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. 

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