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?

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