Monday, May 30, 2011

Keep Climbing, by Sean Swarner

Keep Climbing tells the story of Sean Swarner, the first cancer survivor to ascend Mount Everest. The book details Swarner's survival of both Hodgkin's Disease and Askin's sarcoma in his teenage years, the latter leaving him with only one fully-functioning lung. After graduating from college and attending graduate school, he puts his studies on hold to spend a year training for and climbing Mount Everest to inspire and bring hope to cancer patients. He moves to Colorado along with his brother, having never scaled a mountain before, and they scrape by while climbing 14-ers with 100-200 pounds of rocks in their backpacks and finding sponsors for Sean's climb. He climbs Everest from Nepal via the Southeast Ridge route in 2002 on the permit of the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition. Like H. P. S. Ahluwalia's Higher than Everest, the climb is the easy part of the protagonist's struggle.

For someone at the brink of death, Swarner was amazingly full of life during his teenage years. He consistently amazed his parents and medical help with both his attitude and his outlook. The story of his illness and recovery is amazing enough for a book, and I can't believe that he felt the need to climb Everest to further inspire people. His life changes in a matter of days from being the fit kid at the head of the sports teams to not even being able to summon the energy to sit through a day's classes at the age of 13. After surviving the cancer and chemo treatments, he gets his energy, fitness, and hair back, only to come down with his second cancer at 15. He refuses to let the second treatments take over his life, and he pushes himself and his doctor to get himself back to normal very hard. Both cancers were very serious (He was not expected to live through either.), but Swarner is a determined and very lucky survivor.

Like Goran Kropp's Ultimate High, Swarner's book details an amazing story, but is hindered somewhat by its prose. Most notably regarding the Everest climb, Sean and his brother, Seth, comprise their own expedition to Everest, along with Wongchu, Kame, and Nima Gombu, with Seth staying at base camp, since they could only afford a single climbing permit; but the author (or co-author?) on several occasions mentions mysterious "others," who do things such as visit other expeditions at Base Camp. The big one for me is an extraordinarily inconvenient place for ending the book. I can't imagine I'm the only one who was left holding his breath and wondering what happened next on this one. A bit like ending a symphony on the second-to-last chord! I had to look at Swarner's website to get some resolution.

On a side note, Swarner includes a photograph of his climbing permit. I was amazed to see six names on the permit---Pete Athans, Peter Hillary, three film crew for the National Geographic group (including Everest veteran Michael Graber), and Sean Swarner. Either their permit was altered after this March 23, 2002 printing, or Brent Bishop and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, also members of the anniversary climb, were actually climbing on a different permit. I'm glad I only have to read about the logistics of an Everest climb; I could never handle them!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tiger of the Snows, by Tenzing & Ullman

Tenzing Norgay writes a now classic autobiography along with James Ramsey Ullman in their Tiger of the Snows. Because Tenzing could neither read nor write, he necessarily has a co-author, and he made a wise choice in Ullman to bring clarity to his legacy. The book was published in 1955, and it serves several purposes: of course as a biography of one of the first pair on Mount Everest's summit, but also as a clarification and defense of his abilities and character, an introduction to Sherpa people and their culture, and a lead-in to his trip to the United States. Tenzing is truly the man of Everest, having participated in seven expeditions to the mountain, working his way from an expedition apprentice to the sirdar and a full climbing member of the 1953 British ascent. This is the third biography of Tenzing that I've read, after Ed Douglas' Hero of Everest and Tenzing and Malcolm Barnes' After Everest, and I think its a better one to start with than the other two.

Tenzing's story generally gets second place to Edmund Hillary among western readers, which is a shame considering the odds he had to overcome to get to the top of world. Additionally, Tenzing's life up to the 1953 ascent is altogether more interesting than Hillary's during the same period---participating in expeditions all over the Himalaya, traveling and climbing with people from around the world, building a family, and trying to make ends meet during turbulent times of history. His friends and acquaintances included H. W. Tilman, Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, Heinrich Harrer, Giuseppe Tucci, Earl Denman, and Raymond Lambert, among others. He even traveled to Lhasa and met with the Dalai Lama. Though Hillary's early work, High Adventure, is a fun read and a grand escapade, Tenzing's first book details a life of adventure and an impossible ambition realized.

