Monday, April 30, 2012

Addicted to Danger, by Wickwire & Bullitt

Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt document Wickwire's life of high-altitude mountaineering in Addicted to Danger: A Memoir about Affirming Life in the Face of Death. He happened to participate in four of the five major expeditions of the Whittaker twins (1975 and 1978 to K2, 1982 and 1984 to Everest) and through his determined climbing played a major role in American Himalayan mountaineering. Wickwire seems to have a knack for being on tragic expeditions, and I think I would be a bit too superstitious to rope up with him. He sees Marty Hoey fall to her death, stands by helplessly as Chris Kerrebrock dies of exposure in a crevasse, and loses Dusan Jagersky and Al Givler on Peak 8440 while training for K2. I'm not sure this book is quite as life-affirming as the title suggests, but it is certainly exciting. I had hoped to read more about his first alpine ascent of McKinley, but it was relegated to a couple paragraphs at the end of a chapter. Overall, though, the book gives a measured telling of his climbing career. I appreciated his fair telling of the K2 controversy, since reading the Whittakers' versions, or Galen Rowell's / Rick Ridgeway's you get mostly one side of the climb.

On Everest, Wickwire relates his two attempts under Lou Whittaker to climb the Great Couloir on the North Face of the mountain, in 1982 direct and 1984 via the North Col. The book opens with Wickwire and Kerrebrock (who originally secured the permit) on a training climb to a remote side of Mount McKinley, in which Kerrebrock dies, and Wickwire survives an epic. He climbs in memory of Kerrebrock and becomes attached to Marty Hoey on another training climb to Aconcagua (with Bass and Wells, see their Seven Summits) and during the trip to the mountain. Hoey, unfortunately, didn't double-over her harness during their summit climb and dies in a very long fall down the couloir. The 1984 climb suffers a little more from politics, but at least Phil Ershler makes it to the top this time, with Wickwire and John Roskelley (see his Stories Off the Wall) turning back on the expedition's third summit attempt. You can read about both climbs also in Lou Whittaker's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Edge of Everest, by Sue Cobb

Sue Cobb writes about her attempt on Everest's North Ridge during the 1988 post-monsoon season along with the Skinner brothers and the Wyoming Cowboys in The Edge of Everest: A Woman Challenges the Mountain. She writes a bit of a strange book, as she doesn't quite fit into her role as a "designated summiter" on an expedition touted as the common American's attempt on Everest. She admits that, as a wealthy lawyer with very good political connections, she doesn't fit the mold of the expedition roster, but she never quite goes so far as to say that her place on the summit roster was a bit strange. While one goal of the expedition was to place the first US woman on the summit of Mount Everest (Stacy Allison would accomplish this before the Cowboys had made it above Camp V, see her Beyond the Limits), there were at least two other strong female climbers on the expedition, only one of whom was given any hope of the summit. I get the feeling that in her present state, Cobb would have made an excellent candidate for a commercial climb a la 1998 via the Southeast Ridge. The North Ridge in 1988, however, without its later infrastructure would still be a route for fast and skilled climbers. The entire expedition had a bit of a funky set-up, with five teams of climbers with designated jobs, whether establishing the three camps on the East Rongbuk Glacier, stringing the North Col, setting up the high camps for the assault, or climbing to the summit. The summit teams were to go no higher that the North Col before their attempt on the summit, and take it relatively easy lower on the mountain. It seemed like a bit of a throwback to the early British attempts. I was a bit discouraged to read her denigration of people who climbed the mountain from the South, especially her focus on the number of porters who helped carry expedition gear. Though Junko Tabei did have 400 porters carry gear to the base of the mountain, I'm sure she would have rather hired trucks and buses as the Americans did if such a thing were possible from the South. Though Cobb notices that she does not eat enough, I'm not sure she realized how much trouble it caused her. Due the team's delayed arrival, some funky logistics and just slow climbing, the team makes it no higher than Camp V on the North Ridge before the winter winds pick up and send them packing.

