferer rather than the athlete. He believes it will take a superman with a high pain threshold and a lot of luck with the weather to eventually scale the mountain. Strangely, that seems a fitting description to Hillary, if not Tenzing. He remembers his Everest teammates warmly, and is especially complimentary to Longland. I don't think he was a fan of the 1938 attempt, however.

I made a point to study each of the photographs taken in Europe in an effort to begin my Alpine education. Ironically, the only clear mountain face in any of these photographs was of Glencoe in Scotland. I at least got an initial feel for Dougal Haston's early stomping ground!

It was fun to read about Smythe's visit to North America. I was especially amused by his praise and description of the American motel. I wish I could find the one he visited, because I've never experienced anything nearly that nice! It made me feel good to hear such a world-class mountaineer as Frank Smythe speak of the enchantment of the mountains of New England, a place that I love.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Smythe's Mountains, by Harry Calvert

I wanted a more thorough introduction to Frank Smythe than the official Everest accounts I've read (Tilman's Everest 1938 and Ruttledge's Everest 1933) before I start in on his books, so I picked up Harry Calvert's Smythe's Mountains: The Climbs of F. S. Smythe. It's a directed biography, focusing on his climbs, and Calvert does the unenviable job of compressing a prolific career into 200 pages. Calvert gives Smythe's bigger expeditions their due, and he does his best to cover Smythe's shorter (but still at times exciting) climbs, though at times to the uninitiated (such as myself) they come off a bit like laundry lists. I'm starting to think I need a map of the Alps just to start to get an idea of what authors are talking about when they bring up many of the less-famous mountains. I'm definitely Alp-illiterate (besides four or five major peaks), and if I'm going to continue reading books that take place more in the Alps than on Everest, I'm going to need some mental pictures to go along with the climbs. Anybody know of a good Alpine picture book? Smythe wrote a couple; at least I can start there! Something modern like Bonington & Salkeld's World Mountaineering would be nice, with clear photographs of the mountains and the major routes traced on them.

Back to the topic! Calvert tells us that Smythe was a mountaineer for all people. He was equally able to appreciate a wander through the Alps as he was scaling the world's highest peaks. Though Smythe's rock climbing wasn't the very best, his rock and ice work was second-to-none. Calvert's book comes off a bit like a hero biography, and he seems impressed with Smythe's work whether he's climbing a steep face on Kanchenjunga or bagging peaks on Corsica. Also, he rants a bit when he purports that Smythe should have been the leader of the 1933 and 1936 Everest expeditions. He undisputedly shows, however, that Smythe's primary love is the mountains.

I learned a lot of things about Smythe from this book that I did not previously know. I didn't realize he was invalided both as a schoolboy and out of the military. I'm amazed that the man who was told not to take stairs too fast climbed to 28,000 feet on Everest! I always assumed that Shipton and Smythe were close friends throughout life, but it seems that they climbed together first on Kamet in 1931 and really started their close association on Everest. Even then, Smythe seems to have preferred the company of others in Base Camp. I also had no idea that he traveled to the Canadian Rockies late in his life with Noel Odell, nor about the deep politicization of the selection of leaders for the early Everest expeditions.

I overall like Smythe's climbing philosophy. According to Calvert, Smythe believed that the experience of being amongst the mountains was an end unto itself. "The notion that to climb mountains for achievement, repute, or fame was in some sense an abuse of the opportunities which they gave." He, along with Tilman, believed that to climb Everest first with oxygen would only push people to next attempt it without. It took a while, but he was proven correct. I get the feeling that Messner and Habeler had very similar philosophies about climbing mountains in a sporting way. Smythe did not count his own first ascent of a mountain in the Rockies because he used a single piton to reach the summit!

