Friday, July 29, 2011

When Men & Mountains Meet, by H. W. Tilman

When Men & Mountains Meet serves as a coda to Harold Tilman's Everest 1938, though the delay in the publishing of Everest meant that Men & Mountains appeared in print first. The book details Tilman's post-Everest adventures, both on mountains and in the battlefield during the lead-up to and fight of World War II. The book begins with an expedition in the summer of 1939 to the Assam Himalaya, to climb and (apologetically) to survey in a blank in the map east of Bhutan. He travels with three Sherpa (including two Everest verterans, Wangdi Norbu and Nukku), and they only make it to base camp before they are thoroughly incapacitated by illness. He and Wangdi Norbu, thinking it's only malaria, work when they can, but are generally laid low most or all of the day. The illness progresses, and only three of them are able to make a difficult escape.

Tilman then moves on in the book to his attempts of the Zemu Gap, near Kanchenjunga. He states that a new survey needs to be made (and has since been made) of the area, since the gap has been misidentified, and is actually incredibly harder than and higher than earlier accounts profess. He attempts it once from the south in 1936, and is turned back by a 200-foot ice cliff near the crest. He returns, along with Pasang Kikuli (of Everest and K2 fame) in 1938 while trekking through Sikkim on his way home from the Everest climb he led. He gives a little more detail here than in Everest 1938 about other party members' actions after they fanned out towards the end of their trek across Tibet. He is especially detailed about his own successful crossing of the Zemu Gap, from the North this time.

He has a number of exciting war stories and interactions, mainly because he spurned promotion over service that would keep his interest. He serves in the Middle East, North Africa, Albania, and Italy, and seems to have mastered the retreat that defeats the more powerful foe. His units are generally under supplied, outnumbered, and survive through their geographical knowledge, cultural interactions, and well-planned tactics. Overall, some great war stories from theaters that don't get as much attention as Western Europe and the Pacific.

This book is a fun read. Tilman's ironic, sarcastic, and often self-depricating wit appears throughout, and adds a great deal of personality to his direct style. Everest doesn't play a huge role in this book, nor do mountains, but he brings up Everest often enough in the climbing sections (such as comparing the monsoon snows' effect on climbing Everest versus Kanchenjunga), and anytime hostilities die down a bit, he scrambles up a mountain wherever he happens to be during wartime. I hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Together on Top of the World, by Phil & Sue Ershler

Together on Top of the World tells the story of Phil and Sue Ershler, the first couple to climb the Seven Summits together. Phil Ershler is a mountain guide and a noted Himalayan climber, who was the first American to summit Mount Everest via the North Face. Sue Ershler is a sales executive who accompanied her husband on a couple continental high-point climbs and decided that they should finish the list together. Together, they face a number of challenges, both on their climbs and regarding Phil Ershler's health. They alternate narration throughout the book, and their tales intertwine to show a driven and supportive couple willing to push each other to do the right thing and achieve their personal dreams.

There are a number of Everest tales in this book. Phil Ershler makes two attempts on Everest before successfully climbing the North Face via the North Col in 1984. He writes about his experiences with the 1981 American Expedition to the North Face under Lou Whittaker as well as his try in 1983 with Dick Bass and Frank Wells via the South Col, in which he attempted the summit without supplemental oxygen. I don't know what it is about him, but he doesn't get much coverage in other books that cover these climbs, except perhaps Jim Wickwire's Addicted to Danger and Lou Whittaker's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide, even though he makes significant contributions to both climbs. (I, admittedly, have not yet read Bass & Well's Seven Summits yet. Yikes!) His 1984 post-monsoon climb is quite an effort. His team becomes dependent upon finding a tent left by the descending Australian team (see Lincoln Hall's White Limbo), and after not finding it and a bivouac, his summit team descends. After another rope's abortive attempt, the scrabble together the three strongest climbers, Wickwire, Roskelly, Ershler, for a last push. Together, Phil and Sue Ershler make two attempts, both via the South Col in 2001 and 2002. Note: Phil Ershler summits Everest in 2002 on the same morning as Sean Swarner, author of Keep Climbing

In contrast to many other books, the authors' climbs together are joyous times. Most of the drama of this book is off the mountain, and it makes for engrossing reading throughout. I hope that their relationship is every bit as good in person as it is on paper, because it seemed like the epitome of martial bliss. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hillary and Tenzing Climb Everest, by Bob Davidson

