Monday, January 30, 2012

The Fight for Everest: 1924, by Col. Norton, et. al.

The surviving British members of the 1924 Mount Everest expedition (excepting Hazard) contribute to the official account, The Fight for Everest. It's an important book to the history of climbing Mount Everest, as it details, in an account by Noel Odell, the disappearance of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine high on the Northeast Ridge. This was the first of the pre-WWII expedition accounts that I read, and I initially came away with a negative impression of the book. Back then, I actually thought it old-fashioned and somewhat boring. For this blog post, I went back through the book and read most of it again, and I have to say I've come around. When I initially read the work, I was uninitiated to the characters of the early Everest saga---all I knew about Mallory, for example, is that he died on Everest a long time ago. I think getting to know these people, such as Norton, Somervell, and Irvine, through a thorough Everest history lesson has helped me appreciate the subtleties of their personalities and a better feeling for their great accomplishments on these early climbs.

1924 was the third expedition to Everest, after a 1921 reconnaissance and a serious effort to climb the mountain in 1922. George Mallory was the only climber returning for a third try; while Norton, Somervell, and Geoffrey Bruce returned for their second climb. Climbing Everest was a logistical nightmare. Not only was it a 300-mile walk to the base of the mountain, but then they had to attempt mountaineering on a scale difficult to conceive, with six camps to stock, as in a polar expedition, freezing temperatures year-round with penetrating winds (with the occasional sun burn), and air so thin, they weren't quite sure they'd be able to breathe all the way up the mountain. Earlier expeditions to high mountains, including K2 and Kanchenjunga, had been largely disorganized affairs, and no one had been higher than the base of these mountains after the establishment of one or two camps. That the British not only got to Everest, but made it to 28,100 feet (for certain) after establishing camps all the way up to 26,800 feet, is a testament to their hard work and organization.

The book consists of two parts---the first narrates the story of the expedition, and the second is a series of appendices, including the letters of George Mallory sent home from the expedition, and essays on physiology, natural history, geology, oxygen, photography, and some suggestions for future expeditions. The story of the climb can be found readily, but the appendices are worth discussing. The physiology chapter, by Hingston, made me mourn the loss of Kellas. Now that I know more about Kellas and his work, thanks to Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest,  I realize what a step back the study of high-altitude physiology took when he died. Hingston does some basic studies, but nothing nearly as complicated as Kellas. Hingston does make a couple nods to Kellas, but also shows that he's largely unfamiliar with the particulars of his studies. I think one of the most important statements made about Mount Everest is buried in Odell's study of its geology. He contradicts Heron (the earlier expert, who believed it to be metamorphic) on the origin of the Yellow Band, and based on the samples he collected here and around the Kyetrack Glacier, came to the conclusion that it was sedimentary rock that arrived there through the upward thrust of the Earth's crust, meaning that the top of Everest was originally under the ocean. The photography chapter contains a number of entertaining anecdotes about the difficulties of developing film on the Tibetan plateau. The oxygen chapter is somewhat disappointing, as the best people to comment on its effectiveness both died on the expedition. The suggestions for future expeditions are largely practical, though I wish that current expeditions came with the recommended personal pony for each of the climbers for the approach journey! Also of interest are several of Somervell's watercolors placed throughout the book, a number of photographic illustrations (mostly by Beetham), and a detailed topographic map of the mountain. I'm glad I read this book again. I hope you'll give it a try!

NB - Irvine just about disappears in the pages of this book. To get a feel for his role and experiences during the expedition, read Herbert Carr's The Irvine Diaries, which includes his journal from the climb. He played a fairly vital role in the overhauling of the oxygen system and repairing all things mechanical.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Everest Canada: The Ultimate Challenge by Burgess & Palmer

In Everest Canada: The Ultimate Challenge, Alan Burgess and Jim Palmer write about the Canadian Mount Everest Expedition of 1982, definitely the biggest mountaineering soap opera I've ever encountered. Roger Marshall (admittedly an iconoclast), who gets them the permit in the first place, is first voted out of leadership of the expedition, and then ejected from the team altogether at Namche Bazaar (by the third team leader, Bill Marsh)! The team members bicker their way through the Khumbu Icefall at the tail end of the monsoon, and first three Sherpas are buried in an avalanche, and then as they start things back up Blair Griffiths is killed by a falling serac. This leads to more bickering, and several members leave the expedition, and somehow those remaining pull themselves together and heave two Canadians and four Sherpas to the summit, with the help of another expedition, led by Peter Hillary, that was climbing Lhotse. Burgess, if not for a faulty oxygen system, might have made it as well. Laurie Skreslet, who climbed to the top first, wrote a book, To the Top of Everest, about his climb (for brave kids). Pat Morrow, the second Canadian to summit, was more interested in what came next in his life, as detailed in his book, Beyond Everest, in which he finishes climbing the seven summits, the second person to do so.

