Saturday, July 2, 2011

Forever on the Mountain, by James Tabor

James Tabor's Forever On the Mountain uncovers the facts of Joe Wilcox's ill-fated 1967 climb of Mount McKinley. Of the twelve that set out to climb the mountain, five make it back down---the worst mountaineering disaster in North America's history. Like Ed Viesturs' K2, this book is about a different mountain, but the author uses Mount Everest as his touchstone. It seems like recent mountaineering authors aimed at the general public expect their audience to have some knowledge of Everest before reading their books, because at least these two use Everest as their "comprehensible" example. I found Viesturs' comparisons quite useful and insightful, but I felt that Tabor uses Everest to dramatize rather than explain.

Tabor weaves a complex tale, pulling together a wealth of evidence, including journals, interviews, government documents, and meteorological data to get the fairest assessment yet of the 1967 tragedy. He shows that previous analysts jumped to conclusions based on little evidence, and he is careful to refrain from casting blame, though he works to subtly lead the reader to conclusions. Wilcox's expedition was actually a conglomeration of two expeditions, thrown together at the last moment as a begrudging partnership. Both Wilcox and Howard Snyder, the leader of the second group, would later write books about the event. Snyder's In the Hall of the Mountain King is famous for its tell-all style, relating the nitty-gritty of angry conversations held between climbers. Wilcox's White Winds tries to show that the tragedy was largely unavoidable, as the worst storm ever recorded slammed McKinley. Tabor sorts through the drama, finding a multiplicity of factors that contributed to events, including the actions of climbers and many unexpected sources, such as members of the rescue organization, the park service, and even Bradford Washburn.

Regarding Everest, Tabor uses Everest and its literature to draw parallels between the weather, the climbing conditions, the altitude, among other things. He quotes Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air for an example of the effect of high-altitude hypoxia on the brain. He mentions Beck Weathers' Left for Dead to illustrate the feeling of severe hypothermia and to show that even professional doctors and climbers never quite know when it is absolutely to late to save someone. He mentions Tom Horbein's Everest: The West Ridge on several occasions, including quoting from the section on their high-altitude bivouac. I found that most of these work more towards hyperbole or poor parallels, as the examples either at much higher altitudes, or completely different conditions. For example, I imagine waiting above the Hillary Step after a sudden loss of oxygen support is a totally different level of befuddlement than being relatively acclimatized at the top of Mount McKinley. Also, though Tom Hornbein and his compatriots were benighted in the open on the Southeast Ridge of Everest, they managed to get a clear, windless night, whereas the McKinley climbers were stuck in a storm but had a snow cave. A better Everest parallel might have been Scott Fischer & Co.'s bivouac in a snow cave high on the North Face of Everest in 1989(?) in which his party spent four days waiting out a storm (found in Robert Birkby's Mountain Madness). Other than Tabor's Everest comparisons, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I thought he was meticulous, thorough, honest, and entertaining. I highly recommend.

1 comment:

  1. I've found that his "Blind Descent," about the search for the world's deepest cave hams up the drama and forgets much of the interpersonal interactions that made "Forever on the Mountain" so interesting. Exciting subject, but I was disappointed by the turn in Tabor's writing style.