The 1988 post-monsoon season was quite a pivotal moment on Everest. It seems like the world descended on Everest for a tragic / heroic circus, with teams all over the mountain pushing the envelope on their abilities and the possible. Next to the Cowboys Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard attempted a dangerous couloir route to climb towards the Pinnacles in a super-alpine style. The Czechs famously climbed the Southwest Face alpine style, never to descend. Lydia Bradey became the first woman to climb Everest without artificial oxygen. Someone flew a parapente from the summit. There were attempts on the Kangshung Face, the West Ridge, the North Face, the South Pillar. I believe there was a total of 11 deaths (12?), yet there was no great outrage as in K2 in 1986. Quite an event!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fatal Mountaineer, by Robert Roper

Robert Roper, in Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American  Himalayan Legend, writes a limited, but deeply analytical biography of one of the United States' most complex climbers. Roper frames the narrative around Unsoeld's 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi, using Unsoeld's actions and decisions on the mountain to define him, and setting up expedition member John Roskelley as Unsoeld's foil. The story of Unsoeld is closely tied to the story of American mountaineering in the 1960s and 1970s, though he doesn't always fit into it neatly. His philosophy, a John Muir-esque transcendental / Christian mix, often  puts him at odds or extremes in relation to his fellow climbers, but those who come to know him closely generally form a healthy respect for him. The 1976 expedition is a highly contentious one, with firebrand Roskelley pushing against Unsoeld throughout the climb. Marty Hoey comes down with cerebral oedema and is evacuated, while Devi Unsoeld, Willi's daughter, dies high on the mountain during the summit climb. This is a limited biography, however, and I was left wanted to read more about Unsoeld's Masherbrum expedition and other earlier climbs.

Willi Unsoeld is perhaps most famous for making a traverse of Everest via the West Ridge along with Tom Hornbein during the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963 (see Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge). Roper covers the expedition in a chapter, noting that Hornbein sets up the expedition as an us-versus-them struggle with Unsoeld as the behind-the-scenes hero of the West Ridge. Roper states that expedition leader Dyhrenfurth, as a filmmaker, from the beginning tried to set up a Hollywood-worthy struggle within his expedition. He also mentions Unsoeld aversion to the science going on during the expedition, especially the two-pound diaries they had to carry at all times. Roper considers Dyhrenfurth's lobbying the Peace Corps' director as the primary force that allowed Unsoeld to participate in the climb, but he overlooks the potential influence of Unsoeld's direct supervisor at the time, Charles Houston, a man equally drawn to the high mountains, famous for his exploits on K2.

Fatal Mountaineer is a great look at Unsoeld. There is also an earlier biography of Unsoeld, Laurence Leamer's Ascent, which I hope to read soon to make a comparison.

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen

Mark Bowen details the high altitude ice core drilling of Lonnie Thompson's team as well as the history of climatology in Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains. I was first taken by this book based on its cover and dust jacket teaser, and then after noticing several references to Mount Everest and climbers in the Index, I thought I had a pretty solid Everest book. I was to find, however, that Bowen writes about 150 pages on Thompson's high-altitude excursions, and wraps this around a 250-page history of climatology. The early history of climatology actually takes place on high mountains, with de Saussure and Leslie Stephen, among others, making measurements high on Alpine peaks. However, (perhaps Bowen tries to make a point of this) scientists lose sight of the mountains for a while in an obsession with polar ice, and it takes independent figures such as John Mercer and Lonnie Thompson to bring the focus back to some of the most important (and fastest disappearing) areas of evidence in glacier ice. Bowen's descriptions of the exploits of Lonnie Thompson are both entertaining and insightful, but I got a little lost in the sea of people Bowen introduces in his climatology history. He explains their studies well and ties everything together, but I felt like I had to eat of lot of vegetables to get to my dessert! For those of you who need further convincing on global warming and have a casual interest in mountaineering, this is your book.

