Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tenzing of Everest, by Yves Malartic

Yves Malartic contrives to write an autobiography of Tenzing Norgay in his Tenzing of Everest. At best, the book can be called a novel based on true events, as much of its contents is false. In his later English-language biography, Tiger of the Snows, Tenzing states that Malartic had only a short interview with him and did not inform Tenzing that he would be writing a book with the material. It comes out in Tenzing of Everest, as Malartic takes a kernel of truth and wraps it profusely with hypothetical and conjured material. It would take a book to list the mistakes in this one, but I'll share a few. A running problem is that Malartic considers Sherpas Mongolian, even tracing their heritage to Genghis Khan. Malartic falsely states that Tenzing joined the Chitral Scouts, and conjures a military career for him. My favorite is that Malartic believes Col. Hunt and Tenzing signed a contract at Darjeeling before their climb that states that Tenzing would be on the summit team.

Malartic has a particular animosity towards the British. It's an interesting change of perspective to read them portrayed as heartless colonialists who seek to take every advantage of their Sherpa underlings. He believes Col. Hunt also needed Tenzing to guide them up the mountain, and most importantly to lead them to the stores and oxygen cylinders the Swiss left behind, as they were essential to his plan. There's an interesting role reversal I appreciated (though it is grossly over-portrayed) in Tenzing pulling Hillary out of the crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall with Hillary flopping over the edge like a fish pulled from the sea, which can only be a knock on Hillary's comment about Tenzing's ascent of the chimney near the summit. One bit of fresh air in this book is Malartic's portrayal of the Swiss attempts, which is pretty much correct, as I imagine he had access to an account of them in French. Unless you're looking for a bit of Rum Doodle, don't bother with this book. For a good biography of Tenzing, read Ed Douglas' Tenzing: Hero of Everest.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Boldest Dream, by Rick Ridgeway

Rick Ridgeway tells of the trials and success of the 1976 American Bicentennial Everest Expedition in The Boldest Dream. He bills the expedition as the first amateur Everest expedition, but it is more accurately the first successful amateur expedition, organized and run by what we would today call "weekend warriors" who happen to have a couple connections in Kathmandu, State Department letterhead, and a lot of luck. To defray much of their costs, they have a major TV network film their ascent, but they find the cameras rolling at all the worst moments. Ridgeway, as well, focuses on the interpersonal conflict between the team members, swear words and all. While an interesting change from the sterile accounts of the 1950s, I felt like the pendulum swung a little far. He intersperses into the narrative entries from the diaries of the climbers, which often offers marked contrasts to the fights.

They climb in the post-monsoon season, and their ascent is a race against time. Many in the team have trouble relating to the Sherpas, and a general animosity arises between the expedition and their hired help. They originally planned for many in the team to attempt the summit, but the logistics don't quite work out. Ridgeway claims that their two summit climbers took the first video footage at the summit, but the Chinese in 1975, the Americans in 1963, and the Indians in 1965 also did. Originally, Arlene Blum, according to her Breaking Trail, was to write the book about this expedition, but she later turned it over to Ridgeway. I find it interesting to speculate about what her book would have been like. Ridgeway's is a pretty good read, though I felt a bit voyeuristic during a couple of the fights. 

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier post, which can be found here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Picture of Everest, by Alfred Gregory

Alfred Gregory documents the successful 1953 expedition in a pictorial journey to the top of the world in The Picture of Everest. Gregory's photographs are mountain photojournalism at its best---he repeatedly captures what is unique about the expedition and shows it in an action shot, whether a Sherpa ascending a rope ladder in the Khumbu Icefall with a square wood crate lashed to his back, or John Hunt yelling into a bullhorn on their "portable" wireless radio, or looking down at Hillary and Tenzing...and the world from the site of Camp IX on the Southeast Ridge.

This isn't the best book for quality images by Gregory. In his later Alfred Gregory's Everest, the author states that he had no control over the development of the photographs in this volume, as they were developed by lab technicians while he was still on the mountain. Also, color printing for books in 1954 was nowhere near what we have today. The later book (1993), both in printing quality and development is more worth your while. There is a more recent book (2008), Alfred Gregory: From Everest to Africa, that I haven't viewed yet, but I imagine is even more lovely.

