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.

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