I learned a few things from this book that I didn't already know (or perhaps forgot!) from my other Everest reading. First, Tenzing was in Darjeeling when Frank Smythe returned after the war in 1949 and was a firsthand witness to Smythe's unfortunate condition as he escorted him around the city. Second, Tenzing traveled with Tilman through western Nepal in 1949 to the areas around Annapurna and Dhaulagiri in one of the first western expeditions allowed into the country after Nepal opened its borders. Third, Tenzing says that Hillary had him bury a small stuffed mascot in the snow on the summit of Everest (He never saw Hillary handling a crucifix up there.), and he offered to take pictures of Hillary on the summit, but Hillary declined or misunderstood.

This is overall a fine book. Ullman successfully shows Tenzing as a complex character and helps him to come off as honest without being harsh or controversial. Tenzing admits when he was wrong, and gives credit where credit is due, even revealing that Hillary arrived at the top a few steps ahead of him to put that controversy to rest. I found that this book does a much better job of revealing the character of Tenzing than Malcolm Barnes' After Everest and is a more personal take on his early life than Douglas' Hero of Everest. I still wonder why, however, Tenzing says in this book that he was born in Nepal. Did he actually believe he was?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Footprints on the Peaks, by Zhou & Liu

For a history of mountaineering in China, including the ascents of Mount Everest from the north in 1960 and 1975, read Footprints on the Peaks, by Zhou Zheng and Liu Zhenkai. Though the book covers mountain climbing and surveying from the earliest extant records to the present, the authors focus on the modern period of Chinese mountaineering history, from the training of Chinese mountaineers by the Soviets in 1955 until the book's publication in 1995, including climbs by foreign expeditions. I was relieved to find a serious history of Chinese climbing, since so much of what I've read is either unannotated, picture-only books (such as Another Ascent of the World's Highest Peak), or written by skeptical western writers.

Chinese mountaineering began as a cultural exchange with the Soviets in 1955. The Soviets brought five Chinese athletes to Soviet mountains for training as mountaineers (including Zhou) and provided further instruction in China along with equipment, while China allowed access and furnished joint expeditions to its high mountains. The joint expeditions worked gradually higher in elevation with a goal of a shared expedition to Mount Everest in 1960, but political differences ended the exchange just before the climb was to take place. China decided to pursue the climb anyway, but without the Soviet equipment, the government decided to send representatives to Western Europe to buy $400,000 worth of mountaineering supplies for a last-minute save. Three climbers eventually made it to the summit, the first successful climb from the north. Because of the Soviet training, Chinese expeditions function much like Soviet ones, with a leader at the base of the mountain making the big decisions, climbing stages made in all but the very worst weather, and a highly-structured acclimatization program. If this book is any indication, Chinese climbers are overall less interested in preserving their digits than achieving their goal, and they feel a great amount of responsibility to carry out their duty until its completion.

There are many thousands of high mountains in China, and the book covers numerous ascents from the Muztagh to Gongga (Minya Konka). For the 8000-ers, the authors discuss ascents of Everest, K2, Shishapangma (the only 8000-er entirely in Chinese territory), and Cho-Oyu. I was amazed to find out that (as of 1995) no one had yet made an ascent of Broad Peak or the Gasherbrum peaks from China. At the end of the book, there is a list compiled by Jill Neate of peaks over 6000 meters, their locations, and their ascents from Chinese territory. Most of them did not have an ascent listed!

There were a couple things that I wish I had read in this book. I wish the authors would have discussed the controversy over the 1952 Soviet (non-)expedition to Everest, even if only to hammer a couple nails in its coffin. I realize its non-inclusion is a statement in itself on the matter, but Zhou and Liu do have a unique perspective and a good deal of authority. I also wish I could have read a Chinese perspective on the illegal attempts to climb in Chinese territory (though they include Maurice Wilson), such as Woody Sayre's party in 1962, Edmund Hillary's attempt on Cho Oyu in 1952, or Earl Denman's romp in 1947. I was happy to read, however, the short biography of Panduo, the Tibetan who was the second woman to climb Mount Everest, in 1975.

This is a well-written and well-researched book on a unique topic. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of mountaineering as a way to broaden your horizons. It's a bit expensive to purchase, but many libraries have a copy, and I recommend borrowing it if possible. Happy reading!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hall & Ball, Kiwi Mountaineers, by Colin Monteath

Colin Monteath's Hall & Ball, Kiwi Mountaineers is a personal memoir of two of New Zealand's most famous mountaineers, known both for their dedication to high-altitude climbing and their early participation as Himalayan climbing guides. It is a large book with color photographs throughout, and it tells of the life and adventures of Rob Hall and Gary Ball, from climbing and guiding in the New Zealand Alps, to work in Antarctica, to climbs in the Himalaya. I had heard of this storied partnership from books such as Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top, and I had always assumed that they grew up together as childhood friends; I was surprised to find out that they came to know each other relatively late in their short lives, and that they made their mark in history in a short, but fast-paced climbing partnership. Hall and Ball were much more than their combined climbs and climbing business, and Monteath does an excellent job of detailing their legacies.

