Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Everest Calling, by Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins tells the story of the first Irish Mount Everest expedition in Everest Calling: Ascent of the Dark Side. The team climbs the mountain from Tibet via the North Ridge during the 1993 pre-monsoon season (the year before Nepal hiked their permit prices to $50,000, making the Tibetan side suddenly popular) during the last uncluttered season north of Everest until the Olympic torch relay cleared it out for a politically-sensitive ascent in 2008.  In contrast to the relatively good weather on the south side, the Irish team faces a number of storms until late in the season. While Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese climbers make fatal and near-fatal ascents in the brunt of the storms, the Irish wait it out for safer weather, making a down-to-the-wire summit attempt as their gear is being cleared from Advanced Base Camp. The organizers and leaders of the expedition, Dawson Stelfox and Frank Nugent, make sure to include climbers from both sides of Ireland, and they make a good impression on the divided public, achieving a conciliatory political statement that the hopelessly divided South African team of 1996 failed to pull off.

The Irish ascent is an unlikely adventure, with earlier teams repelled by both Changtse and Manaslu and a relatively small number of climbers with high-altitude experience to choose from. The team works well together, even on a limited budget, and they support each other even in their setbacks. The book is well-constructed, with a flowing and casual style that seemed to me distinctly Irish. Siggins isn't a great mountaineering writer, but she does well with this particular story, especially for a general audience. The photography in the book is quite moody and beautiful, a fitting backdrop to much of the prose. I enjoyed this book, and I hope you will too.

PS - Siggins reminds us that both Col. Howard-Bury, leader of the 1921 reconnaissance of Everest, and Sir Edmund Hillary have Irish heritage.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Feeding the Rat, by Alfred Alvarez

Alfred Alvarez writes a profile of Mo Anthoine, a leading British climber and gear manufacturer, in Feeding the Rat. Anthoine turns up in a number of other British Everest books, such as Brummie Stokes' Soldiers and Sherpas or Doug Scott's Himalayan Climber, and he comes off as a hard-climbing steadfast companion who stays on the proper side of caution. Alvarez writes a tribute to a close friend and rope mate, who loved climbing and difficult expeditions with friends, but avoided the limelight. Anthoine and Joe Brown began making climbing helmets in the 1960s, and their business grew through the 1980s to include a wide range of hardy, but simple climbing equipment. (It didn't hurt that their products became popular with the British military.) They used their work to fund their climbing, and they were able to tackle a number of difficult objectives without the great sponsorship burdens of the professional mountaineers. As the subtitle of the book "Profile of a Climber" states, this is not an extensive biography, but rather a splendid introduction to a workhorse of British climbing (notably, his 1976 ascent of the Trango "Nameless" Tower warrants no coverage in this work). He is possibly most famous among armchair mountaineers for, along with Clive Rowland, saving the butts of Doug Scott and Chris Bonington during their harrowing descent of the Ogre.

Anthoine participated in both of Brummie Stokes' Northeast Ridge attempts, in 1986 and 1988. Only the first trip is covered in Feeding the Rat, as the book was published in 1988. Anthoine found the sixteen-climber expedition impersonal, but he was entranced by climbing on a new route on the tallest of mountains. In the book, he comments on his motivations, the scale of the mountain, his counting scheme during the drudge work, and the logistics of getting climbers up a difficult proposition such as the Pinnacles. Though the teams did not make the summit on either attempt, Harry Taylor and Russel Brice managed to surmount the Pinnacles in the 1988 climb, returning via the North Col. Notably, Anthoine's 1988 expedition to Everest would be his last, dying of a brain tumor in the summer of 1989.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sheer Will, by Mike Groom

I've been looking forward to reading Mike Groom's Sheer Will for a long time, and my patience has paid off. Groom is the whipping boy of Australian high-altitude mountaineering, and he comes back for more after several close calls and tragedies that should have ended his quest to climb the world's five tallest mountains, including losing the front third of his feet to frostbite, being avalanched off the West Face of Lhotse, being struck by rock fall, and surviving the 1996 Everest disaster. His book is an honest, but at times reserved account that provides a personal perspective on a long list of Himalayan climbs, his recovery from major frostbite, and his life as a professional mountaineer. He generally did not keep climbing diaries, and the details are at times general, but the number of climbs he covers makes up for it, and he has vivid recollections of his most dramatic climbs. His 1994 climb of K2 is particularly impressive, climbing to within 30 meters of the summit via the South Pillar days after arrival in base camp, turning around, and then returning via the Abruzzi Ridge to finish the climb.

