Thursday, September 8, 2011

No Magic Helicopter, by Carol Masheter

Carol Masheter becomes the oldest US woman to climb Mount Everest in No Magic Helicopter: An Aging Amazon's Climb of Everest. She turns her passion for endurance sports and occasional climbing into a focus on high-altitude mountaineering in her mid-fifties, climbing several mountains in the Andes before summiting Aconcagua and Cho Oyu. She is 60 before she calls Guy Cotter at Adventure Consultants to sign up for Everest. Her expedition climbs in the pre-monsoon season of 2008 from Nepal, and they face a number of difficulties related to the Chinese Olympic Torch Relay on the other side of the border. Her fellow clients include two mother-daughter pairs seeking records and a handful of men. Notably, Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen (who was also banned from climbing in Nepal for several years for her efforts), is one of her guides.

This was a hard book for me to read, as it is such a change from the traditional literature of Everest. While there is danger on the mountain, everything that can be controlled or Adventure Consultants runs a sturdy program, and Masheter is provided with every possible advantage in her quest for the top, including a personal minder for all of her climbing on the mountain and oxygen above the Western Cwm. Books such as this one or Vajpai's On Top of the World provide an interesting "state-of-the-expedition" account, in which the authors, due to a certain amount of removal of the clients from the planning and execution of the logistics inherent in the Cadillac operations, are largely left to worry about themselves, their personal gear, and the trivial decisions they are allowed to make. Naturally, they still have control of whether to continue on and usually have some flexibility in their acclimatization schedule (though Masheter's is tightly controlled by the Nepalese Army thanks to the Olympics), but the mystery of the climb is somewhat lost, and the essential camaraderie of working out the route happens only behind the scenes. While Masheter's climb is no doubt the event of a lifetime and a difficult test of endurance and will, I worry that her book and others that detail recent climbs may be the death knell for the Everest Literature. When we have gone from writing about blasting the limits of perceived human capabilities in the 1920s to today's fretting about the amount of cheese on a pizza at a high-altitude lodge, where is this genre heading? Will I one day have a last book to read?

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