Both climbers started their careers in the climbing business in the Southern Alps and progressed to working in Antarctica, though separately. Gary Ball lived hand-to-mouth as a climbing guide, and worked his way up to a guiding business partnership with Russell Brice and Nick Banks, with a several years of worldwide climbing adventures thrown in. Rob Hall, as a teenager, began working in the climbing gear industry, working his way up to manager of a firm before setting up his own business. Both made forays to Antarctica, guiding scientists or instructing them in arctic survival, while making climbs whenever they got a chance. Hall made a name for himself by making two difficult ascents in the Himalaya as a teenager, of Ama Dablam and Numbur. Ball pushed for a New Zealand trip to the Soviet Pamirs, and ascended Pik Kommunizma. They met because of this trip---as a part of the cultural exchange, New Zealand was to host Russian climbers to the Southern Alps, and Hall helped organize the International Climbing Meet that the Russians attended. Hall organized a trip to Annapurna I, where he was injured in a parapente accident at base camp, and had to turn over his next trip to Hidden Peak to someone else. Ball, however, recognized Hall's talent for organization, and when Ball happened to get permit for K2 after the death of a his friend Roger Marshall, he looked to Hall to help him get the climb off the ground while he (Hall) was again in Antarctica.

Their partnership brought them back to the Himalaya again and again. When Ball made the offer of K2 to Hall, Hall already had an expedition to Mount Everest in the works. They turned it into a double adventure, along with Lydia Brady and Bill Atkinson, for attempts on both mountains. Unsuccessful on K2, they headed to Everest with a frayed, but intact group for the 1988 post-monsoon circus, sharing a permit with the Czech-Slovak expedition slated for an alpine ascent of the Southwest Face. Unwilling to attempt the suicidal climb of their permit-mates (all the summit climbers would eventually die, with one reaching the top), they were rejected for climbing a different route, but made an attempt on the South Buttress anyway, trying to stay out of the way of the crowds. They were turned back by harsh weather, but Lydia Bradey stuck around and made an illegal summit via the South Col, her teammates leaving Base Camp to distance themselves from her actions. (Hers was the first by a woman without supplemental oxygen.) Hall and Ball returned to Everest in 1989, this time with Peter Hillary, for another unsuccessful attempt via the South Col, though they were able to rescue a climber on the Lho La after their return to Kathmandu by racing around to the Tibet side via the Friendship Highway and help from the Chinese authorities. Finally, in 1990, they made it to the top along with Peter Hillary, with a live radio broadcast from the summit, in which Hillary was even able to talk to his father.

Their later career had varying degrees of success. Directly after the Everest climb, they set out to climb the seven summits in seven months, reaching the top of Mount Vinson in Antarctica with six hours to spare. They used this stunt to launch their worldwide mountain guiding careers, which was extraordinarily successful, with Ball's positive attitude and flair and Hall's meticulous organization. They made successful guided trips to Everest in 1992 and 1993, and used the money from the guiding to make a number of private expeditions, including returning to K2 and a trip to Dhaulagiri that cost Ball his life. Hall brought Ed Viesturs into the business to help with the Everest guiding, and they repeated their success in 1994, but had to turn clients back at the South Summit in 1995. The 1996 Everest guided expedition ultimately cost Hall his life, but he racked up an impressive number of ascents in the Himalaya beforehand, climbing Lhotse directly after an Everest trip, and chartering a helicopter from Lukla for a quick trip to Makalu after another.  Monteath gets much of his information about the 1996 disaster from other writers, though he relies heavily on Mike Groom's Sheer Will, which provides a different perspective than most. This was a fun book to read---though he packs a lot of information into a short space, Monteath writes a pleasurable memoir for these two extraordinary climbers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mount Everest Massif: Monograph, Guide, Chronicle, by Jan Kielkowski

Jan Kielkowski's Mount Everest Massif is possibly the single most useful reference book about Mount Everest. Kielkowski pulls the massif (Everest, Lhotse, Changtse, Nuptse, and their subsidiary peaks) apart, showing each of the routes taken to the peaks (and cols), describing them, giving a history of their ascents and attempts, and stating every known spelling and elevation of each. The author begins the book with a list of all known or possible expeditions to the massif up to 1992, numbering them, and then he uses the list to cross-reference the climbers who attempted each route. He works his way around the mountain, with illustrations of each face of each peak that have the routes drawn and numbered upon them, and the written descriptions of the routes and their histories nearby. Additionally, Kielkowski includes a long bibliography at the end of the guide and an extensive index.

