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!

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