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!

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