I had no idea Mount Everest was such an extensive geological formation. Kielkowski includes a total of 31 peaks and 18 cols in his guide, and his illustrations give multiple views of each of them. I was excited to see many of the routes that I had read about previously, but had trouble imagining, such as Jerzy Kukuszka's line on the South Face of Lhotse (My Vertical World) or the 1983 American Kangshung Face line (Geoff Tabin's Blind Corners). I also took notice of several areas that had few or no routes on them, such as the Fantasy Ridge and the face between it and the Northeast Ridge or the North Face of Lhotse. It's nice to see that there are difficult adventures left yet on Everest!

This is a great reference book. Because of its format and style, it doesn't make much of a through-read, unless you're obsessed. I found some climbers I'd like to read more about from this guide, such as Mark Twight. Also, the Soviet line up the Southwest Face looks very interesting; I'll have to find a book about it soon! Additionally, I learned that Doug Scott and Joe Tasker made an attempt together on Nuptse. I missed that in their books. Anybody know anything about it?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blind Corners, by Geoff Tabin

Geoff Tabin tells about his life of adventure, from the invention of bungee jumping to scaling Everest, in his Blind Corners. His mountaineering takes him to all seven continents and to Everest three times, including both the 1981 and 1983 American Kangshung Face expeditions and his ascent via the South Col in 1988. He seeks to inspire his readers to follow their dreams, and shows how acting on both his aspirations and the opportunities he effected led to a life of adventure.

Tabin begins climbing in college and works his way quickly into a professional adventurer. While on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, he receives an Irvine Foundation grant for a trip to Mount Kenya, where he climbs several routes over the course of a week, including the first free ascent of a traditional aid route. After seeing a slide presentation by Peter Boardman about his trip to Carstenz Pyramid, Tabin makes the mountain's unclimbed South Face his next grand objective. Before he leaves, he joins friends at the Oxford Dangerous Sports Club for a televised bungee jump off the Royal Gorge Bridge, the highest bridge in the world. (The jumper in the center would come within 40 feet of the water.) To get to Carstenz, Tabin takes advantage of a pilot's willingness to make an illegal and frightening landing in Illaga for his team's trek among the Dani people to the mountain. They climb the mountain, and are arrested upon their return to civilization.

Everest is the focus of his adventure lifestyle next. He makes a late arrival to the 1981 climb as a replacement for a last-minute dropout from the team. Tabin is amazed by the stamina and drive of many of the climbers on the team, though the climbers don't get along well and several leave. He is especially impressed by Lou Reichardt and Dan Reid, who push themselves the hardest (both get chapters of biography at the end of this book as well). Given the snow conditions above the tall buttress they climb and the diminished team, Reichardt, the climbing leader, calls off the climb at 23,000 feet. Many of the climbers from the end of the 1981 expedition return in 1983 post-monsoon with some new faces for second try at their route. With improved logistics, technology (including a motorized winch), and teamwork, six climbers ultimately make it to the top. Tabin plays a strong supporting role on most of the climb, but his summit team, including Dave Cheesmond, is snowed off the mountain after the first two groups make it to the summit.

Tabin returns to Everest in 1988 post-monsoon, ascending the mountain and witnessing the highest circus on earth. In 1988, both China and Nepal opened Everest to multiple expeditions at the same time. His team, including Stacy Allison, the first American woman to climb Everest, gets several climbers to the top. Jean Marc Boivin climbs the mountain and flies off the top on a parapente, Mac Batard makes an ascent from Base Camp in under 24 hours, and another French team carries a camera with a satellite connection to the top to (unsuccessfully - camera broke) make the first live video broadcast from the summit. The American team pushes the lower route with a Korean team that climbs the South Pillar, and Tabin ropes up with Um Hong-Gil (who would go on the complete the 14 8000-meter peaks) for some of the Icefall work. Also on the Nepalese side of the mountain were a Czechoslovakian team that climbed the Southwest Face alpine-style and a New Zealand team led by Rob Hall that included Lydia Bradey, purportedly the first woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen (and illegally).

