Monday, April 11, 2011

At Grips with Everest, by Stanley Snaith

Stanley Snaith writes the first English-language history of Himalayan climbing for young readers in his At Grips with Everest. The book was published in 1938, and includes expeditions to Everest, Kanchenjunga, Nanda Devi, and Nanga Parbat. This history focuses on the sharp end of the expeditions, giving general highlights of the lead up to the assaults and then telling of the hard climbing in dramatic detail. Snaith does make some assumptions in his dialogue and also has a little messiness in his details, but it's overall a good telling. On Everest, he includes all expeditions, including the 1938 expedition and the 1933 fly over, except for the 1935 reconnaissance.

The Everest expeditions are a large part of this book. Snaith sets the stage with Noel's 1913 illegal dash towards the mountain, and works his way through the climbing expeditions chronologically to the 1936 expedition. The fly over and Maurice Wilson's fatal attempt appear in a following chapter, and the 1938 expedition gets a mention in a postscript. Perhaps Snaith is the author responsible for the erroneous idea getting into the Everest literature that Wilson's fasting cure was some sort of Yoga, since it's the earliest book I've yet read that says so, and certainly not the last. (Or maybe there's a newspaper out there somewhere that's to blame.) I was somewhat relieved that T. Howard Somervell said in his introduction to this book that he had not read it, since Snaith goofs a bit on Somervell's climb, stating that he nearly choked to death while waiting for Norton to finish his climb rather than on their descent. At Grips with Everest doesn't quite rack up as many drama points at Younghusband's The Epic of Everest (thank goodness!), but it does have some uncomfortable moments for the modern reader who is racially sensitive. After all this, I feel like I should reiterate that the book is overall pretty decent in its telling of the story of Everest!

This is actually the first book I've read that's included the 1933 air survey of Everest. I haven't bothered to read the two expedition accounts yet, because I've yet to come to a conclusion about whether they have anything to do with climbing Everest. It was nice to get a short introduction: I didn't realize that they were actually attempting a survey of Everest and its environs to the South, that they had permission to do so, that there were two flights (one illicit), and the amount of danger the pilots and passengers chose to face. I'm perhaps still up in the air about whether to include these two books in my reading; I think it would have tipped the scales if the aerial reconnaissance photos of the upper Southeast Ridge that the 1953 expedition utilized came from these guys rather than the Indian Air Force. Any thoughts?

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