As a boy, Groom dreamed of climbing Mount Everest, even claiming to his school friends that his dad had climbed it. He had a difficult apprenticeship on his journey to Everest, not quite performing well enough on the White Limbo (by Lincoln Hall) team's climb of Annapurna II to join them on their famous climb of Everest's North Face, and then overreaching his safety margin in his summit climb on Kanchenjunga in 1987 (which he climbed with only a partner), losing all his toes and parts of his feet to frostbite. His recovery was long, painful, and against the odds. His subsequent climbing would border between painful and excruciating depending on the day's climb, but his need to climb drove him on. He returned to the fray in a 1989 attempt on Ama Dablam and a 1990 summit of Cho Oyu before organizing his own expedition to Everest for 1991.

Groom has a sordid history with the world's highest mountain. On his first trip in 1991, he was swept 900 meters, miraculously survived with only some broken ribs and a broken nose, and yet returned to attempt the summit at the end of the expedition. In 1993, he joined Tashi Tenzing's (Tenzing Norgay's grandson, see his Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest) expedition, in which he climbed to the summit without supplementary oxygen along with Harry Taylor (one of the first climbers to surmount Everest's infamous Pinnacles), but lost his friend an teammate, Lobsang Tschering, on the descent. Then, he returned in 1996 as a guide, only to be caught up in the tragedy of May 10 (an auspicious day for Groom, both good and bad!). Groom delayed publication of his book to add the 1996 Everest chapter, and it's a good thing he did. Groom was the only surviving guide from Hall's Adventure Consultants team, and his story contains many details that other accounts lack, such as a coherent perspective from the "huddle" that spent much of the night in the open on the South Col and details from the radio conversations during the summit climbers' descent. His account places Hall and Harris in different locations than other authors' and he, along with Boukreev (see his Above the Clouds), gives a professional climbers' witness to the tragedy.

Sheer Will is considerably more expensive currently than the average Everest book, with used copies going for around $40. If you'd like an inexpensive preview, Clint Willis includes material from the 1996 Everest chapter in his Epics on Everest. Sheer Will is a wonderful book, and if you have money to burn, I believe it's worth the outlay. Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Highest Mountain, by Kris Hirschmann

Kris Hirschmann writes a book for kids about Mount Everest and its environment in The Highest Mountain. The book is one volume in Kidhaven Press' Extreme Places Series, including the deepest lake, the longest bridge, and the longest river. The author wisely picks a few topics and goes into detail rather than writing a general book. The four topics include the geography of Everest and its surrounding area, the history of surveying the peak, a short history of climbing the peak, and the environmental degradation and recent conservation efforts.The information in the geography section is quite good, though the author uses a rather nebulous definition for Mount Everest, including describing wildlife that resides below 5,000 feet elevation, which would be quite far away. I also found the surveying section well-written, even describing the trouble of accurately describing sea level. Some information was oversimplified, but nothing too bad. The environmental section properly identifies the issues with waste and deforestation and talks about them quite well, but overlooks climate change. It is difficult to talk about intelligibly with children, but it is certainly having an impact on Everest and its environs.

Now for the climbing! The climbing history of Mount Everest is somewhat more disappointing than the other sections of the book. Though there was only occasional wackiness in the survey chapter, the climbing history gets messy at times. A 2003 book should not say that Mallory and Irvine's bodies were never found. There were decidedly more than five camps in the 1953 expedition, and though Tenzing and Hillary waded through deep snow on the upper Southeast Ridge, I wouldn't go so far as to say they continually dug themselves out of snow pits nor were they lucky enough to drink gallons of hot tea at their top camp (more likely measurable in quarts, and it was lemon drink). The Chinese did not follow the same route as the first ascent. After a mention of the 1965 Indian expedition, the rest of the climbing history is lumped into generalities. In general in this book, do not trust the photo captions. They switch Everest and Nuptse (Notably, the cover is a picture of Nuptse, with Everest cut out of the photo.), state that the 1922 expedition only made it to 22,000 feet, call the 1953 expedition the "Hillary Expedition," gives a location for a photo as "at the Solu-Khumbu trek," and shows a "satellite" image of a climber in profile crossing an aluminum ladder at the top of the Khumbu Icefall, taken from 50 feet away. As long as you don't need accurate information about climbing the mountain or need accurate photo descriptions, this is a decent book. It's certainly not my favorite, but it should be useful for the other three topics it covers besides climbing.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Summit, by Eric Alexander