Bob Davidson writes a children's history of climbing the world's highest mountain in Hillary and Tenzing Climb Everest. I was a bit nervous to open the book and read it after seeing that the image of Mount Everest on the cover had been flipped backward, but I was pleasantly surprised by the contents. Davidson gets the facts straight while writing about the many attempts that led to the 1953 ascent of the mountain, the success in 1953, as well as other significant climbs. He gives about equal space to the pre-history of Everest's ascent and the 1953 expedition, and saves a couple spreads at the end for subsequent climbers, including Bonington, Tabei, Rutkeiwicz, Messner, Cesan, and others. There are photographic illustrations throughout the book, as well as a couple maps, all of them for the most part effective (though the reversed cover photo makes another appearance).

This book makes a handy library book on Everest. It's one of the few children's books on Mount Everest that gets the facts straight, and it is relatively comprehensive. This is a short book, however, and Davidson gives only basic facts about each of the early trips to Everest. I noticed that the 1938 climb is missing. (I'll forgive him since he includes the 1935 reconnaissance.) I felt that he occasionally talks over his audience's head, but since he doesn't oversimplify in his summaries, I was happy with the prose. He gives Tomo Cesan the benefit of the doubt on his controversial climb of Lhotse's South Face. I appreciated his including both Cesan and Wanda Rutkeiwicz, as Eastern Europe often gets short shrift in Everest histories. A well-written book for young readers!

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Father, Sandy, by Nicholas Wollaston

My Father, Sandy is a memoir of A. F. R. "Sandy" Wollaston, an explorer noted for trips to Africa, New Guinea, and Mount Everest, by his son, Nicholas Wollaston, who due to his father's murder grew up without him. Sandy Wollaston lived a life on the move, and his travels take him around the world. After a trip to Lapland, he decides on a medical career so that he will have useful skills for exploring expeditions. Though he hates his profession, it does seem to work as an entry into world exploration. I find it interesting that Sandy Wollaston has become closely associated with the Ruwenzori Mountains, the Carstensz Range, and Everest, and yet he never made any of their summits (though he came awfully close in the first two). If you happen to have read the collected Letters and Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston, you'll realize just how poignant Nicholas Wollaston's book actually is. Nearly everything that the author remembers about his father comes from his father's writing.

There were a couple exceptions, however. He has a hazy memory of his father from when he was a small boy, some things his mother told him about his father, and also a couple remembrances from his father's friends. There is very little to add the Everest story in this book. Sandy Wollaston was a member of the 1921 Everest reconnaissance, as doctor, naturalist, and botanist. Pretty much everything in this book comes straight from his diaries and letters or the expedition account. I could be wrong, but I believe I read in this work a couple of critical remarks that were edited out of his published writings. Nothing terribly controversial, however! Notably regarding the New Guinea trip, a friend of Wollaston's remembered his telling the friend that he was led out of the forest at the very edge of survival by a mysterious doppelganger.  

My Father, Sandy probably adds most to the story of the explorer's "retirement" to academic life and a family in England. Nicholas Wollaston writes about his parents' blissful couple years living together in the English countryside, and then his father's accepting a tutoring post at King's College, which meant that he was away most of the time again. Two weeks after his family's move to Cambridge to be with his father, Nicholas' father was murdered by a troubled student. Nicholas Wollaston was four years old.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zum Dritten Pol: Sowjetische Alpinisten auf dem Mount Everest, by Dmitri Meschtchaninow

I wanted to read a book about the 1982 Soviet Mount Everest expedition, in which they climb a difficult pillar on the Southwest Face, so I tracked down a copy of Dmitri Meschtschaninow's Zum Dritten Pol, a translation into German (for the benefit of readers in East Germany) of his Russian text. I first became interested in this climb while reading Jan Kielkowski's Mount Everest Massif guidebook, in which there was a route next to Bonington's famous Southwest Face climb, that went straight up the mountain on a rocky buttress. I became even more intrigued when I found out from Unworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History that nine climbers made the summit on this expedition. There are no books about the Soviet climb in English, but I was glad to find out that the expedition account had been translated into the only other language I read well.