Tabin was the fourth person to climb the Carstenz Pyramid version of the Seven Summits, almost by accident. After Everest, he gives up his medical career to become a mountain guide and adventure travel planner, and through his career, he manages to climb Kilimanjaro, McKinley, Aconcagua, and Vinson. (On his Vinson climb, he guides Ken Kamler, author of Doctor on Everest, who would later be the emergency doctor during the 1996 Everest tragedy.) He plans a trip to Elbrus with friends to cap off the list, and during a long snow storm, he makes a last-ditch climb of the mountain in poor weather to bag the peak before they have to return home. At some point in his career, he also walks up Koskiuszko with a couple friends as a side trip to much more exciting adventures.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935, by Tony Astill

Of all the early expeditions, the reconnaissance of 1935 is the only one without a book by the expedition members to follow; Tony Astill corrects this with his Mount Everest 1935, published in 2005. Astill was able to, through the climbers heirs and trusts, gain access to all of the expeditions members' diaries and many of their letters to lace together the story of the "forgotten" expedition to Everest. As the Everest Committee secured permission for 1935 and 1936 quite late for a trip in 1935, the members decided to use their surplus funds from 1933 to finance a bare-bones reconnaissance of the mountain to be led by Eric Shipton. Shipton brought five additional climbers (Tilman, Bryant, Kempson, Warren, and Wigram) in addition to a full-time surveyor, Michael Spender, with the object of testing the snow conditions on the mountain during and after the monsoon, searching for other possible routes of ascent besides the North Col, testing out new climbers at altitude, and improving and expanding the survey work of Everest and its environs made by the 1921 party. Shipton had a personal objective of showing that a small and thrifty expedition could make as serious an effort on Everest as the large sieges previously thrown at the mountain.

Astill does a stupendous favor to the history of Everest by pulling all this material into a unified tale. Most of what was available about this trip previous to this book's publication appeared in back issues of climbing journals or in the autobiographies of Shipton and Tenzing Norgay (a late, but fortuitous addition to the Sherpa corps at the ripe age of 19). His thorough use of the seven climbing diaries of the expedition members paints a vivid picture of grand adventure that might have otherwise been an asterisk in the history of climbing the world's highest mountain. If anything, in his thoroughness for the sake of the historian, Astill includes too many details for the casual observer. If you're reading the book for the 26 summit climbs (to high peaks surrounding Everest), you may not want to know Tilman's dinner rations measured to the ounce. Since this book's purpose is to uncover nearly lost history, however, I didn't mind (and at times enjoyed!) many of the small things included in the writing, and was happy to see them there for others to consider. In addition to his written sources, Astill has raided to archives of the Geographical Society to include a wealth of photographs taken on the expedition.

For a book about Mount Everest, the expedition members spend surprisingly little time on its slopes. The begin the expedition with a foray to the Nyonno Ri area to survey a blank on the map, begin their climbing, and wait for their official passport that will expedite their further travels. They make a quick trip up the North Col from the East Rongbuk Glacier during the late monsoon and find the snow above the col deep and unconsolidated. On their descent, they discover that a large section of the ice below the col has avalanched where they thought it should not have, and take it as a sign that they do not understand snow conditions during the monsoon well enough to make further attempts on Everest. That does not stop their climbing or reconnaissance, however, and they climb a wealth of peaks surrounding the mountain, make an attempt on Changtse, and assess ascent routes from the west and south of the mountain (to no avail). They even manage to bag a few peaks during their retreat from the mountain via Kharta. Rations are a consistent trouble (though no one starves) on the expedition as the time of year and the location of their climbs are not conducive to drumming up fresh food. If you're a student of Everest history, I highly recommend this book!

Friday, May 13, 2011

East of Kathmandu, by Tom Weir

Tom Weir's East of Kathmandu takes place in the shadow of Everest, both geographically and historically. Weir and three friends comprise the first Scottish climbing party to travel in Nepal, traveling from Kathmandu through the Rolwaling Gorge towards Everest (with a stop for some peak-bagging and exploration) to Kala Pattar and back to Kathmandu through Sherpa country. His expedition travels during the post-monsoon of 1952 while the Swiss make their second attempt to scale Everest. They travel through the southern side of the gorge and visit its surrounding mountains on the recommendation of W. H. Murray, of the 1951 Everest reconnaissance expedition. The reconnaissance had made a brief survey of the mountains to the north of the gorge; Weir and his party, therefore, were traveling in an area unknown to western climbers.

Weir often mentions the climbers who have traveled before him. He is complimentary towards the efforts of Shipton in 1951 and is impressed by the travels of the 1952 British Cho Oyu expedition. Towards the end of the gorge and in Sherpa country, Weir and his companions travel much of the same territory as they did. After scaling Kala Pattar (They do not give its name, but Weir's description fits the ticket.), they head up to the Swiss' Base Camp and Lake Camp, finding them deserted during what should have been the Swiss climbers' final push from the South Col. All hands on deck, I suppose! On their return, the party follows a common variation on the traditional trek between Base Camp and Kathmandu, traveling as far south as Jubing before heading west towards the capitol.

