Thursday, June 30, 2011

Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge, by Bonington & Clarke

Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke tell the story of their tragic attempt, along with Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker, Dick Renshaw, and Adrian Gordon, to scale the full Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest in Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge. The group climbs in a semi-alpine style, with load-carrying to snow caves, but little fixed rope and an alpine summit attempt without supplementary oxygen from below the Pinnacles. Theirs is the first (or possibly second - Chinese?) attempt on this route, and they scale it with four climbers and two in support. The route is notorious because it is long and its biggest difficulties are all above 8000 meters. Notably, this is the first British expedition (1982) to the Tibetan side of Everest since the 1938 attempt led by Bill Tilman.

Things start off quite well. Their logistics work out, and they work well with their Chinese minders. I like that the early foreign expeditions to Everest generally had Chinese climbing celebrities for their liaison officers---these guys get Chen Rongchang, the leader of both the 1960 and 1975 Chinese ascents of Everest. I wish they would have included his impressions of their attempt. Even though the grand affairs he led contrasted sharply with what Bonington and his boys were doing, I don't think he would have necessarily disapproved. I also think it was a strategic move on the part of the CMA to have people associated with the 1960 ascent hanging around with the first several expeditions to visit Everest's Tibetan side. The two support members, Charlie Clarke and Adrian Gordon accompany the yak team on two trips to the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier while the climbers push the route up the ridge. The climbers make swift progress for an expedition, but perhaps slow progress for a four-man climb. They expend a lot of energy making snow caves and generally have late starts, which means that they spend a lot of time up high. Some of them spend four nights at nearly 8000 meters while they dig their third snow cave and push the route up the first pinnacle.

This isn't a particularly happy tale for any of the climbers. Chris Bonington starts to realize his limits and his age as he works away at the upper ridge. Dick Renshaw comes to a realization about his climbing career, and Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, well, you know... I never wanted to read (witness) the deaths of two of my favorite climbers/authors, so I've been holding this book back for a while. I've read their complete books in The Boardman Tasker Omnibus, and I've witnessed their afterlife in the works of Maria Coffey (notably, Fragile Edge, in which she and Hilary Boardman travel to Everest to seek finality). It's about time I connected the dots.

Speaking of connections, this expedition is tied to several others. Ned Gillete's and Jan Reynold's party that circumambulates Mount Everest (Everest Grand Circle) accompanies Chris Bonington and Charlie Clarke on their search of the Kangshung Face for the lost climbers. The British also meet up with Lou Whittaker's American North Face expedition (Whittaker's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide and Wickwire's Addicted to Danger). Additionally, three other later British parties follow Bonington's route: Mal Duff in 1985 (Andrew Greig's Kingdoms of Experience), and Brummie Stokes in 1986 and 1988 (Stokes' Soldiers and Sherpas). In the 1988 expedition, Harry Taylor and Russell Brice completed the Pinnacles, though they retreated down the North Ridge afterward. Finally, in 1995 the Nihon University Everest Expedition, from Japan, completed the climb to the summit in a traditional siege style with supplementary oxygen, the ninth expedition to attempt the route.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To the Farthest Ends of the Earth, by Ian Cameron

To the Farthest Ends of the Earth, by Ian Cameron celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Royal Geographical Society with a telling of its history. It's a lot of information to cover, and Cameron chooses to focus on the larger ventures that the society sponsored or supported, including the search for the Northwest Passage, the crossing of Australia, the search for the source of the Nile, Polar Exploration, the Mount Everest expeditions, and some modern expeditions. He shows that the society got much of its spirit and focus from the influence of some of its long-serving directors and secretaries, such as John Barrow, Arthur Hinks, or John Murchison. The tales of the expeditions are told in broad outline, but Cameron is specific in the roles played by the society in each, such as material support, training, awarding a medal after the fact, or publishing expedition maps or accounts. I felt like the founding of the society got short shrift in this book, with Cameron discussing the society growing out of the Ramblers Club and speaking of the founding members, but not really getting into the driving forces of the decline of the Admiralty during peacetime and the change of government that dried up much of the public funding for such adventures. The other non-Everest sections were good outlines, and make for good teasers if you're looking for something exciting to read about, but you're not sure what. The expeditions to search for the Northwest Passage were generally quite painful yet heroic sounding, and many of the trips to the interior of Australia sounded harrowing. I also enjoyed reading about what the Royal Geographical Society was up to in the recent past in the section that brings the reader up to date (the book was published in 1980).