Thin Ice had less to say about Mount Everest than I expected, but applies to it none the less. The retreating of glaciers worldwide is a problem even on the world's highest mountain, as evidenced by the Khumbu and Rongbuk glaciers' retreat and the shrinking of the penintentes on the East Rongbuk. Additionally, the snow cover on the mountain has generally shrunk---Bowen claims that the snow on the summit is on average four feet lower than in 1953. (Based on photos of the upper reaches of the mountain from recent books, I'd believe it!) Over the course of several chapters, he traces the effects of El Nino upon the Indian monsoon season, which has a profound effect on the climbing of Everest. Considering his detailed and nuanced description of the history of climatology, I was a little disappointed in his details regarding the history of Himalayan climbing. He seems to believe that Shipton and Tillman invented the light approach to climbing in the Himalaya, and that they headed off to Nanda Devi with little more than they could carry on their backs. He also follows in the spirit of Peter Steele by believing that Shipton also would have led a successful climb of Everest in 1953. He brings up Shipton in connection with John Mercer, who participated in Shipton's first trip to Patagonia in 1958 to study the glaciers.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Danger on the Mountain, by Andrew Donkin

Andrew Donkin writes a reader for advanced grade school children about climbs on four mountains, including Mount Everest, in Danger on the Mountain: Scaling the World's Highest Peaks. Donkin includes the stories of the 1953 American K2 expedition, Roger Mear's ascent of Mount Erebus during the dark Antarctic winter, Piana and Skinner's free-climb of the Salathe Wall of El Capitan, and a limited history of climbing Everest. The book is set up with a main body of text, some sidelines of related information, and a mixture of illustrations and photographs to accompany the text over 48 pages. To fit these stories into such a short space, Donkin compresses both information and, unfortunately, time. On the K2 expedition, Art Gilkey incorrectly falls to his death in an avalanche during Pete Schoening's miracle belay. On Everest, George Mallory mistakenly falls into a crevasse on his way up the mountain, and Eric Shipton finds "yeti" footprints supposedly while reconnoitering the Khumbu Icefall. The book contains some winning facts, such as "Antarctica is also called the South Pole," and Andrew Irvine "had been on earlier Everest expeditions." Also, there's a picture of some other, rather un-pyramidal Karakorum tower (I'm guessing.) labeled as K2, in the "eastern Himalayas."

The book covers three expeditions in some detail, the 1924 and 1953 British attempts and Eric Simonson's 1999 expedition that found Mallory's body, with mentions of a couple others, including Shipton's reconnaissance and the 1986 MENFREE washout. As long as you're not interested in reading correct information on the climbs, the stories are somewhat entertaining and the words and syntax seem age appropriate. There's lots of additional half-true information and switched around timing that are not worth detailing, as well as a bit of a faux pas when Donkin says that Tenzing worked as a Sherpa, and then he became a climber. The 1999 expedition comes the closest to giving correct information for the Everest climbs, and Donkin at least does a good job of telling the story. I can't say I recommend this book for your kid's next research project, though.

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

Saturday, April 21, 2012

To the Summit, by Chisholm & Ray

Margo Chisholm and Ray Bruce's To the Summit: A Woman's Journey into the Mountains to Find Her Soul tells of Chisholm's attempt to be the first woman to climb the Seven Summits after her recovery from several addictions. Her addiction recovery as well as her "Inner Family" (not sure what to call them---personalities? voices?) make for an interesting change in your average seven summits story. At one point she is taking as many as 70 laxatives in a day, and many people show up in her thoughts throughout her life including dead and living friends, spirits, God, herself as a kid, and one very angry lady that hangs around too much. Like her friend Peter, I worry that she has gotten over her addictions to drugs, alcohol, etc. only to become dependent upon adventure travel and her inner voices. It concerns me that she works to become a counselor. Chisholm narrative explores the interior as much as it does mountains, and you'll discover her inner depths as she climbs to the heights of each continent, reaching five of the summits in just under a year.

