Monday, August 29, 2011

Mount Everest, by Sven Hedin

In 1923, Sven Hedin released Mount Everest in response to the recent climbs on the mountain by the British. The tome is a collection of articles about Everest and its environs, including several commentaries on the expeditions in response to the news coming from the mountain. I read the German edition, though there are concurrent editions in Swedish and Czech. Hedin is well-versed in the history of exploration of the area, and he uses his knowledge to show that the British were perhaps not the pioneers they professed to be. In one article, he quotes manuscripts he viewed in Italy and Germany by Jesuit missionaries that profess strikingly similar itineraries as the British Mount Everest expeditions and even describe a mountain far taller than any other around it when they are in the region. Hedin additionally cites the mapping of the Everest region by Buddhist scholars at the behest of Jesuits in Peking in 1717, which later worked its way into D'Anville's 1733 Asian atlas. The author certainly has it out for these supposed experts, and he jibes them for anything from their big gaffs of claiming to be the first Europeans to travel the area and first to map it to a mildly unflattering bit of syntax by Wollaston in their newly released Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921. The final article is about the geological formation of salty lakes in Tibet, with Hedin trying to work out their origin.

His commentary on the climbs is a bit of fresh air from the propaganda machine of Younghusband. Whereas Younghusband expounds the heroic in his many writings, such as  The Epic of Mount Everest, Hedin provides a cold dose of criticism. His first article, written before the serious climbing commenced, cited the climb by the Duke of Abruzzi's expedition on Bride Peak, in which the party had to turn around almost at the summit at 24,000 feet due to the impossibility of venturing further. The British are over-proud to think that they can scale a peak of 29,000 feet! He also doubts the efficacy of a bottled-oxygen system, especially given its capacity-to-weight ratio at the current time. He, justifiably, complains that the British are saving Everest for themselves, and that there are a number of well-trained mountaineers from other countries who are equally or more capable of making an attempt. He has to retract some of his statements in later articles when her responds to the 1922 news of the British making it to 27,300 feet using supplementary oxygen and 26,700 without. He still withholds praise however. He remains doubtful that the British will make to the top anytime soon. Why not just use an airplane?

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