The Everest chapter presents a broad outline of the history of surveying and climbing the mountain, from Sir George Everest's Great Meridian to the 1953 ascent of the mountain. The information in it is mostly good, but there were occasional factual errors and a couple mislabeled photographs. I hope that the sections on other topics were better off, but I'm less familiar with the subjects, and can't say. I appreciated Cameron's digging in the archives to publish some less-known photographs from Everest's history, such as a picture of Makalu from the South Col and a photo by Edmund Hillary of the Khumbu Glacier, Pumori, and Everest beyond. He touches on the messy business of expedition leadership through the Everest Committee (and Himalayan Committee), but I think that you get a much clearer picture of the Royal Geographical Society's perspective on the Everest expeditions from Walt Unsworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History. Cameron's work is notable for connecting early exploratory expeditions in the region as well as the travels of pundits to the eventual full-scale expeditions. Hope you enjoy!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Strange and Dangerous Dreams, by Geoff Powter

Geoff Powter explores the meaning and the limits of adventure in his Strange and Dangerous Dreams. Powter is a psychologist, and he analyzes the motives and sanity of many of exploration's most controversial figures, such as Robert Falcon Scott, John Franklin, and Aleister Crowley, while relating a short biography and the story of their greatest adventure. He stops short of diagnosis, however, and he leads the reader to conclusions without pretension or force. Powter chooses two Everest-related figures, Maurice Wilson and Earl Denman, whom he places in his broad category "The Lost."

Powter gives a pretty good telling of the story of Maurice Wilson, the man who in 1934 attempted to climb Everest solo to advertise his belief that a regime of fasting and prayer was the best medicine. It's clear that he gets much of his storyline information from Dennis Roberts' I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone (who, thankfully, gives a quite good narration of the facts), but he quotes a range of sources and has done some research of his own, even reviewing Wilson's diary. Powter favors more the critical view of Wilson's actions than the heroic, saying that his last foray up the glaciers towards Everest was a resignation of fate rather than a continued belief in eventual success. He disagrees with Roberts' analysis of Wilson's continuing the climb based on an unerring faith, citing Wilson's somber mood and preparation of a will at Rongbuk and giving instructions to the Sherpas at Camp III in case he did not return. I found Powter's analysis shows Wilson at times as more human than other writers' depictions. If he is right, though, then Wilson is a quite complex character, wavering from an unflinching sense of self-purpose to occasional deep depression.

Powter's research on Earl Denman inspired this book, and the author seems to have a special affinity for this lost soul. Denman, like Wilson, made an illegal dash to Mount Everest intending to climb it, and ran into difficulties at on the East Rongbuk glacier. Powter believes Denman to be considerably more rational than Wilson, as he realizes his folly and turns around, among other reasons. Throughout Denman's narrative, Powter contrasts these two men fixated on Everest, in their attitudes, awareness, and rational. We also get an outside perspective on Denman's trip from Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied him to the mountain. I appreciated Powter's continuation of Denman's biography, telling of his life and adventures in Africa, world wanderings, and late life in New Zealand, during which he never told his friends about his trip to Everest. It's too bad Denman didn't write books about his crossing of the Sahara on camel or his solitary motorcycle ride from Cairo to Cape Town, equally exciting adventures. However, you can read about his take on the Everest trip in his Alone to Everest.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Everest: Alone at the Summit, by Stephen Venables

Everest: Alone at the Summit (AKA Everest: Kangshung Face) tells the story of Stephen Venables' participation in the 35th Anniversary Everest Expedition of four members that ascended the Kangshung Face up to the South Col and on to the summit without supplementary oxygen. It is a grand adventure and a showcase for how far Everest climbing has come in a generation. Originally the climb was to be a generational exhibition as well, with Peter Hillary and Norbu Tenzing Norgay participating, but Hillary drops out of the climb and Norbu travels to Tibet with the crew but does not climb. Lord Hunt is their honorary expedition leader, however, and Venables was invited at Hunt's recommendation.

The climbers work well together, and push the route with bravado and determination. Besides Venables, who has authored several additional books on Everest, the crew includes Robert Mads Anderson (author of Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo), Paul Teare, and Ed Webster (author of Snow In the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest). They climb a buttress to the east of the one the Americans scaled in 1981 and 1983, which the name the Neverest Buttress, that is slightly shorter, but still quite challenging. They face a variety of difficulties on the buttress, including overhanging rock and ice and a gaping crevasse for which they must rig a Tyrolean traverse. Above the buttress, they must wade through thousands of feet of snow in a modestly protected route that has them at times questioning their sanity. They work in both good and marginal weather, but overall are blessed with good enough weather to work their way up the route. The story at the South Col and above is disturbing at times, but very well written. Their descent is harrowing.