This book is a fun quick read, without too much adventure, but plenty of interesting things going on. The author and another of the party are bird watchers, and he mentions a wealth of birds that they see. They visit a number of villages and monasteries along the way, and he is amazed that while the Rowaling gorge people are both curious and courteous, the Solu-Khumbu crowd has already gotten into the habit of demanding baksheesh and overcharging for goods and services. Also of Everest interest: one of the party's Sherpas, Dawa Tensing, would later make a carry to the South Col for the 1953 ascent of the mountain.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Journeys to the Ends of the Earth, by Khoo Swee Chiow

Khoo Swee Chiow takes an unusual path to the seven summits and the two geographic poles in his Journeys to the Ends of the Earth. Chiow is a Malaysian national who lives in Singapore who has made an abrupt life change from a self-described computer geek to a professional adventurer. While training for and working as a computer engineer for Singapore Airlines he made occasional trips to Nepal, the American Rockies, New Zealand, and Kilimanjaro with intermittent success at altitude. After his selection as a potential candidate for the 1st Singapore Mount Everest Expedition, he throws himself into training and planning, helping to organize the team's first trip to the Himalaya and climbing Cho Oyu on a later trip under Eric Simonson. He is then chosen as part of the Everest expedition.

The 1st Singapore Mount Everest Expedition climbs the mountain from Nepal via the South Col during the 1998 pre-monsoon season. The climbers follow a fairly typical ascent schedule and get pretty good weather. Their climb faces a setback, however, when they (along with about 40 other climbers) reach the South Summit, and no one has brought any rope to fix the upper ridgeline or the Hillary Step. Everyone turns around. A small contingent from a couple expeditions, including Chiow and Edwind Siew from the Singapore team, return to climb to the top of the mountain. Though the climb takes up a good part of the book, Chiow is spare on details outside his own expedition. He does mention later, though, that he became friends with Nasuh Mahruki, the Turkish mountaineer and author of Everest'te Ilk Turk Chomolungma.

From Mount Everest, Chiow sets off on a life of adventure. He heads to the South Pole next, in 1999, with a training trip to Greenland (his first experience with skis!), leading a group from Singapore from the Horseshoe Valley to the barber pole at the bottom of the world. Soon after his return to Singapore, he makes a goal of finishing his seven summits (climbing both Carstenz Pyramid and Kosciuzko) by the end of the year. He is the second seven summits author I've read who was turned back by the tiny, but grumpy Kosciuzko. (Robert Mads Anderson, in Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo, was also turned back by a blizzard.) After completing his summits, he heads to the North Pole and climbs Shishapangma by the Southwest Face without supplemental oxygen. While on Shishapangma, he witnesses Korean Um Hong Gil's final summit climb to complete the fourteen 8000-meter peaks, becoming the ninth person to do so.

After the publication of this book, Chiow continues his life of adventure. He returns to Everest twice, reaching within 400 meters of the summit without supplemental oxygen in 2004, and ascending the mountain for the second time in 2006. Additionally, he has since made long-distance bicycle and in-line skating trips, swan the Straits of Malacca, and set a scuba-diving endurance record.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mein Weg als Bergsteiger, by Ernst Reiss

I wanted to find out what set Ernst Reiss apart from his compatriots, as he is the only climber to participate in both a 1952 attempt on Everest and the 1956 Everest-Lhotse climb, so I read his Mein Weg als Bergsteiger. I'm not sure I have a definitive answer, but he certainly gave me a lot to think about. Though during his time Reiss put up several tough routes in the Alps and was one of the first pair to climb Lhotse, he's not well-known to English-language audiences, because, like Lacedelli and Compangnoni of K2 fame, there isn't much written about him in English. Worldwide fame may have eluded him also because he put up his hardest routes in the Alps during World War II and afterward, when the world was focused on the Himalaya, and then made his ascent of Lhotse late in the 8000-meter peak game, seemingly as a prelude to his expedition's double ascent of Everest.