The Soviet climbers had something to prove on this climb, both to the West and to the system back home. On this first Soviet Himalayan expedition, the climbers needed to show the world that Soviets know a thing or two about technical climbing and high altitude mountaineering. They also needed to show the old guard, who ran the mountaineering agency that decided who can climb what and when, that the new generation of climbers were capable, competent, and not ambitious beyond their abilities. The Soviets had the advantage of having four 7,000-meter peaks in their territory, and all of their Everest climbers had ascended them several times. As a result (in addition to trials in a decompression chamber), they knew ahead of time that their team would perform at altitude, and all climbers were able to contribute significantly to putting up the route. They set the route quickly (though the book doesn't get too much in to the details about it) using alternating teams, and are ready to send up summit pairs by May 4. Vladimir Balyberdin, without using supplementary oxygen on the ascent, becomes the first Russian to summit Mount Everest, followed closely by his rope mate Eduard Myslowski. They spend a hypoxic night high on the route and are revived and helped down the mountain by the second summit pair (notably after their own climb to the summit). Myslowski receives frostbite in one hand, but Balyberdin escapes unscathed. Another pair ascends, followed by a rope of three after a storm.

Also of interest in the book is Meschtschaninow's mountaineering history. He begins with a chapter-long telling of the history of climbing Mount Everest, from the surveying to the 1980 season. More interesting, however, is his history of Soviet mountaineering, from the initial climbs in the Caucusus Range to the modern day, including the story of the initial ascents of the 7,000-meter peaks, and the development of international climbing meets in recent past. He also comments on the Soviet Union's early history and pseudo-history of climbing Everest. He gives the other side of the story that I'd previously read Zhou & Liu's Footprints on the Peaks, about the collaboration of the Chinese and Soviets beginning in 1955 to develop a mountaineering relationship, and China's later proposal to climb Mount Everest jointly. Three Russian climbers accompanied a Chinese reconnaissance of the Tibetan side of Everest in 1958 to assess its climbing possibilities. He mentions that the Russian climbers for the 1959 joint climb had already gathered the gear together and assembled in Moscow for the flight to China when the Chinese called off the climb due to the political instability of Tibet. This, naturally, soured their climbing partnership. Meschtschaninow also writes about the 1952 "Russian" expedition to the north side of Everest, saying that it only existed (inconsistently at that!) in the western media, and that no one in the Soviet Union has ever head of Pawel Datschnolian or any of the other climbers supposed to have died on the mountain. I'm going to have to side with Meschtschaninow on the expedition's non-existence (though his argument hardly won me over) until somebody finds some old Soviet trash, or even a body, on the north side. It seems strange to me that everyone else's rubbish from 1921 to 1960 was readily found when searched for and often happened upon accidentally, and yet no one has reported picking up anything old-looking with Cyrillic writing on it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

New Zealanders and Everest, by L. V. Bryant

Leslie Vickery (Dan) Bryant, member of the 1935 Mount Everest reconnaissance, wrote a short book, New Zealanders and Everest, after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's successful climb of the world's highest mountain. He reasons that it was no anomaly that a Kiwi performed so well on Everest, as the Southern Alps are the perfect training grounds for hard Himalayan climbing. The Southern Alps long glaciers and difficult approaches, stormy weather, as well as the climbers' need to carry heavy loads of provisions on their own condition New Zealand climbers to face Himalayan difficulties with a familiarity that the European Alps do not provide. Only the altitude is missing. Bryant outlines the history of climbing Everest, and makes note of the special contributions by New Zealanders to the expeditions, especially his participation in the 1935 expedition, a New Zealand botanist accompanying Tilman on his 1949 Nepal excursion, Andrews' fly-over, Hillary and Riddiford's participation in the 1951 reconnaissance, and Hillary and Lowe's participation in the 1952 training and 1953 climb of Mount Everest. He also reminds his readers that Noel Odell, of the 1924 and 1938 expeditions, currently (1953) resides in New Zealand.