Alone at the Summit is one of two books that covers this expedition in detail, Webster's volume being the other. Though the authors got along and agree on all the important details, I found their differences interesting. Venables makes little thought of his early starts and is often frustrated by the others' sluggishness, while Webster remarks about Venables' obsession with the alpine start, though he begrudgingly admits that they were helpful. Venables' resume mostly includes other large expeditionary mountains, and he covers most parts of the climb about equally, whereas Webster is more of a specialist big-wall climber and therefore spends considerably more time writing about the technically interesting parts of the climb, such as work on the Tyrolean traverse and the overhanging ice wall ("Webster's Wall"). Also Webster spends more time writing about the personal interchanges between the climbers and a bit more time analyzing their characters. Both books are quite entertaining and thoughtfully written accounts; I'd recommend either. Venables' is written specifically about the 1988 expedition, whereas Webster's covers several trips to the mountain and is quite a bit longer.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration, by Michael Ward

Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration is a telling and clarification of the history of climbing Mount Everest by climber and doctor Michael Ward. Ward is famous for pushing for the 1951 reconnaissance of Everest after viewing largely unknown photographs of the Nepalese side of Everest found in the Royal Geographical Society's archives. He considers his book the first accurate history of Everest, as it is the first to tie together the three intrinsicly interlinked actions that ultimately led to the first ascent of the mountain in 1953---climbing on the mountain, its survey and mapping, and the development of the science of high-altitude physiology. His writing is academic, yet direct, and he makes strong case for his theses, showing how the exploration and mapping of Everest and its environs led both to Britain's early attempts and his own discoveries in the RGS's archives, as well as how the study of the physical difficulties of the last 1000 feet of climbing on Everest by Griffith Pugh and the broader study of the effects of altitude on the body provided the tools and logic necessary for the British team to get to the top.

Ward's history covers the first known crossing of the Himalaya all the way to the completion of the mapping of the Everest area in 1956 (with some notes about modern attempts at determining its altitude). He is thorough, but never boring, and he does an excellent job of explaining some of Everest's murkier history, such as the background to the 1733 D'Anville map. He includes the early and modern history of the science of high-altitude physiology, and shows how it progresses from a occasional scientific side-interest into its own branch of study. I found it interesting that Ward shows that there was interest in the climbing of Everest from the formation of the Alpine Club's journal in 1860, whose first several issues contained discussions on the great elevation of the mountain. He discusses early abortive attempts by Kellas, Boeck, Noel, and others before getting into the early British attempts, which he shows did not have proper clothing (except for possibly Finch), nutrition, or oxygen flow-rate to make a serious attempt on the last 1000 feet of the mountain.

This is a very well thought-out and written book by an important figure in the history of Everest. Though Ward admits that Mount Everest would have likely been climbed eventually without the help of the applied science of high-altitude physiology, he makes a strong case for its pivotal role in the 1953 ascent of the mountain. He gets a bit defensive about his own role in the ascent of Everest, but justifiably so, as both he and science often get short shrift in climbing literature. It's a shame this book was published only in 2003, and then only in a limited run, as the information herein is both unique and important to the history of Mount Everest.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Endurance & Adventure, edited by Jon E. Lewis

Jon E. Lewis pulls together exciting stories from across the globe in his The Mammoth Book of Endurance & Adventure. He includes expeditions to the poles, mountains, jungles, caves, the air, deserts, and on water. He includes a range of authors, anywhere from the well-known Ernest Shackleton and Charles Lindbergh to Nikolai Nikhailovich Przhevalski and Norbert Casteret. Like most other anthologies, this book skims the cream off other published material, and can serve as a teaser or a replacement for the full works, depending on your preference. He includes several books on mountaineering, including excerpts from Bonatti, Herzog, and others (notably Lewis and Clark's crossing of the Great Divide).

For Mount Everest, editor Lewis side-steps the usual pick for Hillary and Tenzing's ascent of the mountain, choosing the summit-day excerpt from High Adventure rather than The Ascent of Everest. I find it a good pick, both because its a bit more clearly written than Ascent, and because everyone else uses Hillary's chapter from Ascent in their anthologies. Also, in High Adventure, the writing is a bit more jaunty and dramatic, and Hillary fixes a couple pitfalls from the earlier telling, such as his tugging on the rope, Tenzing's flopping about as a fish at the top of the Hillary Step, and revising down, but justifying his estimate of the height of that climb (though he still doesn't come close to Tenzing's estimation of 15 feet in Tiger of the Snows). I was a bit saddened, however, that Lewis fell into the trap of ending the story on the summit. Even if their descent was uneventful by Everest standards, I do hate leaving climbers way up in the troposphere to sort things out without me on their way home. Perhaps you feel differently. Lewis has actually released a Everest-specific title in this series that I'll get to eventually: The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Everest. Happy reading!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Himalaya, by Michael Palin

Himalaya, by Michael Palin is a tourist and trekker's take on the Abode of Snow and its environs. Palin travels the length of the Himalaya, from the Khyber Pass on the border of Afghanistan to Indian Nagaland, bordering Burma (Myanmar). His take on the Himalaya is a broad outline, focusing on the people and cities associated with the mountains, as well as taking trips to see many of the important mountains of the world's highest chain, including Mount Everest. He travels generally eastward through the mountains and foothills, and visits many politically sensitive areas, including the Pakistan's tribal areas (in 2003, no less!), Kashmir, and Tibet in addition to the traditional tourist areas. His travels are designed for a television series, and the book is actually based on his travel journal that he writes when not filming.