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier one, which can be viewed here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Triumph on Everest, by Broughton Coburn

Broughton Coburn writes a young readers' biography of Sir Edmund Hillary in Triumph on Everest. He covers the bulk of Hillary's life, from his birth up to his 80th birthday, including his climb of Everest, his many other adventures, and his life of philanthropy. Though Coburn's prose could be considered a little dry, his book is well-researched and not dumbed-down. He touches on the tough subject of the death of Hillary's wife and daughter, but brushes off Hillary's long-term depression after their death, an especially tough topic for a hero biography for kids. I appreciate Coburn's focus on Hillary's efforts to help Sherpas, as well as the variety and quality of photographs he chooses. Because of Coburn's long association with Nepal, he is able to properly represent the culture and humanity of the Sherpas. He does, however, skip over some of Hillary's later adventures, only obliquely mentioning his ascent of the Ganges, and leaving out his participation in the 1981 Kangshung Face expedition. This book, published in 2000, is one of the earliest to show an excerpt from the updated National Geographic map of Everest, giving its height as 29,035. Also regarding Everest, Coburn has written about the 1996 IMAX Everest expedition in Mountain without Mercy.

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier post, which can be found here

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nine Atop Everest, by Com. Mohan Kohli

Com. Mohan Kohli tells the story of the 1965 Indian Everest Expedition, India's third, in which nine climbers scale the peak, in Nine Atop Everest. It's about time for the Indians, as they come tantalizingly close to the summit in both 1960 and 1962, (read Singh's Lure of Everest and Dias' The Everest Adventure, respectively) but are turned back by terrible weather. This time, they arrive early and are prepared for a summit assault by late April, but they have both the patience and the supplies to wait until the end of May, when the weather allows them to the top. They set a number of records with their ascent, including the oldest (Sonam Gyatso) and youngest (Sonam Wangyal) to climb Everest, the most to climb the peak from an expedition, and the first climber to scale Everest twice (Nawang Gombu). Based on the narrative, it's a relatively happy expedition, with climbers and Sherpas getting along well, excellent food, and no major injuries. It's a bit of a valedictory trip, as they discover on their trek in that Nepal will be closing its high peaks to climbers indefinitely after their expedition. (Not until 1969 would Everest be climbed upon again.) Because there had been two previous trips to Everest by the Indians, several of the climbers knew each other and the mountain well. The route is strung efficiently, and the climbers have few altitude-related problems. I was amazed by how many different icons made it to the summit, including images of Buddha, Shiva, Guru Nanak, the Dalai Lama, Devi Durga, and others; it's a testament both to the diversity of the population of India and their ability to get along with each other. I was surprised to find out several climbers were interested climbing the West Ridge, and possibly making a reversal of of the American traverse. Their sponsor, however, explained that it was much more important to get as many climbers to the summit as possible on this trip. Also, one climber and one Sherpa expressed the desire to climb to the summit without oxygen. The climber, Ang Kami, removed his oxygen tank just short of the summit, but was unable to complete the climb without it. The Sherpa, Dawa Norbu, was told to turn back after dropping his load at the 27,930 foot last camp.

The book is set up in the traditional style, with a couple introductions, a narrative of the expedition, followed by a wealth of appendices. Vohra was the first geologist to climb to the summit and the first to find a fossil on the summit ridge. I was particularly interested in his explanation of how Lhotse got all of its folds in the geology section. The Indians had previously had trouble with their oxygen systems, and they tried the system developed by Tom Hornbein for the Americans in 1963 with much success. Their food included freeze-dried rations developed by the army, but focused on fresh food acquired locally and much canned fruit juice (840 kilos). They attempted to film at the summit, but their camera, which was not designed for high altitude, jammed. There is also a short narrative of their communications and media center in Dehli as it deals with disseminating the news of the climbers' success.

There are currently two biographies of Indian summit climbers on this expedition, Mullik's The Sky Was His Limit, about Sonam Gytaso, and Maj. Hari Pal Singh's autobiographical Higher than Everest. Also, Kohli has recently published a history of Indians climbing Everest, On Top of the World.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, by Eric Shipton

Eric Shipton recounts the discoveries of his 1951 journey to the southern side of Everest in The Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. He had just returned from a diplomatic posting in China when Campbell Secord invited him to lead the expedition, that would begin three months later. Secord, Murray, Michael Ward, and Tom Bourdillon were already set to make the journey (though Secord later bows out), but Shipton's reputation gave the trip a more official feel as well as the backing of the Himalayan Committee. Just before their departure, Shipton received a letter from the president of the New Zealand Alpine Club asking if two of their members who were already in the area could join them. Earl Riddiford and Edmund Hillary were able to catch up to during the trek to the mountain. They check out the southern side of the mountain and reconnoiter the Khumbu Icefall, finding a path up to the Western Cwm, and scout from afar a possible route up the Lhotse Face to the South Col. While the ice is setting at the end of the monsoon, they also make a number of exploratory trips to nearby areas, including Cho Oyu, Melungtse, and Makalu.

