Saturday, March 24, 2012

They Came to the Hills, by Claire E. Engel

Claire E. Engel writes about the dominant personalities in the history of mountaineering in They Came to the Hills. She seems to have a British perspective (even though she is French), covering climbers such as Tyndall, Stephen, Freshfield, Whymper, Mummery, and Smythe. This book is likely a follow-up to her 1950 History of Mountaineering, so she is able to focus on some of the more remarkable climbs and climbers. She's an experienced mountaineer, and she often speaks of the routes and mountains from memory. In her introduction, she states that the book is meant to show the development of the concept of mountaineering, and its roughly chronological ordering show a progression from mountaineering as a side show to science, to recreation, to a way of life.

The last to biographical chapters are of climbers closely associated with Mount Everest: George Mallory and Frank Smythe. They are great picks for her thesis, as they have both written quite a bit about their feelings on mountaineering. She writes a bit of meandering biography of Mallory, sometimes complementary, sometimes critical, both of his climbing and his writing. She uses Irving as an important source in this chapter, which also contains a letter to her from Norton about a controversy of the role of climbing leader for the 1924 Everest expedition. She found some interesting quotes of Mallory's, including his day in the Alps as a symphony bit, but I think she misses his drive amongst all his effusive rambling. Engel knew Smythe, and I think she does a great job with his biography. She writes of his enjoyment of mountains for their own sake, both on high and in the valleys, and brings up his spiritual respect for the relationship of man and mountain. (He famously used one piton in his life, and regretted it dearly.) She tells us that Smythe had misgivings about his Kanchenjunga climb, and also that he had his mysterious companion on the Brenva Face of Mount Blanc in addition to the North Face of Everest.

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