The book is pretty well written and presented. There was some controversy over who should write the official account, especially since team members signed contracts that said there would only be one book on the expedition (like the bickering should stop after the climb?). Most of those who complained said that Burgess did not give enough space to the dissenting climbers who left after the four deaths in the Icefall, and that he over-portrayed his own role in the climb. There a few other book resources on this climb, including Alan and Adrian Burgess autobiography, The Burgess Book of Lies, Peter and Sir Edmund Hillary's Ascent, Peter Hillary's In the Ghost Country, and Bruce Patterson's 2006 review of the climb, Canadians on Everest.

This is the first of several book reviews that I'll be reworking into full-length posts from my early laundry-list blogging. I'll be doing this occasionally in between (rather than instead of) my regular posting. The original post can be found here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Will to Climb, by Viesturs & Roberts

Ed Viesturs and David Roberts write a focused history of climbing Annapurna in The Will to Climb. Like their earlier book K2, The Will to Climb selects the most interesting expeditions to its mountain and tells about the climbs in fairly good detail with some expert analysis by Viesturs. Additionally, Viesturs tells of his own three expeditions to Annapurna in considerable more detail than his No Shortcuts to the Top, the tale of his climbing the fourteen 8000-meter peaks. As a back story, the authors also write about several of the other mountaineers who pursued or accomplished the 8000-meter peak quest, including Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, Erhard Loretan, Benoit Chamoux, Viekka Gustafsson, Hans Kammerlander, Anatoli Boukreev, and Krzysztof Wielicki. The authors bring some much needed attention (in the English-speaking world) to Loretan and Kammerlander, and they narrate several tales of Annapurna climbs that were only available in detail in French or German previously, including Loretan and Joos' traverse of the mountain via the East Ridge and Moro and Boukreev's attempted winter ascent of the Northwest Ridge. Viesturs and Roberts also spend a chapter vindicating the character of Anatoli Boukreev, famous and infamous for his presence in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Viesturs agrees with me that you need to read Boukreev's Above the Clouds to get a serious impression of this guy.

As in their K2, Mount Everest plays an important role in this book as a reference for many of the points the authors convey. For the first Annapurna expedition, they compare the picking of the relatively-inexperienced Herzog as leader for the 1950 climb to choosing Col. John Hunt for the 1953 Everest climb, they contrast these two early climbs in their logistics (a frantic dash versus a military-style assault), and they contrast the national reactions to the two successful climbs. They mention that while Everest was repeatedly climbed after its first ascent, Annapurna waited twenty years for another attempt (by two British teams attempting it from different sides). Viesturs brings up his refusal to Jim Whittaker to use oxygen (and therefore be on the first summit team) on the 1990 International Peace Climb of Everest in relation to the philosophical differences on Bonington's Annapurna South Face expedition, and he contrasts the deaths of Ian Clough and Jake Breitenbach, who died early on during the 1963 American Everest expedition. Most interestingly to me, Viesturs relates that during his 1996 summit climb (first I've read this information!), there were two "foreign" climbers who trailed him closely, but refused to share in the trail breaking. (This I believe would be Goran Kropp and Jesus Martinez? or possibly Thierry Renard?)

Overall I had a great time reading this book. It covers climbs by many of the stars of Himalayan climbing and gives a lot of details that are hard to find elsewhere by English-only readers. I hope you like it too!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Legs on Everest, by Mark Inglis

Legs on Everest, written by Mark Inglis, tells the story of his ascent of the north side of Everest in 2006 under Russell Brice, the first climb of the mountain by a double amputee. Inglis' boyhood dream was to climb Mount Everest, but 13 days in a snow cave near the summit of Mount Cook during a record storm in 1982 caused him severe frostbite, and cost him his lower legs. He eventually returned to mountaineering, scaling Mount Cook again in middle age, and then Cho Oyu, with his sights set again on Everest. The book is set up as a travel diary, recording both his Cho Oyu and Everest climbs. He's not your average inspirational figure, swearing and complaining quite often in the text, but his heart is in his climbs, and he uses his climbs to raise funds and awareness for the Cambodian Trust, a charity that serves fellow amputees.