This is a decent book. There aren't really any alternatives to it for a full-length biography of Smythe. While I have some reservations about its point-of-view, I think that Calvert has done us a great favor in giving us a book about this amazing climber. I also appreciated the numerous bits of information he provides on other early Everesters, including Somervell, Longland, Greene, Birnie, Wood-Johnson, Tilman, Shipton, Odell, and others.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I don't plan on repeating the Everest-related books I've read before this blog, but since I found an audio book at my local library of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I decided it couldn't hurt to get a refresher on it during my commute. Additionally, since it is still the number one Everest book discussed on the internet, I'd like a chance to talk about it as well. The audio book is an abridgment of the original text, and I have to say that I like the shorter version almost as much as the original; though it lacks a lot of the detail and moves almost too fast for me, it's punchy and exciting, yet it still stays true to the story.

This book has a history with me. It was the second Everest-related book I read, and it's definitely the text that got me reading more books about the mountain. I didn't fall in love with the book, but it did get me curious about the story of the mountain. (My first Everest book was John West's Everest: The Testing Place, which caused me to avoid Everest books for a while.) After reading it, I went to a second-hand bookstore to pick up whatever they had on the mountain, which by chance happened to be Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, Lene Gammelgaard's Climbing High, and Beck Weather's Left for Dead, all about the same climb as Krakauer's book. I couldn't believe there were four books about the same event (actually closer to twenty!), and it none of them seemed to agree on the nature of the main character, Mount Everest. It later occurred to me that the mountain was more of a sounding board and a magnifier of the climbers' character, and its ability to hyperbolize the human psyche fascinated me.

This book seems to polarize people. (Perhaps it's also fair to say the 1996 disaster does as well.) I think a lot of people miss Krakauer's point that an over-analysis of events is a fruitless exercise. I'm not one to join a camp and defend someone's opinion over another's. I like that Krakauer strives to get the facts straight, even when they do not put him in a favorable light or when he has to admit that he was wrong. People say he threw a lot of punches at Boukreev and Lobsang, which perhaps is a fair assessment; I think those same strong opinions show the difficulty of being both a participant and a journalist. Much like Ken Vernon, in Ascent and Dissent, though with less recognition of the fact, Krakauer finds himself tied to and relying on the very people he is covering, so both his climbing relationship and his journalistic relationship to these people becomes messy. Krakauer admits and discusses how his journalistic presence exacerbated events, egging on both climbers and guides. This may be at least a small reason why at the end of the book he is still rattled by guilt, whereas climbers such as Stuart Hutchinson and and Beck Weathers seem to be able to overcome the tragedy. A lot of bloggers seem to jump on the smaller details of Krakauer's analysis, such as the statistics he provides or the idea of banning bottled oxygen on the mountain, rather than the big picture. He is right that little can and will be done in response to the 1996 tragedy and others like it (2006?). He is also correct that it doesn't matter how well you plan and prepare; climbing a mountain like Everest will always be a gamble. The real hubris of 1996 isn't that people died on Everest (That happens all too often!), but that those who by all odds shouldn't have died (Hall and Fischer) never returned, while those who didn't stand a chance, either through inexperience or their battered condition (Gau and Weathers) summoned the strength to come home.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Using Math to Climb Mount Everest, by Koll, Mills, & Brice

Perhaps you should be Using Math to Climb Mount Everest, if you ask authors Hillary Koll, Steve Mills, and Russell Brice (yes, the Himalayan Experience guy). Their book applies math to adventure, with real-life expedition arithmetic questions that will help get the problem-solver to the top of the world. Additionally, the young reader learns about Everest expeditions and their history, as well as many of the challenges climbers face on the mountain. The book is set up in two-page sections with data, such as temperature graphs or training schedules, corresponding problems, and trivia thrown in for entertainment. The spreads are flashy, with photos filling the pages, and it's a fun book to look through.

The math is elementary school material for the most part. The authors give a range of levels of word problems, from basic addition and subtraction to converting temperatures and distances (look for the formulas you'll need in the back!). There were only a couple questions that didn't sit well with me. There was one vague question with two possible solutions depending on how you use the English language, where a change from 50% to 40% could either come out as a difference of 10% or a 20% change depending on how you interpret the question. The other one was a section on national flags where the question is specific, but the answer is general: "What fraction of the area of the flag of the United States has stripes?" They provide "3/4" for an answer, but the flag they show definitely does not meet those proportions. At least they ask for an estimation for the amount of red on the South African flag!

