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.

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