Inglis happens to climb the mountain during the controversial 2006 season, and even climbs past David Sharp. As a trained search and rescue climber (pre-1982) and an experienced mountaineer, Inglis knows the odds of helping someone in Sharp's condition and position down the mountain. Due to his prostheses, he is unable even to approach him, yet Inglis receives a lot of media attention for doing nothing for Sharp. Someone on Inglis' team later tries to help Sharp, but he was almost certainly beyond saving before Inglis approached him.  Inglis' summit climb comes at a physical cost, and he has a difficult descent. The non-media people who contact him after the climb are almost universally supportive. On his way back to Base Camp, he passes Lincoln Hall, who would also later write about his own troubled descent in Dead Lucky. Inglis' book isn't a riveting story, but it is fascinating to read how a double amputee overcomes the odds and a lot of doubters to achieve his dream.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Some Changes

Everest Book Report is maturing, I hope! I'll be removing the last vestiges of a reading journal blog, and working towards making this a comprehensive resource on Everest books. I've removed my "Rules of the Game" page and replaced it with "Recommended Reading." I'll now be posting about books I've read before I started this blog (in addition to newly read books), because I felt it was a shame to not include such works as The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt or Greg Child's Postcards from the Ledge merely because I had read them before. Also, I'm going to go back and clean up and shorten some of my reading journal entries from the beginning of the blog and write some more significant information on the books that made it into my "laundry list" posts that followed soon after. I'm hoping all these changes will be more useful to anyone seeking information on these books.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Life Is Meeting, by John Hunt

John Hunt, leader of the 1953 first ascent of Mount Everest, writes some chapters of autobiography in Life Is Meeting. Hunt focuses on his career and his climbing in this work, giving a brief look at many of the interesting parts of his life, including climbing and exploring in the Himalaya as a young man, his experiences in World War II, his several public service jobs after the war, and a number of climbs (including Everest) around the globe. For the Everest reader, John Hunt seems to appear from nowhere in 1952 to take over the reigns of the Everest expedition. I appreciated reading his early history, including an ambitious attempt on Peak 36 (25,400) in the Karakorum in 1935 and ascents of several lesser peaks in Sikkim before the war. His 1935 climb earned him an invitation onto the 1936 Everest expedition, but a heart murmur convinced doctors that he was not fit to climb stairs. (What's with these Everest doctors, anyway???) For part of the war, he served with Frank Smythe, instructing troops in mountain warfare. (Hunt added the military flavor back into Smythe's hill wanderings.) After the war, several good climbs in the Alps with a member of the Everest committee convinced the member to recommend him for a leadership role in the upcoming climb. Hunt was quite embarrassed, however, when he found out that he had replaced Eric Shipton as leader, especially when he found out how it came to pass.

Hunt writes a chapter on Everest in which he comments on the expedition and talks about the reunions and expedition members. He is still impressed by the cohesion of the team, even well after the climb. He comments on his book title, The Ascent of Everest, mentioning that like Bonington's Everest: The Hard Way, it supposes that it would be the only climb (or hardest) of the mountain. He backs up his choice of Hillary and Tenzing for the summit climb, saying that they were the fittest pair on the mountain, and that it doesn't matter where they're from, the point was to put someone on top of the mountain. Also, he compliments Tenzing on his handling of the media circus and his eventual career at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

I was impressed by how much Hunt climbed with his fellow Everesters after the ascent of Everest. He climbs in the Caucuses with George Band and Alfred Gregory, Greenland with George Lowe (who later becomes his son-in-law) and John Jackson (back-up climber for the expedition), the Pamirs with Lowe and Wilfrid Noyce (who perishes along with Robin Smith on the climb), and several Alpine climbs with a number of Everesters, including Ernst Reiss (Mein Weg als Bergsteiger) and Albert Eggler (The Everest-Lhotse Adventure).

His careers are varied, but always in the service of the public. He begins in the military, graduating with honors from Sandhurst, and working his way up the ranks to Colonel, working in the command center of the European Alliance after the war. He moves on to chair the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, which encourages young people towards higher achievement and adventure. He also works as an adviser for the beginnings of the Parole Board in Britain, and later as an MP in the House of Lords. I was amazed to read his suggestion that it is time to move on from the hereditary House of Lords and replace it with a merit-based appointed Senate that oversee the editing of legislation that leaves the House of Commons.