Her last climb is, of course, Mount Everest. She attempts to climb to the summit via the South Col during the pre-monsoon seasons of 1992 and 1993, the first time under Todd Burleson and the second under Rob Hall and Gary Ball. The first climb is a mixed commercial-sponsored expedition, in which some members place a laser reflector on the summit for National Geographic while others, like Chisholm, have come to seek their own summit. This was a quite early commercial climb, and the guides didn't frame the acclimatization schedule around the clients. The group climbs to the Western Cwm and stays after their first trip up for their subsequent forays up the mountain. Most of the clients end up with pulmonary disease, including Chisholm. (Additional information on this climb is in Kenneth Kamler's Doctor on Everest.) Her second climb is a bit happier, with three other ladies for company, but she still struggles with the climb. She returns for a trip to Base Camp in 1995 for a final goodbye.

This is a revision and compilation of several earlier posts, which begin here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Struggle for Everest, by George Ingle Finch

George Ingle Finch describes his experiences with Everest and tells the story of the the expeditions of the 1920s in The Struggle for Everest. George Rodway recently had Finch's Der Kampf um den Everest translated into English (or rather, back into English), which he presents here, along with an introduction and some supplementary materials about Finch. Finch's book is a fresh, level-headed account of the climbs, which reads in stark contrasts to Younghusband's similar The Epic of Mount Everest in its frank, scientific tone. For example, his first sighting of the mountain humorously contrasts with Mallory's poetic excrescence at a similar moment: "This bulky and badly proportioned lump of a mountain possesses neither beauty nor pleasing symmetry, and it seems like an accidental afterthought that created the western cone-like structure carelessly bulging from the top of this colossus." It's a bit strange to read Finch write about the 1921 expedition in the first person (perhaps the royal first person), as he should have gone if not for some back room dealing at the last moment. Of course, the bulk of his book covers the 1922 expedition, in which he was responsible for the supplementary oxygen system.

His perspective is quite a bit different from the official account, The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922, as he was rotated away from the action or sick during much of the forward action save his own attempt on the mountain with Geoffrey Bruce and Corporal Tejbir. He finds out that the show has gone on without him, and all the first-rate climbers save Finch (Norton, Somervell, Mallory, and Morshead) decide to band together for a single attempt on the summit. I imagine there is some truth to Finch's perspective, that the four climbers let their ambitions and impatience get the best of them---at least as much truth as the official line that it was the best idea to revise the plan under the circumstances. He bets on Bruce and Tejbir for climbing companions, neither of whom had any mountaineering experience, and trains them in oxygen use and climbing technique en route to Camp III under the North Col. On a short reconnaissance to the Raiphu La, he comes to the conclusion that Raeburn, of the 1921 expedition, was correct that the Northeast Ridge is actually the best route to the summit, as it would be out of the way of the westerly winds and the Pinnacles could be easily bypassed on the South Side. (He was of course, terribly wrong, as later climbers on this route found it nearly impossible to keep a tent up on the ridge due to the wind, and only one of the three Pinnacles can be bypassed, and the other two are daunting obstacles given their altitude.) His account of his summit attempt reads similarly to the official account, but in his own work he is able to more forcefully defend the superiority of his climb with artificial oxygen. I recommend this book if you've already read the official account of 1922, as it adds a lot of color to the story of the climb, but I do not believe it serves as a substitute for it, as it offers but a single perspective. He tells the 1924 story dryly, with little detail, though he does tell about the preparations for the expedition, as he was not dis-included from the climb until after he had helped out with several practical matters.