I found the locations he chose interesting. He picks a lot of locations steeped in mountain history and culture, such as Hunza, Bhutan, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh. He also visits many places I would not normally associate with the Himalaya, such as Lahore, Lhasa, and Nagaland, though they certainly have some connection to it and provide some scope to the story. Correspondingly, he gives a pass to several locations that immediately come to mind when I think of the Himalaya, such as Sikkim (Kanchenjunga), the Garhwal Himalaya (Nanda Devi Sanctuary), Mount Kailas, Solu Khumbu, and Darjeeling. I found his representations of the peoples of the Himalaya somewhat limited, as he mainly associates and converses with the famous people of an area or at least those who are well off. Palin's contact with everyday people is somewhat reserved, witnessing them from a distance, and he really only speaks to them (after Pakistan, anyway) when they approach him. I did appreciate, however, his descent of the Brahmaputra to the Bay of Bengal, following the snows on their journey to the sea.

His visit to Mount Everest is somewhat limited. He arrives in November at the traditional northern Base Camp in the Rongbuk Valley. Climbers are conspicuously absent, though he visits the patch of green associated with the 1924 expedition. He remembers his childhood fascination with the story of Mallory and Irvine and reminisces about hearing the news of Tenzing and Hillary's climb to the summit. He also brings up the story of Maurice Wilson. His party spends a day walking towards the mountain, attempting to reach the snout of the Rongbuk Glacier (It's a bit further to walk than in 1924!), but turn back before reaching their goal as evening approaches. On his journey, he visits the bases of several other high mountains, including K2, Annapurna, and Chomolhari. Also, on his Annapurna trek, he is administered by three Sherpas, including Wongchu Sherpa, who had at that time summited Everest twice, and is currently the President of the Everest Summiteers' Association and runs a successful trekking and climbing business.

Overall, the book was pleasant and interesting, though not terribly adventurous. There are a couple tense moments, such as a run in with Maoists in Nepal. I imagine the television series was quite beautiful, as he visits some extraordinarily scenic locations and attends several colorful festivals. This is a nice book for a trekker's preview of the Himalaya, in case you can't decide where you'd like to visit, as it presents a wide variety of locations within the full spectrum of accessibility. Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Everest Canada: The Climb for Hope, by Peter Austen

Peter Austen and his crew try to climb Everest via the North Col-Northeast Ridge to raise awareness for Rett Syndrome in his Everest Canada: The Climb for Hope. The witty author of Rocky Horrors, Frozen Smiles gets serious about a little-understood disease that is the likely cause of most mental retardation in girls. After securing a permit for a post-monsoon climb in 1991, Austen partners with Canada Rett Syndrome Association to get more publicity and financial support for both of their causes. Austen and his fellow climbers are new to the big-expedition game, and they whip themselves into a functional crew, both in their training climbs and their detailed preparations. Even with dual-role fundraising, the expedition has a very difficult time finding money, bringing on an intricate web of conditional sponsorship almost at the last minute. Theirs is the first Everest climb for charity, and they take every opportunity to broadcast their cause.

Their climb goes fairly well up until the end, though the end seemed to me to come quickly. Though they are delayed a week by rock slides over the Friendship Highway, they get off to a good start yakking supplies to ABC and ferrying loads up to the North Col. There are occasional weather delays and some illness in their climbing crew of 17 (including 5 Sherpa), but they overall keep good momentum. They are distracted once by a climber high on the mountain who tears ligaments in his leg, needing a rescue. Getting him down the North Col is also a bit of an ordeal. Though all climbers make it as high as the North Col, relatively few make progress above it, and three are left to a last-ditch effort before their yak crews arrive to evacuate ABC on October 6. High winds lift them off the ground on occasion during their ascent, and they arrive at their 26,000 foot camp only to find that it has been blown away. The crew evacuates the mountain without anyone dying or any lasting injuries. Their high-altitude rescue operation also landed them some much-needed publicity both for their climb and their cause.

This is overall an enjoyable quick read. There are plenty of interesting bits and adventure, and Austen's sense of humor carries the parts, such as looking for food sponsors, that normally get tedious in climbing books. Austen professes to be a student of Everest history, but take his historical musings with a grain of salt, because much of what he writes is half-true. I was excited to find that three other Everest authors played a role in the expedition: Pat Morrow (Beyond Everest) was on the film crew, and Jaimie Clarke (From Everest to Arabia) and Alan Hobson (From Everest to Enlightenment) helped with the satellite communications and climbed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Letters & Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston, edited by Mary Wollaston

I learned about the life of adventure of "Sandy" Wollaston, member of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance, in the Letters and Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston, edited by his wife Mary Wollaston. This collection covers Wollaston's travels that he did not later turn into books, so his East African and 1st New Guinea expedition diaries are absent, however. He writes in a direct style, and his diaries are both frank and entertaining (after his early diaries, which are little more than avian laundry lists). He writes overall few letters for such a world traveler, and he admits that he does not enjoy maintaining contact through letters. The ones that make it into this collection show him to be a bit socially awkward (at least in letters), and he usually only writes when he gets sentimental for home.