This isn't a great biography, nor terribly exciting. I'd recommend it to Everest fans, especially those who'd like to know more about the mysterious new leader of the 1953 expedition. He does make several interesting travels, such as mountaineering in Greece and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, that you're unlikely to read about anywhere else.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Seven Summits, by Bass, Wells, & Ridgeway

I've finally got around to reading Seven Summits by Dick Bass, Frank Wells, and Rick Ridgeway, and I have to say that my fears about the book were unfounded. While it is the original rich-amateur-achieves-his-dream book, it also sets the standard for quality of prose and excitement. After reading Seven Summits, I can understand why so many people would want to achieve the same goal. Dick Bass, with very little training, pushes himself to the top of the tallest mountain on each of the continents. Not only are these trips rewarding experiences for him, but they serve as escapes from his high-pressure work life. Though I don't think it was intended, this book is a veritable infomercial for the seven summits dream. Though there is danger all around, the protagonists scrape by with minor injuries at most. They describe some of the most beautiful scenery (as professed by Chris Bonington, no less!) in the world, in some of the most remote locations on earth. The seven summits dream is there for the taking, and with determination, persistence, and considerable amounts of money, Bass and Wells pull it off. Both Bass and Wells attempt the peaks, but ultimately only Bass makes it to the top of all seven.

I was fascinated to read about these two from their own perspective. I've come to know them from the writings of their Everest teammates, such as Phil Ershler (Together on Top of the World), Jim Wickwire (Addicted to Danger), and David Breashears (High Exposure). Ershler and Wickwire seem to treat Bass and Wells like a couple of rich yahoos who bankrolled their expedition but got in the way. Breashears writes very respectfully of Bass and calls Bass his friend, but I was never sure how much of this was defensive and how much was honest. In Seven Summits, Bass and Wells defend themselves quite well from their critics, and I have to say I have a lot more respect for them as adventurers after reading their book.

Bass and Wells participate in two Everest expeditions together, and Bass makes two additional attempts before he climbs the mountain. Their first expedition, the 1982 Great Couloir climb under Lou Whittaker (Memoirs of a Mountain Guide), served as a practice run after the authors quickly realized during their preparations that Everest wouldn't go quite so easily. They shuttled loads to the lower and intermediate camps, but ultimately no one on the team makes it to the summit. In 1983, they help organize and finance a South Col expedition under Phil Ershler; due to snow conditions and team fitness Dick Bass turns around at the balcony on the Southeast Ridge. Frank Wells spends three nights on the South Col pinned down in a storm. The next spring, Bass thinks he and David Breashears will have a chance to climb the mountain by funding a cleanup expedition with the Nepal Police Association, but there is much politicing. Finally, in 1985, Bass and Breashears tag along as a separate climbing pair on the Norwegian expedition that put Arne Naess (Drommen om Everest) and Chris Bonington (Chris Bonington's Everest) on the summit.

This is a fairly long book, and there is quite a bit more to it. They, of course, climb each of the seven continental summits, but as the first to attempt to finish the list, they run into a quite a lot of snags. Wells show his talent at making things happen by working out the '83 Everest climb and by setting up their flight to Vinson, chartering a flight, setting up a fuel drop, and fighting with masses of red tape. Like Wickwire's and Whittaker's works, Marty Hoey place a pivotal role in this work---she comes off as slightly different in all three works, but has a powerful effect on all the authors (Bass in this one). I hope you'll give this book a shot---I'm glad I did.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chomolungma Sings the Blues, by Ed Douglas

Ed Douglas picked an auspicious time to write Chomolungma Sings the Blues. He documents his travels around Mount Everest, visiting the northwest side in the spring of 1995 and the Khumbu in the spring of 1996, catching both an exciting season in Tibet and the First Act of the 1996 disaster. Douglas claims that it is a book written from the climber's perspective, but I think he oversimplifies his position. I find the book more of a analytical and cynical take on the Himalayan trekking experience from someone who has observed the area through the media for quite a while. He breaks down what he should be seeing and what he could have seen in the past and compares it to his own experiences during his two sojourns. He digs into the issues effecting both Nepal and the Sherpa and offers some solutions and a lot of questions about their relationships with the outside world, such as whether NGOs are actually doing Nepal any good, and what should environmentalism be in the Khumbu. I found Douglas' arguments intelligent, and his acrimony well placed...most of the time! Appropriately, he sticks up for the Sherpas as people, and decries their shadowy existence in the history of Himalayan climbing. Yet, he had many negative things to say about his experience in Tibet, and then speaks of his desire to return.

In Tibet, he actually visits Base Camp, but in Nepal he treks only as far a Kala Pattar (quite early in the season, however). In the north, he speaks with Alison Hagreaves (Regions of the Heart, co-written by Douglas) and Greg Child (Postcards from the Ledge) and writes about the climbs of Tom Whittaker (Higher Purpose) and George Mallory, grandson of George Mallory. In Nepal, he runs into a host of lesser-known characters from the Everest tragedy, including Bruce Herrod, Audrey Salkeld, Mal Duff, and Veikka Gustafsson. From his telling of the South African expedition's plight (see Ascent and Dissent), it sounds like he spent some time with the climbers who resigned as well. He tells the tale of the larger tragedy in broad strokes, so it doesn't take over the book, thankfully. Also related to Everest, Douglas has written a biography of Tenzing Norgay, Tenzing: Hero of Everest.

