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.

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