His travels are varied and exciting. After a jaunt through Lapland along with a friend following college, Wollaston decides to take up a medical career to facilitate his being invited on exploratory expeditions. Though he ends up hating his career, he spends surprisingly little time at it after graduation from his medical training, traveling the world instead, as planned. Early in his travels, he ends up on a scientific mission for the British Museum to the Ruwenzori mountains, and manages to bag a couple peaks, though he runs into funding difficulties in his attempt upon the highest peak. While he waits, the Duke of the Abruzzi beats him to the prize; Wollaston plays a good sport and gives the Duke all the information he had gathered in his reconnaissance of the mountain. His next two expeditions are to New Guinea in an attempt to reconnoiter and scale the Snow Mountains. The first expedition is a wash after his crew ascends the wrong river to approach the mountains. His second, however, gets him quite close to the summit of Carstensz Pyramid; with an experienced climbing partner, he likely would have made it. He considers this second trip a failure as well, but it seems to have left a lasting and happy impression upon him. The First World War interrupts his attempt to return to New Guinea, and he joins the Naval Medical Service. For the first part of the war, they ship him around the North Atlantic, but later a friend recommends him for service in East Africa. He ends up serving on land with the army, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, and spending a great deal of time at the base of Kilimanjaro, before returning to the Navy. He is offered a fellowship at Cambridge after his service, and soon after beginning his tenure, he heads to Darjeeling for the Everest Reconnaissance.

His diaries give some interesting information about the Reconnaissance expedition. On an expedition that had such medical trouble, it was interesting to read the medical officer's perspective. He was worried about Kellas until the day he died, at which point Kellas began looking and feeling better. Kellas was carried on a litter across Tibet mainly because there was nowhere appropriate to convalesce until the expedition reached Kampa Dzong; Kellas didn't quite make it. After Kellas' death, Wollaston insists that Raeburn turn around immediately, as he has been exhibiting similar symptoms. Through Wollaston's diaries, we get to read about their travel to Sikkim, Raeburn's stay at the Finnish mission, and Wollaston's catching up to the expedition, all of which gets only spartan coverage in the official expedition account (Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921). Additionally, Wollaston writes about his specimen collecting, even in areas where it was officially forbidden, for his role as expedition naturalist. He appears quite uninterested in climbing Everest, based on his writing, and he adds that he does not want to return for the next expedition, although he found much of Tibet to be a beautiful country. After the Everest trip, there is a final account of his trip, along with his wife, to the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia, in which he does more exploration than climbing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Boy Who Conquered Everest, by Blanc & Romero

The Boy Who Conquered Everest tells the story of Jordan Romero's climb of most of the seven summits, including Mount Everest in 2010 at the age of 13, in a book by Katherine Blanc and Romero. It's aimed at young audiences, with a lot of graphics, basic prose, and a few spreads dedicated to his preparation and each of his climbs up to Everest and a longer section dedicated to the big one. The book is styled after a travel scrapbook, with snapshot-style photos and some catchy formatting. Most of the prose comes from his blog, though there are a couple sections written as background or explanation around his climbs and some basic facts about each of the mountains he climbs. He ends up ascending Kilimanjaro, Kosciusko, Elbrus, McKinley, Carstensz Pyramid, and then Everest. As of today, there is still no news of Vinson on his website. I'm a little curious what's keeping him away.

Jordan Romero climbed Everest in the pre-monsoon season of 2010 from the north side via the North Col and Northeast Ridge. His ascent makes him both the youngest to climb Everest and part of the first family to climb it together. He is the climber that ousted Arjun Vajpai from the youngest non-Sherpa climber record only hours after Vajpai's ascent (read about it in his On Top of the World), and Ming Kipa Sherpa from the overall title. I wish I could tell you what was different about climbing Everest as a teenager based on this book, but the information in it is pretty basic. His parents were keeping a very close eye on his health, and I also noticed that he climbed direct from Camp III with only a food, liquid, and oxygen refill at IV rather than spending the night at that very high altitude. I assume both of these were due at least partly to his age. Overall, this is a decent book. The only thing that really bugged me was the title (with the "conquered" thing). Though there was very little said about the mountain or its history in this book, I found it refreshing to read a kids' book about Everest without scores of factual errors in it! 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Orient Express to Crystal Summit, by Shin Seung Mo