The book is short on prose, but has a number of pictures. The storyline cuts out after their exploration to the west of Everest, and does not detail their return home, or their discovery in Kathmandu that the Swiss would have the first shot at the mountain in 1952. Shipton even neglects to introduce each of the expedition members. I wonder a bit if he wrote this book after finding out at he was no longer to lead the 1953 Everest climb, or perhaps if he was too busy setting up the 1952 Cho Oyu training climb to give this book much thought. The pictures cover their journey from Sherpa country to their discovery of "Yeti" tracks near Melungtse, and are more journalistic than artistic. It's great to see Bourdillon and Hillary with full scruffy beards. There are a number of shots of Everest that must have been fascinating to those who had closely followed the British attempts on the mountain from the north, including a detailed shot of the Khumbu Icefall and a nice picture from the ramparts of Pumori of the upper southwest side of the mountain. Also included are the earlier aerial photographs that inspired Michael Ward to get this trip started in the first place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Climb, by Boukreev & DeWalt

When I first read The Climb, written by Anatoli Boukreev and Weston DeWalt, I had a terribly low opinion of the book. It was the second book I had read on the 1996 Everest disaster, after Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, and I now admit that I began the book with a chip on my shoulder for Boukreev. Since getting to know Boukreev though other books, especially his diaries in Above the Clouds, I've discovered a completely different person. Since I had such a low opinion of this book initially, I made myself reread it before writing about it on this blog, and I'm glad I did! I'm still not a huge fan of the book, but I feel like I understand it quite a bit better. After a thorough introduction to Boukreev, as well as reading quite a bit about Russian mountaineering in works like Zum Dritten Pol, I feel like he makes quite a bit of sense in this book and even understates his heroism on May 10th, 1996. The prose by DeWalt I still find over-dramatic and newspaper-y with frustrating anonymous sources and strange metaphors.

Boukreev writes about his experiences during his spring 1996 Everest climb, in which he was a guide under Scott Fischer for Mountain Madness, their first guided trip on Everest. Because Boukreev's English is relatively poor, most of his "writing" (interview?) is accomplished through a translator, except the most crucial moment of the climb---his high-altitude rescue of three people on the South Col, for which DeWalt chose to keep an initial English-language interview that he made at the beginning of the project. While reading the confusing prose of a man trying to speak a language he cannot well feels a bit like wandering through a blizzard looking for lost climbers, it's a shame that the intelligible representation of the protagonist breaks down at such a crucial moment. Overall, I feel like Boukreev represents his actions and decisions well, and surprisingly, I feel like DeWalt does a good job of documenting the actions and feeling of the Mountain Madness clients and Beidleman, the other surviving guide. He does not try to lionize Boukreev too much, and includes both positive and negative criticism of his actions by both clients and other climbers.

If you have recently read Krakauer's Into Thin Air, wait a while before you get to this one. Perhaps, even read Boukreev's Above the Clouds first. The Climb is not a good introduction to Boukreev, but he makes sense in it once you're familiar with him.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Longest Climb, by Dominic Faulkner

Dominic Faulkner writes about his team's journey from the Dead Sea, the lowest point of land on earth, to the top of Mount Everest in The Longest Climb: The Last Great Overland Quest. Faulker and five others bicycle from the Dead Sea through Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Tibet to Everest Base Camp before picking up their ice axes and joining a team of climbers for an attempt on the peak. On their 8000-kilometer journey, they are supported by a driving team of two, along with a tide of unexpected support from local citizens and a mixture of support and harassment by government officials. They make their journey in the winter and spring of 2006, and arrive to climb during one of Everest's most controversial seasons. They are preceded in their bike journey by Gerry Winkler, who attempts the same adventure only weeks earlier, though he attempts Everest from the south and travels unsupported. Their experiences with the local populations during their trip turns many cultural stereotypes on their head, and they encounter a number of surprises in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. I appreciated Faulker's proportional coverage of their bicycle journey in relation to their climb, something I felt was missing in Goran Kropp's Ultimate High, also a bicycle trek / climbing story.

