Monday, September 26, 2011

Everest: The Unfinished Adventure, by Hugh Ruttledge

I'm embarrassed to admit that I've just now read the official narrative of the 1936 Everest expedition, Hugh Ruttledge's Everest: The Unfinished Adventure. It did not occur to me that an expedition that was so thoroughly defeated might actually have a enjoyable text to relate its misfortune. I noted in my post for Everest 1933 that Ruttledge writes in a more approachable, modern style, and he continues the trend here. He admits that there were some petty differences among climbers, even relates a few incidents, and lets fly that the team made double marches on the return journey to save money! (If you're looking for something like In the Hall of the Mountain King, you're bound to be disappointed, however.) Even John Hunt in 1953 was able to summon up a gentleman's collar to relate a unnaturally prosaic, yet heroic account in his Ascent of Everest. As such, The Unfinished Adventure makes a pretty good precursor to Bonington's Everest: Southwest Face in both form and style, with a great team fighting against weather that won't let up, some dissension in the ranks, and a boatload of appendices covering the minutiae of an unsuccessful climb. 

The climb gets off to a good start, but constant heavy snow and multiple blizzards put an end to their climbing after they establish Camp IV on the North Col. It seems like this climb should have been the ascent. The team includes an all-star cast, including Shipton, Smythe, and Wyn-Harris, all of whom had been above 27,000 on the North Face in 1933, and a roster nearly full of climbers with recent Himalayan experience. In Darjeeling, Ruttledge even receives a weather forecast that predicted ideal weather and a likely late monsoon. The team brings a more efficient oxygen apparatus than previously (including both open- and closed-circuit units), and a plan for a camp at the foot of the First Step---the placement of the modern day summit assault camp. If only Mother Nature had acquiesced...

The book is a pleasure to read. In addition to Ruttledge's pleasant style, the book contains several features that add to its value. There are many photographs (unfortunately at the end this time rather than shuffled into the mix), including an early action shot of climbers in a blizzard and several taken during the 1935 reconnaissance. (Ruttledge additionally covers the story of the 1935 reconnaissance in this book.) The appendices are a mix of entertainment and technical matters, contrasting a back-and-forth between Humphreys and Smijth-Windham about a stolen bottle of chutney (or was it capers?) to a catalog of all insects collected during the journey. If you actually sort through the lists, you might get a couple gems, such as the inclusion of cocaine in the medical kit or the 28-lb "portable" receiving radio meant for the high camps. This book was considerably more light-hearted than its predecessors. I suppose you have to have a sense of humor about showing up with the most firepower and achieving the least results of any of the expeditions. After Everest showed these climbers who was boss, they attempted to climb to the North Col from the West and to ascend Changste, both of which they also failed to do. What a rout!

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