If you want to get away with some adventure reading while gaining some brownie points with God, try Eric Alexander's The Summit. Alexander is the first (that I know of) author to climb Mount Everest and write about it from a religious Christian perspective (unlike Roger Hart, who bumped his head while ascending the North Col and invented his own religion in The Phaselock Code). The author climbed along with Erik Weihenmayer (author of Touching the Top of the World), Brad & Sherman Bull, Charlie Mace, and many others under the sponsorship of the National Federation for the Blind via the South Col in the pre-monsoon season of 2001. Throughout the book, he writes about his faith and how climbing and his journey relates to his beliefs, and he structures the chapters to loosely focus on specific concepts important to both Christianity and climbing. His team gets a lot of flack for blind climber Erik Weihenmayer's presence on the mountain, but Alexander shows that team work and attitude are far more important for success than one climber's seeing where the next foot placement lies.

For me, the book came off as a bit of an uncomfortable mix. It was hard for me to read a quote of Bible scripture on one page that admonished the taking of revenge, and then on another to read about his leading Wiehenmayer into a pile of yak poo in retaliation for a snide comment. I appreciated his honesty in storytelling, but I found his laughing about little things like this difficult to get over, considering his pedagogic focus. (I will admit that I am the sort of person who is often bothered more by a several smaller things than one bigger problem.) I believe the sincerity of his faith, and I think he makes a strong argument for risk-taking such as mountaineering while a Christian. I respect his self-imposed distance from the local rituals, but I find it sad that he seemed threatened or uncomfortable around them. I'm not sure if I like this book or not, but I think it would be a great read for a select audience. I'd recommend reading a couple pages before bringing it home.

PS - Alexander's claim of his team's record of heaviest movie equipment on the summit is unsubstantiated. David Breashears (or should I say two Sherpa) actually carried his significantly heavier IMAX camera and tripod to the summit in 1996 for 90 seconds of panoramic footage (see High Exposure).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Points Unknown, edited by David Roberts

David Roberts compiles a collection of some of the best English-language true adventure writing in Points Unknown: A Century of Great Exploration. Roberts is a former climber and his collection reflects his own history, with nearly a quarter of the entries telling stories from the mountains. He includes a wide range of interests, however, with polar journeys, caving, deserts, oceans, and jungles. All of the chapters in this collection are book excerpts. As Roberts is a great adventure writer, he has a nose for good stories by other authors, and he picks a fine collection of both popular and cult titles.

Roberts chooses a number of Everest-related titles. I was happy to not read another Ascent of Everest excerpt here! Instead he chooses two famous, yet considerably more dramatic stories that take place on Mount Everest: Noel Odell's account of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance into the clouds in 1924 and Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld's traverse of Everest from the North Face to the South Col. Roberts includes Odell's entire chapter on Mallory and Irvine's summit climb from The Fight for Everest, from his ascent to Camp V to his analysis of their odds of making the top. Hornbein and Unsoeld's climb comes from Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge, and Roberts includes their climb from their top camp at the future Hornbein Coulior to the end of their bivouac, along with Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop at a record 28,000 feet. There are a number of other titles about Everest climbers in Roberts' collection, including Eric Shipton (1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1951) and Bill Tilman's (1935, 1938) ascent of Mount Kenya in Shipton's That Untravelled World, Tilman and Odell's (1924, 1938) climb in The Ascent of Nanda Devi, Tom Patey and Don Whillans' (1971, 1972) attempt on the North Face of the Eiger from Patey's One Man's Mountains, Art Davidson's 1967 winter climb of Denali along with Ray Genet (1979) in Minus 148 Degrees, Peter Boardman (1975, 1980, 1982) and Joe Tasker's (1980, 1982) climb of the West Face of Changabang from The Shining Mountain, and Jon Krakauer's (1996) climb of the Devil's Thumb from Eiger Dreams. Also of Everest interest, Tim Cahill, the screenwriter for Breashears' Everest IMAX film, provides a story on caving in Kentucky from Jaguars Ripped My Flesh.