Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Top of the World, by Rebecca Stephens

Rebecca Stephens, as a member of the 40th anniversary Everest expedition, becomes the first British woman to climb the world's highest peak in On Top of the World. Mount Everest is her first mountain, traveling to the north side as a journalist to cover the 1989 post-monsoon attempt on the Northeast Ridge. She unexpectedly (even borrowing gear at ABC for the climb) makes it to the top of Bill's Buttress on a visit to the team's first assault camp (reminding me a bit of Geoffrey Bruce), in addition to ascending the main Rongbuk Glacier and visiting the Lho La. She falls in love with mountains, climbing several other peaks on her vacations, and eventually catches the summit bug for Everest after realizing that no British woman had yet climbed the peak. She puts a deposit down on a commercial climb before she receives an invitation for the anniversary expedition. Originally, they planned a post-monsoon climb in 1993, but they take over the permit of a spring trip. The expedition roster consists of mix of decided amateurs and hardcore climbers, including Everest veterans Harry Taylor (who first climbed the Pinnacles with Russel Brice) and Bill Marsh (of Bill's Buttress). On the climb, via the Southeast Ridge from Nepal, Harry Taylor becomes the second Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, after Stephen Venables (who coincidentally, participated in the 35th anniversary expedition).

Stephens' climb makes for a dramatic story. She is a bit out of her element high on Everest, and she often depends on her climbing mentor, John Barry, to make important decisions. Their first summit attempt becomes a rescue after Harry Taylor spends 23 hours climbing from the South Col to the peak and back, returning in frightful shape. (He seems to have gone up fine, as he climbs along with Tim Macartney-Snape, as depicted in Everest from Sea to Summit.) Her team's continual delays and waffling nearly cost her a chance at the summit, but she makes a last-of-the-season effort along with Ang Passang and Kami Kchering, using a wealth of oxygen left by her team and some Poisk canisters bought from Hall & Ball. Her climb reinforces the point made by Jennifer Jordan in Savage Summit, that often women climbing the world's highest peaks suffer from a lack of experience (of course, these days climbers of both genders are climbing Everest with thin resumes). Though she made it up and back all right, she seemed unsure of herself, especially when Barry was unable to accompany her on the summit climb. On a side note, she interacts with the climbers of Tashi Tenzing's expedition (see his Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest), and provides an outside prospective to the retrieval of Lopsang's body. Stephens is the author of two other books related to Everest, a children's book, Everest, and an inspirational The Seven Summits of Success.

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