The supplementary materials add to the story of Finch and Everest. Rodway includes a number of photographs from Finch's personal collection in this new edition as well as entries from his expedition diary when it adds significant interest to the story. His introduction tells a bit of Finch's biography as well as some of the history of supplementary oxygen use in climbing. The appendices include an essay by Stephen Venables on Finch's climbing career and some documents relating to Finch's health before the 1921 expedition. This past year, Rodway also collaborated with Ian Mitchell in writing Alexander Kellas' first book-length biography, Prelude to Everest.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chomolungma: Goddess, Mother of the Earth, by Dingle & Perry

Graeme Dingle and Mike Perry document their 1985 post-monsoon attempt on the West Ridge of Everest via Tibet in Chomolungma: Goddess, Mother of the Earth: The North Face of Everest. Their New Zealand team's four years of planning comes down to a fight against atrocious snow conditions and the vagaries of the weather in their harrowing account. They follow a similar line to Peter Hillary's crew (on which Craig Nottle and Fred From perished, see Hillary's In the Ghost Country) and the Americans in 1984 (see Roskelley's Stories Off the Wall), but face wind slab avalanche conditions throughout their climb up to the Shoulder. Two different camps (both occupied) are destroyed by two separate avalanches with narrow escapes before the Kiwis move on to other routes on the North Face. They face similar challenges with snow conditions and further avalanches ascending the North Col from the west and below the Great Couloir. They persist for a final attempt on the summit before the beginning of winter.

New Zealanders seem to have had terrible luck in their own expeditions to Everest (1977, 1982 (Lhotse), 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989) up until Rob Hall broke the trend (for a while at least) with Peter Hillary in 1990 after three attempts in three years (see Monteath's Hall & Ball: Kiwi Mountaineers). They seemed to do much better when they tagged along on other expeditions, whether Edmund Hillary and George Lowe in 1953, or Russell Brice in 1988, or Dan Bryant in 1935 (see his New Zealanders and Everest). I half wonder if Chomolungma was exacting revenge for Edmund Hillary's sneaking up on her! Things have gone better for them more recently, with Peter Hillary repeating his ascent in 2003, and Russell Brice controlling much of the business of ascending the North Col route recently. On a side note, while Dingle and Perry's team are climbing, they come into contact with Pierre Beghin, who is attempting the Japanese Direct route solo, which he would famously climb the next year along with Erhard Loretan in under 2 days round trip.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Americans on Everest, by James R. Ullman, et al.

It's about time that I got around to reading James Ramsey Ullman's Americans on Everest, as it officially chronicles the first ascent of Everest by climbers from my own country, in 1963. Ramsey had a difficult task of covering two concurrent climbs (or is it three?) with nineteen climbers and a host of Sherpas (including three with the same name), and I think he does an excellent job pacing the information and keeping it both informative and entertaining. The narrative covers the story from leader Dyhrenfurth's early planning to the first early ascent by Jim Whittaker (see his A Life on the Edge) and Nawang Gombu, to the dual ascent via the West Ridge by Tom Hornbein (see his Everest: The West Ridge) and Willi Unsoeld and via the South Col by Lute Jerstad (see McCallum's Everest Diary) and Barry Bishop, to their evacuation and return home. It's a bit of a wild story, as the West Ridge team achieves a wonderful climb against the odds as well as the better judgment of most of the climbers, in addition to some close calls by the South Collars. I found it fascinating to see how the narrative changed as the story transitioned from a first-person narrative to a story written from the outside as Ullman can go no further than Banepa due to his health. I think he might have saved himself from writing another Coronation Everest through his unintentional distance from the climbers, as it seemed to me he was headed that way in the beginning of the book. His drama has balance, and he portrays the climbers as heroes without lionizing them. (Even Big Jim felt insignificant at the summit...)

Ullman takes a careful line of supporting Dyhrenfurth's decisions (and lack of decisions) during his leadership that overall did not work nearly as well with an international group in 1971 (see Peter Steele's Doctor on Everest). After reading several books on the American expedition, I can see a bit better how things fell apart on his next trip to Everest. Dyhrenfurth seems to waver on decisions until they have to be made. He plants ideas in peoples heads to see how they play out (such as the West Ridge idea with Hornbein) even while planning something else entirely (the climb of Lhotse and Nuptse). He lets the team hash things out, and goes with the consensus unless the consensus goes against his own goals, such as his initial encouragement of the West Ridge team and subsequent near strangulation of it for a hardy attempt on the Southeast Ridge. When a team, such as the Americans, get along pretty well and can discuss things without outright fighting, his style worked out all right, but put some firebrand enemies together (Whillans versus Mazeaud) and the minions might just turn on their leader when he makes a seemingly arbitrary decision. 

