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.

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