Perhaps the only thing hindering this book is its length. Byrant packs a lot of information and illustrations into his 48-page work, but it comes off more as a summary than a history. This would still make an interesting topic for today, with Keith Woodford's 1977 alpine-style expedition (first of its kind on Everest), Peter Hillary's climbs in the 1980s, and the commercial control of Everest first by Hall & Ball's Adventure Consultants and more recently by Russell Brice's Himalayan Experience. You can read more about Bryant's participation in the 1935 reconnaissance (including excerpts from his diary) in Tony Astill's Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935 and more about Hillary's participation in the 1950's expeditions in his High Adventure.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Everest: Reflections from the Top, edited by Gee, Weare, & Gee

Everest: Reflections from the Top, edited by Christine Gee, Garry Weare, and Margaret Gee celebrates fifty years of successful ascents of Mount Everest with a compilation of statements by summiteers of their thoughts about reaching the highest point on Earth. It has well over 100 entries from climbers around the world, including both famous mountaineers and hobbyist climbers. I feel that they did a thorough job of covering a range of perspectives from across Everest's summit's history, though I wish they would have tracked down a climber or two from China. They do include many climbers from Asia, however, and a number of Sherpas and other Nepalis.

The contributors average two or three paragraphs of writing, and provide anything from a straight telling of their last few steps to the top to philosophical statements about striving to the utmost. Pertemba Sherpa speaks of the dangerous job of portering and reminds us that those that help you have families that depend upon them. Stipe Bozic, on the other hand, says that climbers are crazy, but that his first ascent of the mountain was the happiest day of his life. A great many of the climbers, it seems, remember more of the mechanics of reaching the top than what was going on in their head, which is perhaps telling of the effects of the thin atmosphere upon their consciousnesses; most of the philosophizing comes from their later reflections on their climb rather than from the top of the world. In addition to the summit reflections, the book includes a foreword by Doug Scott and an introduction by Garry Weare. Scott suggests that difficult mountaineering is a throwback to humans early days of existence, in which our lives were full of risk and we spent a great deal of our energies on our survival. He also makes a corroborative point to what I just discussed, in saying that high on Everest, climbers leave behind nearly everything unnecessary for survival, including thoughts. Garry Weare's introduction outlines the history of climbing Everest, focusing somewhat on Sherpas, and also gives a brief lead-in to the book. If you're curious what you might get out of reaching the summit of Everest, this book will provide you a range of possibilities.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Seven Summits, edited by Steve Bell

Steve Bell's Seven Summits provides a general reference and testimonials about climbing the highest peak on each continent. The book is quite well done, with forewords by Dick Bass and Pat Morrow (the first to climb each version of the seven summits), Gerry Roach's tale of his early completion of the climbs, a reference on each of the summits by Bell, and testimonials on each peak by people who have completed the seven climbs. Bell picks a variety of contributors, with many lesser-known adventurers from around with world, as well as a couple standards.

Because of my habit of reading Everest books, I had actually heard of all of the contributors save Josep Pujante, whom I now know is a prolific climbing author (writing in Catalan). I was excited to read the contributions of the climbers who, like Pujante, have only released books about their climbs in languages I do not read, including Viki Groselj, Ricardo Torres Nava, Junko Tabei, Ronald Naar, and Arne Naess. It was also nice to get a take from climbers who have not yet published books on their climbs, such as Ginette Harrison and David Keaton. Brigitte Muir, author of Wind in My Hair, contributes an article on her many climbs of Australia's Kosciuszko. David Hempleman-Adams, author of Toughing It Out, gives an extended take on his climb on Vinson Massif. Doug Scott, author of Himalayan Climber, tells of his expedition to Carstensz Pyramid. There are several other contributors, and they all write about their experience on one of their seven summits.

There are five testimonials about Everest, including Gerry Roach's complete set story. Gerhard Schmatz writes about his 1979 post-monsoon international expedition to Everest, in which his wife, Hannelore, dies along with Ray Genet on the descent. His was the first expedition in which all the climbers made it to the summit, the smallest successful expedition (later exceeded by Reinhold Messner, in The Crystal Horizon), as well as the fastest at the time (32 days, later exceeded by Shin Seung Mo's crew, in Orient Express to Crystal Summit). Junko Tabei tells about her 1975 pre-monsoon expedition, in which she was the first woman to climb to the summit. I was grateful that she focused on the details of the team's preparation, as the story of her climb can be found in other sources. She had quite an unusual method of finding climbers, and the team had to work quite hard to save money, and by extension weight of their supplies, before their departure. Bell also includes entries from Yasuko Namba's journal from her fatal 1996 Everest climb. She had some reservations and was quite lonely in her team of English-speakers. Jeff Shea writes about his 1995 pre-monsoon climb via the North Ridge. I appreciated a different take from this relatively well-documented climbing season (Greg Child, Allison Hargreaves' biographers, Tom Whittaker, and several others have written about it). Gerry Roach includes the stories of his 1976 attempt, as part of the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition (in Rick Ridgeway's The Boldest Dream), as well as his successful pre-monsoon summit climb in 1983 along with David Breashears, Ang Rita, and Larry Nielsen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Everest Adventure, by Maj. John Dias