Friday, January 6, 2012

My Tibet, by The Dalai Lama & Galen Rowell

Galen Rowell and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama collaborate on the photo essay My Tibet. I assumed, based on the cover image (Never judge a book...) of Everest from the Rongbuk Monastery that Everest might play some auspicious role in this book, but I was disappointed in that respect. However, I discovered a lovely book that focuses on the cultural geography and the wildlife of Tibet. Rowell provides the photographs and the Dalai Lama provides several essays on Tibetan culture, religion, and his life, in addition to comments on several of the images. Rowell's images cover the gamut of his travels, from Kailas in the west to Anye Machin in the east, and they highlight the living Tibet, showcasing its people, flora, and fauna. He focuses on what remains of an older Tibet, with images of pilgrims, monasteries, and many of its endangered species. The Dalai Lama discusses the state of wildlife in the country and speaks proudly of its people. When the authors speak of My Tibet, there is beautiful (but perhaps misleading) idealism in both the Dalai Lama's words and in Rowell's images.

I had hoped to get some idea of what the current Dalai Lama thought of all the crazy people climbing Chomolungma or even learn about the relative importance (or not) of the Rongbuk Monastery, but I was ultimately disappointed. There is a single quote, however, about the Tibetan people's general disinterest in the early British attempts to climb Mount Everest. (This would have been during the 13th Dalai Lama's lifetime, however.) There are several images of the areas around Everest, including the Kama Valley, Tingri, and another image of the Rongbuk Monastery. I wouldn't recommend this book for its Everest material, but it's an enjoyable experience for anyone looking for some quality photographs and a bit of wisdom from a great thinker. Other Rowell books I've reviewed include High and Wild, Mountain Light, and Mountains of the Middle Kingdom. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Prelude to Everest, by Mitchell & Rodway

Ian Mitchell and George Rodway write the first book-length biography of Alexander Kellas in their Prelude to Everest. During my Everest reading, I often thought that this revolutionary figure deserved more attention, and I had hoped to one day write this book myself. I'm glad, however, that these two fine researchers saved me a lot of digging and present Alexander Kellas in the fullest sense currently possible. The authors managed to pull together a biography of a man who did his climbing a hundred years ago, kept no journal, wrote of his climbs only sporadically, often got dates mixed up, and published little of what he did write. Kellas, however, is credited with the most advanced study of high-altitude physiology of his time, "discovering" the usefulness of Sherpa climbers, climbing the highest mountain on record at the time, working out the best route to Everest, and climbing more Himalayan peaks that any other mountaineer of his day (without guides, or even other Europeans along for the climb, to boot!).

In addition to uncovering the often mysterious story of Kellas, Mitchell and Rodway add some important information to the story of Mount Everest. In the book, they include a draft proposal by Kellas for Col. Rawling's intended 1915 reconnaissance of Everest that failed to materialize due to the outbreak of the war. The personnel of this dreamed-of expedition includes several members of later Everest climbs, including Wollaston as medical officer, Morshead as surveyor, Noel as transport officer, and Kellas as a climber. I find it fascinating that this planned expedition gets no mention in Wollaston's diaries (Letters & Diaries of A. F. R. Wollaston) or in Noel's autobiography (Through Tibet to Everest). Mitchell and Rodway piece together what information exists about Kellas' pre-Everest 1921 travels and reassess the circumstances that led to his death, coming to a surprising conclusion. Also, they include in an appendix a paper presented to the Alpine Club by Kellas in 1920 about the possibilities of climbing Mount Everest that focuses on the physiological difficulties of climbing the mountain, giving a highly-detailed scientific explanation of why he thinks it is just possible for an extremely fit person to climb it without supplementary oxygen (if the mountaineering difficulties are not great) and for someone breathing supplemental oxygen to climb it if the upper reaches are difficult. While Michael Ward had tipped his hat to Kellas in his medical / geographical history of Everest (Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration), Mitchell and Rodway, by publishing this essay, prove that Kellas was well ahead of his time, even predicting the rate of ascent Messner and Habeler would climb the last 1000 feet of the mountain. It's a shame Kellas was such a solitary person! I hope you'll read this book and discover anew this fascinating individual almost lost to history.