The expedition was largely supported because it was a scientific venture in addition to an adventure. Their main sponsor, National Geographic, demanded it so. While the climbers were doing their climbing, they were also being studied by a sociologist, a psychologist, and a physician, and Mount Everest was being investigated by a glaciologist. In addition to carrying urine and blood back down the mountains, the climbers had to keep journals of their motivations and their dreams. The psychologist also happened to be experimenting on the climbers during group meetings, introducing both optimistic and pessimistic ideas to see the climbers reactions. Maynard Miller, the glaciologist, also presented the most detailed geographical description of Everest and its environs that I've yet read. All the scientists include chapters on their studies in the book, though not all yet had results.

I enjoyed this book. Ullman also helped Tenzing Norgay write a pretty good autobiography (ala 1955) Tiger of the Snows. Additionally, he wrote a history of climbing Everest in 1947, Kingdom of Adventure. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mountain Adventures, by Karl Lukan

Karl Lukan writes a mountaineering history for young adults in his Mountain Adventures. The book is a bit dated (1972), but it's still a decent reference. It's the only book I've read that starts the history of mountaineering in the Neolithic Period, stating that cave high in the Alps on a mountain with technically difficult access was found to have a fetish with cave bear skulls inside. He also mentions that at least one high Andean summit was climbed well before Europeans ever attempted to scale their heights. The rest of his narrative is fairly typical, with a discussion of Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Caucuses, and on up to the Himalaya. I appreciated his writing about the growing technicality of ascents in the Alps from the late 19th Century to his present, as well as the techniques of such gear-focused climbs. The book overall has a narrative format, focusing on the dramatic events in the history of climbing. The way the stories are told are often what dates the book, such as Walter Bonatti's controversial bivouac on K2 with the Hunza Mahdi or bringing up the dispute over Aconcagua's true height. Also, you might enjoy Lukan's assertion that if the first ascent of the Himalayan peaks were to take place in the 1980s, they would be done with aircraft. I enjoyed Lukan's coverage of the Eiger Nordwand, especially that he brought up both John Harlin's direct route and the later Japanese route. Also, it's nice to see North America included in a mountaineering history, with Lukan discussing the early history of Mount McKinley, Mount Logan, and an epic climb on El Capitan. Note: Lukan throughout the book mistakes Broad Peak for Chogolisa, AKA Bride Peak. It seems like he wrote much of this book from memory, as he gets little things mixed up here and there throughout the book.

Lukan naturally writes about Everest in his history. He focuses on the first ascent, even starting the book with Hillary and Tenzing's summit climb. Additionally, he covers the early history of its discovery, exploration, and first attempts. He includes some fictional figures in the Everest story, such as the first survey readings finding an average height for Everest of 28,730 or that the 1922 oxygen apparatus weighed 381 pounds per man! He brings up Sven Hedin, believes that Everest will never be accurately surveyed, and mentions the failure of the world's best mountaineers on the 1971 international expedition (and renewed attempt on the Southwest Face in 1972).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Everest: The West Ridge, by Thomas F. Hornbein