I try to find especially rare and interesting books to share when I reach a reading milestone, and Shin Seung Mo's Orient Express to Crystal Summit certainly fits the ticket. For my 200th Everest book, I bring you the story of the 1987 Korean Winter Everest Expedition, the fourth expedition to make it to the summit in winter, and the only successful expedition to release a book in English about their climb. I've previously read Joe Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way, about his 1981 Everest winter expedition that attempted the West Ridge; it's a great book, but the group ultimately turn back well below the summit. Shin's Korean expedition took good notes on the two previous successful Japanese winter expeditions, and they go fast and hard early in the winter season, heading up the Icefall Dec. 1 and packing up at Base Camp on Christmas Eve after their successful summit, an all-seasons record at that time. Theirs is a small expedition, with four members eventually climbing (two of their six never effectively acclimatize) and four high-altitude porters, including their sirdar, Ang Rita. The summit party, Huh Young Ho and Ang Rita spend four days continuously at the South Col and above, (Ang Rita without supplemental oxygen) and only make it to the top on their third attempt to climb the Southeast Ridge, making it once as high as the South Summit before turning back. The summit pair even makes a forced bivouac near the Balcony on the Southeast Ridge without incident or mortification. If this group was composed of western climbers, the expedition would undoubtedly be a major story in the annals of Everest; as it is, with all my reading I had not even heard of this group or this book until I saw the book for sale at a mountaineering bookstore.

I was amazed at what this intrepid, but small party was able to accomplish on a bare-bones budget. They had major difficulties finding sponsorship money for the trip because three previous Korean winters expeditions to Mount Everest had failed. They eventually find a single sponsor who sees an opportunity to market his outdoor gear to foreign markets with their trip, and they head to the mountain with a lot of his stuff, some essential items (like boots!) purchased along the way, and fervent prayers that they'll recoup their debts. On the mountain, they become expert scroungers, finding useful items like food, tents, and oxygen left by previous teams for their climb. Other than the two bottles Huh uses on the first attempt, all of their supplemental oxygen is found on the mountain, connected through an adapter found on the South Col. I was impressed that in their speedy ascent they even managed to string a large portion of the route (especially the Lhotse Face) to safeguard their passage on the very hard ice. Because of the cold, they found very little danger from either avalanche or a shifting Icefall, but they had to be very diligent about keeping their digits warm (or perhaps just unfrozen). They chose to use tents rather than ice caves, and though they regretted it, both for the cold and the wind, it saved them time in their race against the worst of the winter weather.

I initially found it very hard not to judge these guys based both on cultural biases and the very poor English language skills in the book. They acknowledge that many people along their trek to the mountain thought that they were suicidal fools who had no idea what they were doing. I'll have to admit that when I first started reading this book, I had similar feelings. As I got into the meat of the story, however, I realized that this was not a summit-at-all-costs group or even a particularly under-experienced one. They are very careful about taking care of themselves, watching their diet and water intake and turning back when they realize they've reached a reasonable limit. Though it was an extremely trying ordeal to climb in both the frigid weather and the high winds, they bring warm enough clothing and sleeping bags to deal with what nature throws at them (though they were never warm). No one got frostbite, those that got sick turned around, and those who did not acclimatize stayed low. The major detractor to this book is the language, however. At times it seems like it was translated word-for-word from the Korean, and many words are either mis-spelled or switched with similar sounding words. An example from the text: "Along with completion of preparation of oxygen cylinders, the Goddess mother of the earth was smiling to them. Last bonfire to the summit of the Everest climax of the expedition integrated both of pray and aspiration which will transcending time and space on each steps of summit pair." At first the language really grated on me, but as I got into the storyline of the book, I really only started noticing things when they said something especially well, rather than poorly. In the end, it came off to me as a fireplace telling of a fantastic story by someone who struggles in the language they are using for the audience's benefit. If you can find a copy of this book, I really hope you enjoy it. After I purchased this copy several months ago, I have not yet seen another one available...anywhere!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Soldiers on Everest, by Fleming & Faux

Jon Fleming and Ronald Faux tell the story of the joint 1976 Army Mountaineering Association Royal Nepalese Army Mount Everest Expedition in their Soldiers on Everest. The expedition climbs Everest in the pre-monsoon season via the Southeast Ridge, putting Brummie Stokes and Bronco Lane on the summit. It's a bit strange having summiteers, who for their careers' sake, try to avoid the camera, as they are both members of the Special Air Service, and in the book, there are only partial glimpses of their faces. Jon Fleming, the once-leader-now-deputy (must be a British Everest thing...) provides a broad perspective of the preparations and gives his perspective on the Everest climb. Ronald Faux, a climber and Scottish journalist, relates the overall story of the ascent.

