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.

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