Thomas F. Hornbein tells us what was happening on his side of the mountain during the American Mount Everest Expedition, 1963 in Everest: The West Ridge. While Jim Whittaker, Lute Jerstad and Co. were building up the route and climbing Everest via the South Col, Hornbein, Willi Unsoeld, and a small group of others reconnoitered and climbed the mountain via the West Ridge. It's an overall amazing story-within-a-story (see Ullman's Americans on Everest for an overall picture), as the West Ridge crew fought for supplies, climbers, porters, and even time to make their climb while the Americans were on the mountain. Originally, the expedition had a triple objective, with climbs of Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse planned, but Dyhrenfurth, the expedition leader, planted a seed into the brain of Hornbein, and a new objective grew into the hearts of several climbers during the hike from Kathmandu to the base of the mountain. The climb became an obsession for Hornbein, and he defended the idea of a West Ridge attempt closely, with Unsoeld often tempering his arguments. The small West Ridge team climbed with the leftover supplies and idle porters, as Dyhrenfurth insisted that the South Col team get priority, as the team needed to achieve the summit. After Jim Whittaker (see his A Life on the Edge) an Nawang Gombu climb the mountain on May 1, the West Ridge gets some extra time and resources, though not much of either. Even after a storm takes out their camp on the West Shoulder (and nearly a couple climbers as well), they manage to pull together just enough resources and climbers to place a high camp and send Hornbein and Unsoeld over the top via the (now) Hornbein Couloir and down to the South Col, meeting Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad (see McCallum's Everest Diary) at 28,000 feet for a very uncomfortable night out in the open along the way. It's amazing that on the world's highest mountain they reconnoitered their route only partially (with only a photograph of the ridge to go by beforehand), climbed to the top trusting they would find a way down, traversed the mountain, bivouacked in the open higher than anyone had yet even camped, and lived to write about their adventure.

This is the second time I've read this book, and I could easily pick it up tomorrow and start reading it again. Hornbein concocts an excellent mix of intelligent yet emotional discourse on his climb and drive to accomplish it. He has a sturdy appreciation for Willi Unsoeld, and the book makes a lasting and affecting tribute to this great American philosopher of the mountains (see Leamer's Ascent or Roper's Fatal Mountaineer). Hornbein does some philosophizing of his own in the work, such as a quote I particularly liked: "Like pain, a mountain can be a subjective sensation; for all its solidity and fixity of form, it is more than what one sees. It is awe, pleasure, respect, love, fear, and much, much more. It is an ever-changing, maturing feeling." The two editions of this work are slightly different. The first, from 1965, is somewhat larger, with more photos and quotes from other climbers, though the photos focus more on the trek to the mountain. The second, from 1980, has more photos that focus on the mountain as well as a foreword by Doug Scott, in which Scott presciently predicts that someday, someone will climb Everest in excellent style, alone and without supplementary oxygen. I'm guessing he had no idea Reinhold Messner would do so that very year! I find that Hornbein's book is my favorite of the American expedition accounts, and one of my favorite mountaineering books overall, as it is a grand adventure, told in impeccable style, about the sort of everyday heroes that armchair mountaineers imagine themselves in their finest dreams.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Life on the Edge, by Jim Whittaker

Jim Whittaker, the first American to stand on the summit of Everest, writes his memoirs in A Life on the Edge. Early on, he and his twin brother, Lou (see Lou's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide), discovered a passion for the mountains, and focused their lives on climbing, skiing, mountain rescue, guiding, and gear. While Lou focused on guiding and eventually started up his own gear shop, Jim was hired in Seattle as the first employee at the Co-op, later to become REI. Jim's decision to work at the Co-op was fortuitous, as business boomed, and later it provided the financial security necessary for him to participate in the 1963 American Mount Everest expedition, whereas Lou couldn't bring himself to leave his family for four months without an income and declined. Jim climbed strongly on the Everest expedition and was chosen for the first summit team, along with Nawang Gombu. Theirs was a stormy ascent, very early in May, that preceded later summit attempts by several weeks, including an traverse from the West Ridge to the South Col by Tom Hornbien and Willi Unsoeld and another traditional ascent by Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop. Jim happened to be wearing some of the Vibram-soled boots that he sold at the Co-Op during his summit climb, and the president of the American manufacturer decided to offer him an endorsement deal that ended up making him more money that his job at REI.

