Monday, April 18, 2011

The Sky's The Limit, by Anna Magnusson

Anna Magnusson tells the story of Vicky Jack, the first Scottish woman to complete the Seven Summits and the oldest British woman to climb Mount Everest, in her The Sky's the Limit. Vicky Jack's biography is told from a non-mountaineer's perspective, and is the story of a driven woman who makes a career in the gender-biased world of HR consultancy, climbs all 283 Munros (Scottish peaks over 3000 feet elevation), and then scales the highest peak on each continent. For the armchair mountaineer, this book is an interesting peak into the world of the commercial mountaineering expedition.

I was surprised when I realized this is only my second Seven Summits book (Robert Mads Anderson's Summits being the other). Jack picks a fairly logical order to her lists, climbing Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Vinson, McKinley, Carstenz, and the Everest. Her first aim was to climb the highest mountain in Europe, initially thinking it was Mont Blanc. Though Elbrus is quite high for a first tall mountain, the cable car to the accommodations near the top makes it a matter of hoping your body adjusts, and then one day of climbing. Kilimanjaro is a bit more difficult, as it is generally a multi-day climb, and its a big elevation change from bottom to top. Jack decides to work on altitude and then cold. On Aconcagua, she does well with the altitude and helps a friend in a nasty retreat from the park. She scales Vinson in beautiful weather, though she faces a tremendous blizzard on her return to Patriot Hills. She also meets David Hempleman-Adams (author of Toughing It Out) while waiting for the flight to Antarctica. Jack nearly doesn't climb McKinley when her expedition leader thinks she has altitude sickness near the summit, and then almost doesn't return because of a fall. I was amazed at the way she was smuggled to Carstenz Pyramid through the open-pit mine. It seemed like quite the scary experience---both the smuggling and the hands-off leadership of her most technical climb to date.

And then she tries Everest. She signs up with Henry Todd to make a spring 2003 attempt via the South Col. Reading this seemed like a good opportunity for me to put Michael Kodas (author of High Crimes) to the test. Jack, as Kodas predicts, had a near-miss with her oxygen, and she turns around at the Hillary Step and runs out of gas at the South Summit for a hypoxic, hallucinatory retreat to the South Col. Michael Kodas 1, Grant 0. Jack, however, thinks that the oxygen was a simple mix-up, and that her Sherpa might have grabbed the wrong bottles when they returned to the balcony. After he finds out the bottles are empty, the Sherpa high tails it to the South Col, leaving her to figure out the way back on her own. She returns the next year, again with Henry Todd, and this time makes it to the top for a thankfully uneventful summit experience.

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