Maj. John Dias writes about the 1962 Indian expedition to Mount Everest, India's second, in The Everest Adventure. After initially good progress, the climb becomes a war of attrition, with more bad weather than good, and few good days together throughout the month of May. Amazingly, the summit team spends six days at the South Col and above, including three days at or above their assault camp on the Southeast Ridge. Because the weather reports are consistently bad, the team ends up climbing the Lhotse Face and above even in marginal weather to ensure that the route is pushed before the arrival of the monsoon. They reduce their summit teams from two to one, and even have the summit team arrive at the South Col at the same time as those who establish the camp there. Everest, however, provides no weather window. After two storm bound days at the Col, the team get a brief respite to establish their assault camp, followed by two more storm bound days. After the climbers head up painfully slowly in a morning lull, another storm hits, this time with the wet, sticky snow of the monsoon. They trudge back down the mountain in an anoxic, snail-paced narrow escape. Ang Tharkay, their sirdar, admits that he has not seen weather this bad since the 1936 British expedition. The British, of course, made it no higher than the North Col.

This is a good book about a great climb, even if the climbers did not make the summit. In both the first and second Indian Everest expeditions, the teams work hard, are well-organized, and have great leadership, but meet with terrible luck high on the mountain. (You can read about the first in Brig. Gyan Singh's Lure of Everest.) Dias' prose is direct and thoughtful, and there are copious photographic illustrations. I once again learned the scale of Everest, this time with a photo of some climbers standing in front of the "bump" on the South Col, that is actually the size of a several-story building. (This promontory actually stretches just above 8000 meters, and was first climbed in 1956 by some of the support crew for Reist and von Gunten's summit assault, according to Eggler's The Everest-Lhotse Adventure.) This expedition also has the second fatality on the Nepal side, with Nawang Tshering meeting the same fate, in a similar location, as Mingma Dorje of the 1952 Swiss autumn attempt (as told in Chevalley's portion of Forerunners to Everest). I was surprised to find out that they coaxed Ang Tharkay out of climbing retirement to be sirdar. He had not been on an expedition since Shipton's 1951 reconnaissance of Everest, in which he, unfortunately for his career, declared the route they discovered impossible for laden men. I wish Dias had included a little more detail on his change of heart. Overall, this book tells an exciting story that is not well-known. It's a short book, but worth a read. I'll be sure to get to Kohli's Nine Atop Everest, about the successful third expedition, in the near future!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Everest: The Challenge, by Sir Francis Younghusband

Sir Francis Younghusband wants you to travel to the Himalaya, according to his Everest: The Challenge. In addition to a brief relation of the Mount Everest expeditions to date (1936) as well as other Himalayan climbs, Younghusband writes 1,001 reasons why the Himalaya is the ideal spot for your future vacation or spiritual enrichment. In his writing on the Everest expeditions, he also includes several chapters of analysis of the progress to date as well as suggestions for future climbs. The book is an extended essay that sums up just about anything Younghusband can think to say about the Himalaya, from the beauty of the lakes of Kashmir to the variety of butterflies in Sikkim. He is a dedicated fan, and nearly everything he has to say is positive. 

About the first half of the book is dedicated to mountains and mountaineering. His history covers the mapping of the Himalaya up to the 1933 Everest expedition (though he acknowledges the death of Maurice Wilson, his only mention of the 1935 reconnaissance), as well as some later trips, including Shipton and Tilman's exploration of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. He is fascinated by the possibilities of the small expedition, though he believes that they currently have no place on the highest mountains. He also spends plenty of ink on mapping out a practical (in his mind) plan for a successful climb of Everest that includes fixed rope strung up the Great Couloir and an additional camp above it. Weather, he acknowledges, is the bane of any plan on Everest. But he says high-altitude mountaineers must be optimists!