Their climb on Everest brings some rare good news from the 2006 spring season in Tibet. Other books, such as Nick Heil's Dark Summit or Michael Kodas' High Crimes document everything that went wrong in 2006 and make it seem as if every climber on the mountain that season was some sort of criminal. Even Lincoln Hall's Dead Lucky is a tale of near-death and mortification and Mark Inglis' Legs on Everest is soured by the media controversy over his climb. Faulkner's team, though they do have some interpersonal conflict, gets along well enough to get several climbers to the summit. They render assistance both to a stricken climber near the summit of the North Col and gather some effects for the family of a fallen climber near the summit. The narrative becomes more personal on Everest, and Faulkner wavers in his decision to climb to the summit after some recurrent health problems from his last attempt on Everest in 2000 with the British SAS. This is a fun book. I'll let you read it to find out more!

Higher than Everest, by Major H. P. S. Ahluwalia

Major H. P. S. Ahluwalia writes his autobiography in Higher Than Everest: Memoirs of a Mountaineer. Ahluwalia's is an interesting account from a unlikely source. After summiting Everest in 1965 with eight of his Indian countrymen, Ahluwalia returns to his job in Kashmir and is thrown to the front lines in the Kashmiri war, only to be shot in the neck. In addition to his account of Everest, the story includes details of his recovery and life after an injury that brings him to the brink of death. He includes several adventures from his early life as well, including a harrowing escape from Lahore during Partition (He is a Sikh.), his early climbs during his HMI courses, and his pre-Everest training climbs. On the Everest expedition, he is part of the third summit attempt, which is nearly canceled after a avalanche wipes out their camp high in the Western Cwm. Ahluwalia convinces Com. Kohli to let them search for the oxygen reserves in the buried camp, and after a lot of digging, he, H. C. S. Rawat, and Phu Dorje, are able to climb to the top with the resurrected equipment. Like Mullik's The Sky Was His Limit (about Sonam Gyatso), Ahluwalia's memoir is a peak into the early days of Indian mountaineering, but from the perspective of someone who came of age during the Everest climbs, rather than an established personality. I appreciated his sense of wonder at the many new experiences he has, including his courses at the HMI institute, the trek through Nepal, and the climb itself.

His tale of his rehabilitation puts the struggle of Everest in perspective. While a lofty goal and a major undertaking, ascending Everest is a voluntary goal and a relatively short effort compared to the gradual and painful recovery of Ahluwalia's spinal injury. He spends time in hospitals and physical rehabilitation centers in both India and Britain over the course of several years, and faces a number of treatments, from surgeries to traditional medicine some of his older family members impose upon him. His emotional rehabilitation is also a difficult journey. Ahluwalia has written several books related to Everest in addition to his memoir, including Faces of Everest, Climbing Everest, and Everest, Where the Snow Never Melts (for young readers). He is currently the Chairman of the India Spinal Centre and advocates for paraplegics through the Indian Spinal Injury Society. For additional information on India's 1965 Everest climb, consult Kohli's Nine Atop Everest.

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier post, which can be found here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Conquering Everest: The Lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, by Helfand & Tayal

Lewis Helfand and Amit Tayal write a true life comic book based on the lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in Conquering Everest. It's the first comic I've read since I was a teenager, and I have to say I had a great time reading it. Helfand, the writer, and Tayal, the illustrator bring back the drama in the story of these two high-altitude pioneers that was understated in early accounts and often washed out in subsequent narratives. Helfand has clearly done his research on Tenzing and Hillary, and he presents here the most complex, exciting, yet accurate account of their lives I've seen for young readers. The framing narrative of a conversation between Tenzing and Hillary is, of course, hypothetical (but effective). Tayal's illustrations are dramatic and complex, though not quite as carefully researched. They are, however, bold and colorful, and add give the story a cinematic feel. I appreciated the sense of place he created in many of his larger panels, such as his illustration of old Kathmandu.

I appreciated the intertwining of the stories of Tenzing and Hillary in this narrative. So many biographers separate them out, but it was the similarities between these men that got them to the top of Everest, such as their intrepidity, their fitness from a life of hard work, and their trust in each other. Conquering Everest covers their lives from their boyhood days to their deaths, focusing naturally on their ascent of Everest. It's a great book. I highly recommend!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A World Explorer: Sir Edmund Hillary, by Faith Y. Knoop

Faith Yingling Knoop writes a young readers' biography of the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest in A World Explorer: Sir Edmund Hillary. Marketed towards grades 3-6, the book turns Hillary's life into a storybook, complete with interpretive dialogue and illustrations. Knoop does a good job of sorting out the facts of Hillary's life while working them into an enjoyable narrative. There is occasional editing, such as Hillary exclaiming "We knocked it off" upon their return to the South Col and, strangely, Knoop reduces the summit crucifix to a cross and adds some extra summit gifts from Tenzing. The facts of the book come largely from Hillary's perspective, as she leaves in the bit about Tenzing not knowing how to use a camera. (Tenzing claims Hillary never asked, and is quite familiar with cameras in his first English language biography.) Also, the age of this work shows a bit in its somewhat condescending treatment of the Sherpas.  The books age also means that Hillary's life is only covered through his second Antarctic expedition in 1967.