Their facts are also mostly good. The data boxes (thank goodness!) seem to be right on. The trivia could use a little editing, though. Yaks will not actually carry your tent up the mountain, but perhaps if you ask nicely they'll get it to ABC. Odell was definitely not Mallory and Irvine's expedition leader. (If he had been, he and Mallory would have been up to the summit and back before tea time on June 8, 1924.) Also, you should be sure to pack some headlamp batteries, but don't bother with the headlamp while packing your gear and clothes.

Overall, I like this book. It's a fun way to do math, the few mistakes are relatively minor, and set up if first-rate. Hope you like it too!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Windhorse, by Brook & Donnelly

Before Erik Weihenmayer started Touching the Top of the World, Julie Donnelly, also blind, trekked to the base of Mount Everest to experience the Himalayas and to raise awareness and funds for the Guide Dog Association in The Windhorse. She was guided by her friend, Elaine Brook, whom you may remember from the climbing party in Doug Scott's The Shishapangma Expedition. Ultimately, the experiences of that expedition helped her make the decision to give up big mountains in favor of leading treks through the mountains. The book is mostly by Brook, and it records her experiences, along with some taped diary entries by Donnelly, during their journey from Paphlu to Kala Patthar and back to Lukla in 1985. (Their original destination was Everest Base Camp.)

Besides Donnelly and Weihenmayer losing their eyes to the same disease there are overall few parallels between their books. Both make sponsored trips to raise awareness, and they both are pushing the social barriers that bar the blind from certain activities, or as Donnelly puts it "getting away from the idea that blind people only do things designed especially for the blind." Because The Windhorse is primarily told from Brook's perspective, I felt like I didn't get very many insights into Donnelly's perspective. I haven't read it yet, but I wonder if this reads in a similar fashion to Eric Alexander's The Summit. (Eric accompanied Weihenmayer on Everest.) Brook does include a lot of conversations between the authors, which helped somewhat, though the really interesting ones seemed somewhat artificial. Come to think of it, this book has a very similar perspective to the movie, Genghis Blues, with occasional personal conversations with the blind protagonist, but for the most part encountering him with sighted eyes. I have to admit, I much prefer something like Weihenmayer's book or Tom Whittaker's Higher Purpose, where a person with a disability comes right out and turns my world upside down, rather than something where I'm seeing or reading about someone doing great things from a typical perspective. 

The Windhorse seems to be as much about the authors' internal journeys as much as it is about a trek in the Himalayas. The two friends get to know each other much better, and Brook seems to learn a lot about her own perspective. Donnelly seems to provide a lot of important information to Brook too late, such as needing clean water to wash her prostheses or her history of an eating disorder. It never really seems to sink in to her that after exertion at altitude she needs to eat and drink a lot more than she wants to. This creates problems for their descent.

On a side note, I learned several things from this book, or specifically, from Brook, the trekking guide, that I did not know about the Everest region. The suffix "-che" denotes a yak pasture, and most Sherpas call the highest pasture near Everest Gorakche rather than Gorak Shep, thus matching the lower Pheriche, Lobuche, Thyanboche, etc. There are several mantras carved into mani stones and walls in the area besides the traditional "Om mani padme hum." Also, though they're probably all gone by now, very small windows are the tradition in Sherpa architecture.

This book had less to do with Everest than I originally thought. Not only do they give Base Camp a pass, but they trek in winter, the low season for Everest. They were originally supposed to have Ang Dorjee, who surmounted Everest twice without supplemental oxygen, as their sirdar, but he died earlier in the year while making a third attempt. They visited the chortens of Sherpas who died on Everest, and also Brook notices in a lodge a picture of the 1973 Southwest Face expedition and notes that most of the climbers are dead now. Overall, I found this to be a frustrating read, though it was occasionally insightful and funny. I think if you begin reading it without preconceived notions of what you'll get out of the book (so, unlike I did), you'll get more out if it!