Friday, May 25, 2012

After Everest, by T. Howard Somervell

Howard Somervell discovers his life purpose in After Everest. His biography traces his transition from a top-tier surgeon and high-altitude mountaineer to a medical missionary in Travancore, the southernmost province of India. Younghusband, in an introduction, describes Somervell as the "salt of the earth," and his practical Christianity leads him to serve without proselytizing and to regard the patient as his fellow man. Though the book is a full autobiography, he focuses on his work at the mission, as well as offering a description of his region, his working conditions, and the culture of the people whom he serves. Throughout the text, Somervell offers wisdom on the proper actions of a medical missionary, his Christian beliefs, and the politics of the day in India (even complimenting the work of Gandhi). He seems like a rare figure for his time, urging the British to view their actions from Indians' perspectives and making dedicated medical service the focus of the mission. He has little respect for the traditional and alternative medicine of the region, as he often deals with the after effects of the poisons offered as cures or loses chronic patients looking for a faster cure. Though the mission is the biggest medical facility in the region, the people of Tranvancore are under-served, and he and his staff fill their days with service. The book isn't high literature, but Somervell's character makes it a worthwhile read.

Somervell's Everest material covers his two climbs in 1922 and 1924. This book doesn't add a lot of information that can't be found elsewhere to the literature, but it is a unique perspective. Somervell had climbed with Beetham quite a bit before the expeditions, and he believes that if not for Beetham's bout of sciatica, he would have been the most likely to reach the summit (even after complimenting Mallory's prodigious speed). He discusses his close connection to Mallory and states that Mallory and Irvine's deaths were not in vain. His explanation for why he and his expedition-mates were willing to risk all to climb Everest seemed the most plainly-stated and believable line I've read on the subject. Somervell mentions that Norton's ability to get the porters to climb above Camp V in 1924 was entirely due to the stout-heartedness of Lakpa-Chedi---only after he agreed to continue did the other two. Also of interest is the author's short description of his climbing holiday in Sikkim on the way home from Everest in 1922, including an attempt on Jonsong Peak.

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