If you come across this book in your local library, I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, but there are better, more recent young readers' biographies out there on Sir Edmund Hillary. Try Sue Muller Hacking's Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond or Broughton Coburn's Triumph on Everest.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, by Arlene Blum

Arlene Blum, climber, expedition leader, research chemist, and trekking guide, writes her autobiography in Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. Blum is most famous for having lead the successful 1978 women's climb of Annapurna. In Breaking Trail, we learn about the rest of her life, including her sheltered upbringing, her personal tragedies, her breaking into the boys' club of organic chemistry, and her many adventures. Throughout her life, she struggles with gender stereotyping, in her work, her family, and her climbs, but she remains true to her dreams and often overcomes the barriers placed in her way by others. She intersperses the narrative of her youth throughout the book, reflecting how her upbringing had an enduring effect on her life as an adult. It works well, showing how bold mountaineer grew from a meek Midwestern Jewish girl. She details a number of climbs, including women's ascents of McKinley and Annapurna, and climbs with friends in the Cascades, British Columbia, Africa, Peru, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Himalaya. She spends an "Endless Winter" climbing around the world over the course of a year and makes a traverse of the Himalaya, from Bhutan to Pakistan, and also makes a number of first ascents in India.

On Everest, Blum participates in the 1976 American Bicentennial Everest Expedition. She helps organize the team, finding a number of climbers to accompany the three amateurs who had secured the permit. There's a lot of tension on the team, and the presence of a film crew does not help the matter. She comes down with dysentery, and really only starts feeling better as the summit climbs begin. She makes above Camp III on the Lhotse Face, setting an American women's altitude record (that lasted until her Annapurna expedition), but does not achieve her goal of climbing to the South Col due to "logistics." She had spent most of her time climbing with Bob Cormack, who makes the summit, and she believes that based on her performance versus his, she could have made it to the top as well. You can read an extended account of this expedition in Rick Ridgeway's The Boldest Dream.

On a side note, I was a bit troubled by the disparity between the depictions of Blum's Annapurna expedition from this book and from Ed Viesturs' recent book, The Will to Climb. I think that Viesturs was being unfair, since he earlier states that each climber needs to set their own standards for their climb, but then rails against Blum's team for hiring five Sherpa climbers. Blum states that the women did the leading and much of the load carrying. Viesturs seems to think the Sherpas climbed the mountain for the team. He's usually a good researcher. I wonder where he got this idea.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Within Reach: My Everest Story, by Pfetzer and Galvin

Mark Pfetzer, along with Jack Galvin, writes about Pfetzer's quest, at age 15, to climb Mount Everest in Within Reach: My Everest Story. It was never his goal to be the youngest to climb Everest, but he doesn't see any reason why his age should hold him back. His youth doesn't hurt, however, in his quest for sponsorship. It's interesting reading this book now that the youngest title is so hotly contested (see Romero's The Boy Who Conquered Everest or Vajpai's On Top of the World). He goes off like gangbusters, climbing his first mountain at 13 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and climbs higher and higher until he is on an Everest expedition at 15, after some encouragement by Geoff Tabin (Blind Corners), among others. It's quite exciting to read about the kid who has a dream and goes for it with gusto! This is marketed as a children's book, but it's written well enough to be enjoyable by all ages.

Pfetzer's Everest climb is a mystery to me. He climbed via the South Col from Nepal during the spring of 1996 under Thor Kieser, and gets tangled into the May 10th disaster. According to his book, he and his teammates were on the South Col when the storm hit, but had pitched their tents well away from the other teams. I find it amazing that even though this crew is in the same place at the same time as everyone else, I don't recall hearing about them in any of the other books I've read on the 1996 season. There's not really a good way to discuss the end of Pfetzer without ruining it, but it is interesting to read about the 1996 disaster almost from an outside perspective, since no one in his team is hurt or participates in the rescue. He hears intermittent radio messages about people missing and knows something's going wrong, but it seems that no one in his camp ever considers interacting with the other teams, and they turn back on May 11th because of the weather, not because of the disaster. Once down, he gets a lot of media attention, since he's the boy wonder, but he somehow stays away from the action even though he's in the thick of it and doesn't have much to say. He considers returning for his summit attempt, and I'll leave it there.

My original post on Within Reach can be found here.