Sunday, July 10, 2011

Everest: The Challenge, by Sir Francis Younghusband

Sir Francis Younghusband wants you to travel to the Himalaya, according to his Everest: The Challenge. In addition to a brief relation of the Mount Everest expeditions to date (1936) as well as other Himalayan climbs, Younghusband writes 1,001 reasons why the Himalaya is the ideal spot for your future vacation or spiritual enrichment. In his writing on the Everest expeditions, he also includes several chapters of analysis of the progress to date as well as suggestions for future climbs. The book is an extended essay that sums up just about anything Younghusband can think to say about the Himalaya, from the beauty of the lakes of Kashmir to the variety of butterflies in Sikkim. He is a dedicated fan, and nearly everything he has to say is positive. 

About the first half of the book is dedicated to mountains and mountaineering. His history covers the mapping of the Himalaya up to the 1933 Everest expedition (though he acknowledges the death of Maurice Wilson, his only mention of the 1935 reconnaissance), as well as some later trips, including Shipton and Tilman's exploration of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. He is fascinated by the possibilities of the small expedition, though he believes that they currently have no place on the highest mountains. He also spends plenty of ink on mapping out a practical (in his mind) plan for a successful climb of Everest that includes fixed rope strung up the Great Couloir and an additional camp above it. Weather, he acknowledges, is the bane of any plan on Everest. But he says high-altitude mountaineers must be optimists!

Younghusband is possibly the person most closely associated with Mount Everest who never even set foot on its lower slopes. As president of the Everest Committee and the Royal Geographical Society, he relished his role of chief cheerleader for both climbing Mount Everest and exploration in general. Well after his tenure, he continued his support. In this book, he reveals much more of his personality than in The Epic of Mount Everest. His mind is quite sharp and logical, has the wisdom to tie things together across the spectrum of knowledge, and has the wit to write extended passages on religion without stepping on too many toes. I found his writing on the personality behind creation thoughtful, and his tangent on intelligent life on other planets well argued, if out of place. I'm not about to say you should believe him, but he is a great essayist. After reading this book, I want to believe all the great things he says about the Himalaya, even if much of it has changed since his time. I would also like to sign up to be one of the explorers who he believes the Royal Geographical Society should support, whose primary role is to find the most scenic locations for future visitors to far-off places. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it---maybe you!

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