The organizers manage to pull off the expedition as "adventure training," a program begun after Britain closed many of its overseas bases as one way to keep people interested in serving. As such, climbers actually received their regular military salaries during the climb, though they were expected to contribute considerably to the expedition costs. The partnering with the Nepalese Army worked well logistically, though the Nepalese climbers nearly unanimously ran into trouble on the mountain, including one climber who needed an emergency operation at 23,000 feet. Like Bonington's 1975 Southwest Face expedition, the army hired both high altitude porters and separate Icefall porters, though the service members also contributed considerably to the load carrying.

The expedition had plenty of casualties, including the Nepalese climber mentioned above. Terry Thompson met an unfortunate end after stepping out of his tent and into a crevasse. Also, four climbers were swept to their death in their 1975 training climb of Nuptse. One member had a gas cartridge explode in his hands, though he recovered well enough to reach the South Col. There was plenty of illness going around, especially dysentery and hernias, and the summit pair suffered from severe frostbite after a forced bivouac just below the South Summit.

This is an exciting adventure, though the telling is somewhat reserved. It is, however, an official government publication---the only Everest book I've seen so far with an Appendix K! For detail people, however, there's a treasure trove of information in the appendices about preparing for and executing an Everest climb. There are chapters on everything from equipment and rations to ornithology and finance. (They finished the expedition in the black, by the way.) One thing caught my attention---Faux says that the summit pair did not see the Chinese survey tripod at the summit. It was certainly there a few months later for the post-monsoon American expedition, as well as subsequent expeditions in following years (such as Reinhold Messner's 1980 solo ascent in The Crystal Horizon). I hope he got this detail wrong---I would hate to think of the alternative! You can read about this expedition from Brummie Stokes' perspective in his Soldiers and Sherpas.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mountain Conquest, by Eric Shipton

Eric Shipton writes a young adult's history of mountaineering in his Mountain Conquest. It's a selected history, focusing on mountains Shipton decided were the most important to this history of the sport, namely Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Denali, Nanda Devi, Everest, and select other 8000-meter peaks. The book has many photographic illustrations, and the text is well-written and entertaining. Shipton provides a mountaineer's perspective, and his viewpoint comes in handy with problems such as the ascent of the Matterhorn---he provides a photograph and diagram from the east showing both routes attempted in profile that makes a lot more sense than the usual dramatic view of the mountain taken from the direction of Zermatt. Additionally, he speaks from experience in both the Nanda Devi and Everest stories.

I found it interesting to read about Everest from Shipton's perspective, since he visited the mountain in 1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1951, and almost led the 1953 expedition. Though not as forceful as Smythe in British Mountaineers, Shipton does have an ax to grind, and he's not quite as careful here as in his Men Against Everest, written quite soon after the 1953 ascent. He reminds readers that the 1933 party did not use supplemental oxygen on principle, that Norton and Somervell climbed to 28,000 feet without in 1924, that Compagnoni and Lacedelli ran out before they made it to the top of K2, and that several peaks including Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak were first climbed without. He also mentions that he was very fortunate to have a small party during his approach to Nanda Devi, and that Tillman's group that climbed the peak was relatively small. He doesn't go to the point of berating large parties or the use of oxygen, but he's certainly aiming to plant seeds in the brains of young climbers. The book covers the history of Everest in a chapter, up to and including the 1965 Indian ascent, and does a pretty good job, if you don't mind his stance.

This is overall a good introduction to mountaineering. It doesn't provide a comprehensive history, but the highlights Shipton chooses make for an interesting story, with plenty of adventure. I especially appreciated the wacky history of Mount McKinley, since its attempts and ascent are significant and entertaining, but often left out of brief histories by European writers. I have not yet found a recent young readers' history of mountaineering that I really like, so I'm not sure what to recommend for the continuation of the story. Shipton's is great. Anybody got a recommendation for a modern one?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Lure of Everest, by Brig. Gyan Singh

Lure of Everest, by Brig. Gyan Singh, is the story of the first Indian Everest Expedition. The Indians made their first attempt in 1960. In under a year, they not only prepared for the climbing and logistics of the expedition but designed, tested, and manufactured their own equipment. This is as much as story of an Everest climb as it is the tale of Indian mountaineering coming into its own---the team not only pulled off this logistical miracle, but put three fit climbers in an assault camp high on the Southeast Ridge with a second team ready at the South Col. The climbers can hardly be blamed for the unrelenting weather, with either an exceedingly early and short calm spell or perhaps none at all and high winds and/or snow for the duration of their time spent high on the mountain. The Indians were initially unlucky with Everest, with a similar rebuff in 1962, though they put nine climbers on top of Everest in 1965.