Younghusband is possibly the person most closely associated with Mount Everest who never even set foot on its lower slopes. As president of the Everest Committee and the Royal Geographical Society, he relished his role of chief cheerleader for both climbing Mount Everest and exploration in general. Well after his tenure, he continued his support. In this book, he reveals much more of his personality than in The Epic of Mount Everest. His mind is quite sharp and logical, has the wisdom to tie things together across the spectrum of knowledge, and has the wit to write extended passages on religion without stepping on too many toes. I found his writing on the personality behind creation thoughtful, and his tangent on intelligent life on other planets well argued, if out of place. I'm not about to say you should believe him, but he is a great essayist. After reading this book, I want to believe all the great things he says about the Himalaya, even if much of it has changed since his time. I would also like to sign up to be one of the explorers who he believes the Royal Geographical Society should support, whose primary role is to find the most scenic locations for future visitors to far-off places. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it---maybe you!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Stories Off the Wall, by John Roskelley

For a personal perspective from one of the United States' best and most controversial climbers, read John Roskelley's Stories Off the Wall. Roskelley writes about some of the more exciting or amusing episodes in his life, including his trips to the Pamirs, his ascents of Makalu and Uli Biaho, working in a mine, and some near-death experiences. I particularly enjoyed his trip up Denali with Jim Wickwire (Addicted to Danger). He also includes two memorial tributes, one to Kim Momb and the other to a non-climbing friend, Will Hawkins. About Everest, Roskelley includes his emergency evacuation down the West Ridge and discusses his leaving the 1981 Kangshung Face expedition.

I found that this book puts a face on a climber that often receives caricature depiction in other climbers' writings. He gets less-than-favorable coverage in Robert Roper's Fatal Mountaineer (Nanda Devi 1976), and is depicted as the guy who thinks too much of himself to work with such riff-raff in both David Breashears' High Exposure (Everest 1981) and Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top (Kanchenjunga 1989). Slightly more neutral is Galen Rowell's High and Wild, in which they climb Cholatse together. In his own writing, he is far from angelic, but it does help to learn his motivations and rationalizations. Roskelley is someone who relishes the sharp end of the climb, and he doesn't put up with much straggling. He works to become an all-around mountaineer, climbing multi-pitch vertical faces, high Himalayan peaks, and tough ice. He admits that he is difficult to get along with, but he forms close partnerships with a few climbers. He metes out praise for other climbers often in this book and is careful to be vague in the object of his criticisms, such as "physicians" or "other climbers."

Roskelley discusses two of his Everest experiences in this book. In his tribute to Kim Momb, he describes his experience of coming down with pulmonary edema high on the West Ridge during Bob Craig's 1983 expedition and Momb's rescuing him. It's a frightening experience, and I found Roskelley's description of his experience enlightening, since most pulmonary edema stories are told from the perspective of the rescuers rather than the rescued. This is actually the first glimpse I've had of the 1983 expedition, and I hope to find more on it in the future. In contrast to the British, it seems like American Everest climbers almost never (after the 1963 expedition) write book-length expedition accounts. It's too bad---many of the American climbs from Tibet in the 1980s sound like exciting stories from the details I've gleaned from other sources. In his last chapter, "The Art of Risk," Roskelley discusses, among other things, his rationale for leaving the 1981 Kangshung Face expedition. He mentions the snow conditions above the buttress, the lack of teamwork, and the lack of rational leadership as his primary motivations. Additionally, he felt that conditions were just about right for a North Ridge attempt. If you don't read this one too deeply, it's a fun read. It's easy to be offended by John Roskelley, but its also easy to enjoy this book.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Forerunners to Everest, by Dittert, Chevalley & Lambert

Forerunners to Everest, by Rene Dittert, Gabriel Chevalley, and Raymond Lambert, tells the story of the two Swiss Expeditions to Everest in 1952. The Swiss got away with making the first serious attempt on Mount Everest on the Nepalese side, and I found it fascinating to read climbers experiencing Everest's "trade route" for the first time. In the spring, the climbers made it as far as 28,200 feet; when they returned after the monsoon, they did not make it much higher than the South Col. The Western Cwm (their "Valley of Silence") was much grander than they expected, and they spent a great deal of energy searching out a feasible route up to the South Col from the Cwm.