Jim famously led two expeditions to K2 in 1975 and 1978 as well as the 1990 International Peace Climb of Mount Everest. The 1975 expedition was riddled with storms, both physical and interpersonal, in addition to great difficulties even getting to the mountain. The 1978 trip still had the interpersonal storms, but four climbers made it to the summit. The 1990 Everest climb was a logistical marvel, with three nations with quite a bit of bad blood between them sending climbers to scale Everest from the north together. The climbers got along marvelously, though the Russians did lie about their oxygen use on the first summit climb. Amazingly, six climbers, two from each nation, made it to the top on the first summit attempt, and several other climbers followed. This climb was Ed Viesturs first successful climb of Everest (see his No Shortcuts to the Top) with many more to follow.

I found it fascinating to read Lou and Jim Whittaker's memoirs back-to-back. Many of their shared experiences, such as their close call on Mount Index, their speed ascent of Mount McKinley, and the 1975 K2 expedition, have different details in their telling. I was amused that in the episode in which Jim saved some people in a car after an avalanche that overtook the road, he mentions that afterward he had a great time skiing. He fails to mention that the car Lou was in happened to be on the other side of the debris and had to return home. For the 1975 K2 climb, Jim, the expedition leader, singled out Galen Rowell as the major negative influence on the team, whereas Lou, just a climber, felt that it was more of an us-versus-them situation. The perspectives of the books are different as well, with Jim focusing inward on his family, his career, and finances, and Lou talking more about his associates and the business of guiding. I'd recommend either, as they are both entertaining and enlightening accounts of great men.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Memoirs of a Mountain Guide, by Whittaker & Gabbard

Lou Whittaker, along with Andrea Gabbard, recounts a lifetime of mountaineering and friendship in Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide. He and his twin brother, Jim Whittaker (see his A Life on the Edge), grew up with a passion for the outdoors, especially climbing and skiing. Their love of the mountains led them to mountain rescue work, guiding, and selling climbing gear. As they came of age in their 20s, they grew apart, with Jim working to build REI, and Lou staying closer to the mountains to continue guiding and eventually opening the Whittaker Chalet near Tacoma. They still managed to share some adventures, including guiding John Day on a speed ascent of Mount McKinley (which ends unfortunately) after setting records climbing a number of  mountains in the Northwest. Their divergent paths lead them apart for the 1963 American ascent of Everest (both were among the first climbers invited), with Jim becoming the first American to stand on top of the world's highest mountain, and Lou staying behind due to financial constraints. Perhaps it was for the best, as Lou's replacement, Jake Breitenbach, died in the Khumbu Icefall early in the expedition. Lou's story becomes the story of his guiding service as he expands and eventually gains the exclusive license to guide on Mount Rainier. In this book, he writes as much about his guides as about his family, and it's clear that he cares about them deeply. After he is well established, he is able to join his brother for a trip to K2 in 1975, the first climbing trip to the Baltoro in fifteen years, which is rife with troubles both from the porters and between climbers.

Eventually, Lou turns his guides toward Mount Everest after one of his colleagues secures a permit. He leads trips to the North Face in both 1982 and 1984, with a mixture of his guides and some other talented climbers. The 1982 expedition tries to tackle the Great Couloir from the base to the summit. One of his guides, Marty Hoey, forgets to double up her climbing harness during a climb to their high camp for a summit attempt and falls 6000 feet to her death. After a group decision, they make a last effort on the summit, but come up short. On their 1984 attempt, they change the route somewhat, by climbing to the North Col from the East Rongbuk Glacier and traversing the North Face before heading up the Great Couloir. Their first attempt is foiled when they have trouble locating a tent left by an Australian team (see Lincoln Hall's White Limbo), but on their second try, Larry Nielsen nearly makes it without oxygen (at the price of frostbite) and Phil Ershler becomes the first American to climb Everest from the north.

I liked this book quite a bit. Lou Whittaker strikes me as a great man who leads with authority without demanding it. It's clear that his guides like him and how he treats them, as they stay on year after year, including several famous climbers, such as Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler, and Ed Viesturs. The book also includes notes by his friends and family that focus on important events in his life, such as his son Peter's tragic day on Rainier. Stay tuned for my next post for a review and comparison of his twin brother Jim's book!