Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Story of Everest, by W. H. Murray

W. H. Murray gives the history of climbing Mount Everest up to 1953, including his own participation in the reconnaissance of 1951, in The Story of Everest. In the first US edition, Murray updates his initial edition, which covered only up to the 1952 Swiss climbs, to include a chapter on the successful 1953 ascent under Col. John Hunt. He provides a climbers' perspective on the early history of the mountain, and his prose is clear and to-the-point. It is certainly better than Leonard Wibberly's The Epics of Everest, released about the same time, who trades drama for analysis. He covers all the expeditions from 1921 to 1953, giving the historically significant climbs several chapters each. He includes a brief summary of Maurice Wilson's attempt, but ignores Klaus Becker-Larsen's illicit foray into Tibet; Earl Denman still had not fessed up to his 1947 shenanigans at the time of The Story of Everest's publication.

The quality of the material is sound. He takes some easy answers for the early climbs, such as saying that George Finch was too sick to participate in the 1921 reconnaissance, but he makes up for it in his democratic treatment of the climbers, praising their work on the mountain without hyperbole and saying little of their reputations off the mountain. Murray takes a conservative view on the climb of Mallory and Irvine, but stands up for the strength of humankind in the oxygen debate. I was curious, based on his friendship with Michael Ward (A Thousand Years of Exploration), whether they would have similar opinions on Everest's history, but I found that they disagree on several conclusions, even regarding the 1951 reconnaissance that they jointly organized. His analysis has mostly turned out to be true, especially regarding the use of supplementary oxygen, though his weather and snow condition analysis has since turned out to be only somewhat correct. I was worried, based on the publication date, that this book would be a hastily thrown-together work meant to maximize profit, but I'm pleasantly surprised by its merit. It's not the best work out there anymore for Everest's early history, but it's worth a read if it's immediately available.

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