The narrative reads a bit like modernized version of some of the early British expeditions. In the spring, the expedition shows up to do some climbing with a fairly good plan for equipping camps, some nice equipment (including some stellar reindeer hide boots), but little idea what they are getting into. Additionally, they test out their oxygen equipment on the mountain, only to find it inadequate. These guys are excellent mountaineers, but they learn the hard way that there are no feasible locations for a camp on the Geneva Spur. They probe on either side of it and eventually climb through its center in the spring, ascending from the Cwm to the Col in one difficult push. It takes an accident in the fall to convince the expedition leader to place some camps in the Lhotse glacier before a traverse to the Col over the Spur. In both climbs, Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay set out for the summit climb, though in the fall, they are accompanied to their high point by their support crew that was meant to set up their high camp. In the spring, they are turned back by exhaustion, in the fall, by unrelenting winds and cold.

In addition to Forerunners, there are a number of other books that provide firsthand information about the 1952 Swiss climbs: Andre Roch's Everest 1952, Tenzing Norgay's Tiger of the Snows, Ernst Reiss' Mein Weg als Bergsteiger, and Norman Dyhrenfurth's Himalaya. Happy reading!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Forever on the Mountain, by James Tabor

James Tabor's Forever On the Mountain uncovers the facts of Joe Wilcox's ill-fated 1967 climb of Mount McKinley. Of the twelve that set out to climb the mountain, five make it back down---the worst mountaineering disaster in North America's history. Like Ed Viesturs' K2, this book is about a different mountain, but the author uses Mount Everest as his touchstone. It seems like recent mountaineering authors aimed at the general public expect their audience to have some knowledge of Everest before reading their books, because at least these two use Everest as their "comprehensible" example. I found Viesturs' comparisons quite useful and insightful, but I felt that Tabor uses Everest to dramatize rather than explain.

Tabor weaves a complex tale, pulling together a wealth of evidence, including journals, interviews, government documents, and meteorological data to get the fairest assessment yet of the 1967 tragedy. He shows that previous analysts jumped to conclusions based on little evidence, and he is careful to refrain from casting blame, though he works to subtly lead the reader to conclusions. Wilcox's expedition was actually a conglomeration of two expeditions, thrown together at the last moment as a begrudging partnership. Both Wilcox and Howard Snyder, the leader of the second group, would later write books about the event. Snyder's In the Hall of the Mountain King is famous for its tell-all style, relating the nitty-gritty of angry conversations held between climbers. Wilcox's White Winds tries to show that the tragedy was largely unavoidable, as the worst storm ever recorded slammed McKinley. Tabor sorts through the drama, finding a multiplicity of factors that contributed to events, including the actions of climbers and many unexpected sources, such as members of the rescue organization, the park service, and even Bradford Washburn.

Regarding Everest, Tabor uses Everest and its literature to draw parallels between the weather, the climbing conditions, the altitude, among other things. He quotes Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air for an example of the effect of high-altitude hypoxia on the brain. He mentions Beck Weathers' Left for Dead to illustrate the feeling of severe hypothermia and to show that even professional doctors and climbers never quite know when it is absolutely to late to save someone. He mentions Tom Horbein's Everest: The West Ridge on several occasions, including quoting from the section on their high-altitude bivouac. I found that most of these work more towards hyperbole or poor parallels, as the examples either at much higher altitudes, or completely different conditions. For example, I imagine waiting above the Hillary Step after a sudden loss of oxygen support is a totally different level of befuddlement than being relatively acclimatized at the top of Mount McKinley. Also, though Tom Hornbein and his compatriots were benighted in the open on the Southeast Ridge of Everest, they managed to get a clear, windless night, whereas the McKinley climbers were stuck in a storm but had a snow cave. A better Everest parallel might have been Scott Fischer & Co.'s bivouac in a snow cave high on the North Face of Everest in 1989(?) in which his party spent four days waiting out a storm (found in Robert Birkby's Mountain Madness). Other than Tabor's Everest comparisons, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I thought he was meticulous, thorough, honest, and entertaining. I highly recommend.