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.

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