I think I see several reasons for his participation in both the 1952 and 1956 expeditions. Based on his record in the Alps, he is not one to be turned away from a mountain simply because an attempt failed. He makes repeated attempts on many of his difficult climbs, such as on the Engelhörner. He accompanied Tenzing and Lambert above the South Col during the 1952 post-monsoon attempt in a support role, and his group was turned back by the cold and the winds of November rather than by a perilous climbing route or lack of fitness. They were, admittedly strung out after a less-than-ideal ascent of the Lhotse face, but better logistics could easily solve that problem on a future climb. Reiss was relatively young on the first expedition, and though he had started a family by the second, he was passionate enough to return. Additionally, he saw the 1956 expedition as Switzerland's last chance to write their name upon the "Golden Book" of Himalayan climbing by making a first ascent of an 8000-meter peak.

This book surprised me with a couple things. Since English is my primary language, it never occurred to me that people were climbing in the Alps during World War II. I feel a little silly, now that I realize that of course the Swiss had no trouble climbing their own mountains during the conflict. It was interesting to me to read about Reiss' participation in the direct style of climbing that was developing the 1940s and 50s that would eventually lead to the many sieges upon the Southwest Face of Everest in the 1970s. Reiss mentions that several of his climbs parallel or follows several routes by Welzenbach and Merkl; it makes me curious if the direct style might have become popular sooner if this strong pair hadn't died on Nanga Parbat. My second surprise was that Reiss didn't seem to have any dirt on the 1956 expedition. Albert Eggler's account of the expedition, The Everest-Lhotse Adventure, seemed too happy and fortunate to me, and I would have guessed that there was more to the story. Perhaps there will be---Dölf Reist, who made an Everest ascent on the expedition, released a later biography, Traumberge der Welt, that I look forward to reading. Reist and Reiss (confused yet?) climbed together for most of their climbing careers, however, so I can't imagine their stories being too different.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mountaineering Women, edited by David Mazel

David Mazel uses the writings of women mountaineers to illustrate 100 years of the history and development of the cordee feminine from 1850 to 1950 in his Mountaineering Women. Mazel pulls together a variety of writings from the most influential female climbers, including Freshfield, Mummery, Bell, Workman, Peck, Moffat, and others. He chooses works and excerpts that best illustrate what it is to be a woman climber, rather than focusing on summits. Also, Mazel writes a lengthy introduction that presents a short but analytical history of women's climbing from the first woman to climb Mont Blanc to the modern climbs of Lynn Hill.

In the introduction, Mazel brings up the Everest ascents of Junko Tabei and Wanda Rutkiewicz, as well as Everest climber Arlene Blum. Though Blum had trouble being taken seriously during her participation in the 1976 American Bicentennial Expedition (see Ridgeway's The Boldest Dream), she led her own all-women expedition to Annapurna to show the boys how its done. Mazel uses her Annapurna expedition of an example of how successful women often climb differently than successful men, citing the democratic and empathetic style of leadership that worked so well for her on this expedition that would usually cause a men's expedition to fall apart (think 1971 Everest International or Doug Scott's Shishipangma expedition). Mazel claims Tabei's women's expedition to Everest as the natural progression of the early women's expeditions to shorter Himalayan peaks. I think he oversimplifies here a bit, for I imagine that Japanese women's mountaineering had its own influences in addition to what was happening in the west. He mentions Rutkiewicz's 1978 ascent of Everest and subsequent ascents of other 8000-meter peaks as evidence that women can perform at the same standard as men on the big peaks. I'd like to add that, based on Kukuczka's My Vertical World, Rutkiewicz went through potentially greater hardship at home overcoming gender discrimination in her efforts to get to the Himalaya than she did on her difficult climbs.

I was somewhat sad that he ended his anthology just as women's mountaineering was getting interesting. I imagine it had more to do with publication costs than lack of interest, since it generally takes the sway of a major publisher to get the printing rights to a variety of modern books. Of some Everest interest, Mazel does include an article on the ascent of the Bietschhorn in 1871 by Meta Brevoort, the first woman (or person?) known to have given climbing Everest some serious thought. She is accompanied by her nephew, two guides, a couple porters, and of course her dog, Tschingel to the foot of the mountain. With a smaller party, she ascends the north ridge and traverses the mountain to descend the west ridge, making it back to their camp just as night falls.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Lost Explorer, by Anker and Roberts

Conrad Anker tells of his finding the body of George Mallory, and David Roberts tells the story of Mallory in The Lost Explorer. The book has alternating chapters on Anker's participation in the 1999 Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition to the north side of Everest and Roberts' brief, but well-researched biography of Everest's tragic hero. Though Anker was the climber to come across Mallory's body, he was often at odds with the leadership of his expedition, and his writing, in part, seeks to clarify both his position on several issues and the way events unfolded from his own perspective.

