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!

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