I found the most interesting part of this book the expedition planning and logistics. Tenzing Norgay served as a senior adviser to the expedition, and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute ran pre-Everest courses for the training and selection of team members. With all that needed to be done before the expedition, Singh delegated much of the preparation work. He received enthusiastic help from both team members and several climbers that had not been chosen. Also, Tenzing contracted the Sherpanis of Darjeeling to knit all of the woolen items the team would need. It seems like many of the equipment manufacturers took it as a matter of pride to create first-rate equipment for this trip. It's a testament to Singh's leadership and the climbers' competence that everything worked out smoothly. There was a slight tragedy, however, when the truck carrying most of their food overturned on its way to the train station, destroying much of its contents. The Indians one-upped the Swiss's use of dynamite in the Khumbu Icefall with the use of plastic explosives to safeguard the route. Also interesting was their stringing of a telephone line from the top of the Icefall to Advanced Base Camp. (Actually the second phone line on Everest---the 1933 British party had a line up the North Col that didn't quite reach Camp IV. Unlucky volunteers were sent out into the cold to answer it!) The party also made good use of wireless radios, and they would often hear of their progress on All-India Radio within days. 

The buildup and climb was fairly typical, with good weather, and a few variations from previous attempts. Most notably, Singh chose summit teams of three rather than two, with Col. Kumar, Nawang Gombu, and Sonam Gyatso spending the night on the Southeast Shoulder and reaching 28,300 feet before turning back in appalling weather. Also different than earlier Nepal-based expeditions was Singh's leadership from the middle or back of the expedition, largely due to illness, though there is little apparent conflict from this, as is often the case. He gives Sonam Gyatso a small brass icon of Shiva to place on the summit, that unfortunately was unable to keep the Chinese expedition's bust of Chairman Mao company. The reported weather by the Indian summit party corroborates the experiences of the Chinese on the North Side. The Chinese climbers had the luck to ascend the mountain during the relatively calm night and early morning hours of May 25 before the storm arrived that turned the Indian summit party back.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain, by Viesturs & Roberts

You may think I have the wrong mountain with K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain, but I guessed correctly that Ed Viesturs avoids talking about Everest about as much as he avoids climbing it! The book is principally a history and commentary on the expeditions to K2, but Viesturs draws many parallels to events on Mount Everest, including his own expeditions, and even talks about his 2009 climb of the Southeast Ridge (his seventh ascent) in the Epilogue. Viesturs focuses his writing on the most significant climbs on K2, namely the 1938, 1939, and 1953 American expeditions, the 1954 Italian ascent, the 1986 free-for-all, and the 2008 disaster. He discuses events from his own experienced viewpoint, and the book is considerably more level-headed than most K2 writers. Though Viesturs relies heavily on previously printed accounts, he includes some new material (such as Dee Molenaar's climbing diary), and he often reads between the lines to get to the facts and holds writers accountable when they are being biased or unfair.

Though I haven't read nearly as many books about K2 as Everest (196 and counting!), this has been my favorite so far. I'm a big fan of "Steady Ed," because he's more interested in climbing than politics, and he'd sooner lend a hand than put someone down. I trust his judgment of other climbers in this book, because time and again, he has put his "getting down in mandatory" mantra into practice, and yet he has had the skills and patience to climb all 14 8000ers (see No Shortcuts to the Top). I personally found the information on the 1939 and 1954 expeditions the most interesting, because these were the expeditions I knew the least about. I was amazed that Fritz Wiessner had made it so high on K2, even avoiding the faster and easier but more dangerous Bottleneck Couloir, and yet had turned around for the well-being of his rope-mate. I also found Viestur's analysis of Wiessner's character enlightening, and I appreciated his well-researched rebuttal of popular opinion. I admittedly knew very little about the 1954 ascent of K2 coming in to this book, and I appreciate the authors' research into finding out what happened rather than what was written about what happened. The 1954 expedition is frightening for many reasons, and Viesturs paints Compagnoni as perhaps the greatest villain to bag a first ascent on an 8000er. One small thing that I noticed: Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski did not buy onto Herrligkoffer's permit in 1986 (as purported by this book), but were invited as expedition climbers, according to Kukuczka's My Vertical World.

Viesturs draws many parallels between the climbs on K2 and Everest, both because Everest's history is more well-known, and (I believe) because it is a more important part of Viesturs' life. He contrasts the 1986 K2 season with the 1996 Everest season, he compares Walter Bonatti's frightening K2 bivouac with that of the 1963 American expedition to Everest, and he compares Charles Houston's mania with K2 to Mallory's attraction to Everest (to name a few). Regarding his own climbs, Viesturs discusses how his difficult relationships with his teammates on K2 led to his solo attempt on the North Face of Everest in 1993, writes about his role in the 1996 tragedy, and relates his return to Everest in 2009 to climb the Southeast Ridge (this time with supplemental oxygen).

Overall, this is a fun book, especially if you're looking for an introduction to K2 history, or you'd just like to read Viesturs' take on it. On a side note, does anyone else find it funny that Viesturs was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, AKA"Summit City"?