Anker, even if humbled by his discovery, clearly was unhappy with the way events unfolded on the expedition. He mixes harsh criticism for his teammates' actions with fairly nice compliments for their drive and character into a tale that ends up making no one look good. Anker's underlying thesis is that he is the real climber and the guy who repeatedly saved the day (found Mallory, made the summit, saved a teammate, rescued a Ukrainian to boot), while these other guys were nice but foolish. Perhaps Anker didn't get the attention he felt he deserved in the subsequent media coverage of events. He certainly did not come off as the expedition golden boy in the official expedition book, Ghosts of Everest. I found some of Anker's complaints silly, such as the aesthetic loss of dispatching news direct from the mountain rather than later distributing a book, like they used to. (The early expeditions did, in fact, dispatch news in the middle of climbing the mountain; it just took longer to get around the world. Norton, snowblind after his world record climb on the 1924 expedition, even dictated an article for The Times to Geoffrey Bruce on the North Col while resting during his descent.) Others complaints, such as the team's selling photos of Mallory's body to the highest bidder, are much easier to justify and make for interesting discourse.

Roberts does a first-rate job of pulling together a variety of research to bring the reader up-to-date on the story of Mallory. He includes both the basics as well as some of the newer conflicts in the story of Mallory, and even spends a page refuting Unsworth's thesis that Mallory had a thing for Irvine (see Everest: The Mountaineering History). I appreciated both Roberts' explanation of the difficulty of pinning down exactly what Odell said he saw the day Mallory and Irvine disappeared and his discussion of Mallory's possible conflicts with his wife Ruth. I felt like Roberts did the man justice, while still exploring many of the mysteries left in his life story.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Everest: The Mountaineering History, by Walt Unsworth

At 799 pages, Everest: The Mountaineering History (Third Edition), by Walt Unsworth is by far the most massive book about the world's highest mountain. Based on its size, it's hard not to think of the book as the sacred text of Chomolungma, and for most expeditions it surpasses any other history in thoroughness and accuracy. I was a bit sad to find out, however, that even Walt Unsworth is human.

Unsworth does an amazing job pulling mountains of information together to create a logical and critical history of climbing Mount Everest. He covers the gamut of Everest history, from surveying to the modern era, paying special attention to those expeditions that added measurably to our knowledge and experience of the mountain. His strong suit is his coverage of the background information behind the expeditions, especially the early British attempts, including the intrigue within the Everest Committee, expedition finances, political arm twisting, and personal conflicts between the climbers. I had no idea what a mess the Committee made of choosing Ruttledge to lead both the 1933 and 1936 expeditions, nor did I realize that Hinks, the Committee Secretary, played such a pivotal role to all of the early expeditions. I appreciate Unsworth's acknowledgment that only part of an expedition occurs on a mountain, as well as his wealth of sources for any given topic. At times, however, I felt like the text framed around the interesting things discovered during the research for the book, rather than the most pertinent information to the story of Everest. This, in a strange way, could be considered a compliment to Audrey Salkeld, whom Unsworth acknowledges for a great deal of research for the book.

Though I found his background research and his macro-analysis of expeditions to be quite good, I didn't get the feeling that Unsworth is a particularly good judge of people. I was particularly surprised by his analysis of George Mallory, stating that he was at best a mediocre climber and implying that he took Irvine with him on his final climb because he was attracted to him. (You'd think that Mallory spit on Unsworth's mother!) While I agree that Mallory has often been put on a pedestal by mountaineering writers, one has to ignore substantial evidence to come to the conclusion that Mallory wasn't a natural climber, and an openly-gay man's attraction to Mallory is hardly evidence of mutual feelings. However, I found Unsworth's analysis of Mallory's "because it's there" statement compelling. For me his personalities seemed a mixed bag---his analysis of Bonington and Dyhrenfurth resonated with me, but his Mallory and Hunt did not.

The book has up to now had three editions. Unsworth acknowledges (towards the end) that the publishers would let him add to the text, but not go back and change the original. As such, unless you already know this, there are some awkward moments in the third, revised and updated edition, published in 2000, such as reading that there has not yet been a Soviet expedition to Everest, that lightweight attempts are the style of the future, or that a solo attempt would be absurd. (That last one had to sting---Messner proved him wrong the year of the first edition's publication!) The additional material covers new and difficult routes climbed, alpine-style ascents, and the proliferation of commercial expeditions and "Guinness book" climbs, such as first national, oldest, or highest gimmick. He also updates lists in the Appendices, including expeditions' objectives and summiteers, a list of ascents, fatalities, and the bibliography.