Friday, June 15, 2012

The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Everest, edited by Jon E. Lewis

Jon E. Lewis collects a fairly comprehensive history of Everest accounts in The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Everest. From John Noel's 1913 dash through Tibet towards Everest to Conrad Anker's discovery of Mallory in 1999, Lewis picks accounts that document the momentous occasions on the world's highest mountain, drawing from books, journal articles, and even a radio show transcript. I appreciate both his thoroughness and his variety of perspectives, such as his inclusion of Longland's account of his 1933 harrowing descent during an expedition that usually highlights the exploits of Wyn-Harris, Wager, Shipton, and Smythe, or that of Peter Habeler's version of events on his and Messner's 1978 ascent without supplementary oxygen. It is, however, a British-centric book, released as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent, therefore including Bear Grylls (youngest Briton) and Rebecca Stephens' (first British woman) entertaining, but hardly world-changing climbing accounts, and ignoring the American's efforts on the Kangshung Face, the Yugoslavs on the West Ridge Direct, and the Poles' climb in winter. (Admittedly, I've yet to come across riveting accounts of these important climbs, myself!) The biggest omission, however, with several good accounts, was the 1963 traverse of the mountain by Unsoeld and Hornbein!

Lewis includes excerpts from the following books: Anker and Robert's The Lost Explorer, Bonington's Everest: The Hard Way and The Everest Years, Boukreev and DeWalt's The Climb, Bruce's The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, Coffey's Fragile Edge, Denman's Alone to Everest, Dickenson's The Other Side of Everest, Dittert and Chevalley's Forerunners to Everest, Fellowes' First Over Everest, Grylls' The Kid Who Climbed Everest, Habeler's The Lonely Victory, Messner's Free Spirit, Noel's The Story of Everest, Noyce's South Col, O'Dowd and Woodall's Everest: Free to Decide, Ruttledge's Everest 1933, Shipton's Upon That Mountain, Smythe's Camp Six, Somervell's After Everest, Stephens' On Top of the World, Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way, Tenzing and Ullman's Tiger of the Snows, Venables' Everest: Alone at the Summit, and Weather's Left for Dead. (Whew! They weren't kidding about the "Mammoth" in the title!)

Lewis also picks some excellent material from other media. Howard-Bury's journal article account provides a summary of his 1921 expedition, which differs only slightly in details from the later official account book, though it is significantly shorter (especially on the plant and animal species he encountered). He singles out both Heron and Wheeler for praise in the article and suggests that Mallory and Bullock moved from the Rongbuk Glacier due to the weather, rather than their instructions to be in Kharta by his (generally accepted) deadline. He also glosses over the climbing team's missing the East Rongbuk Glacier, saying that they used the only feasible route over the Lhakpa La. Lewis chose a journal article for Odell's account of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance, avoiding the over-excerpted account in the official book. Odell touches on a lot of themes for which he's known, including the geology of the mountain and his disdain for supplementary oxygen. He's even more wishy-washy about where he saw them than in the book. Longland's BBC radio account is a fun read, with a plain language description of his descent from Camp VI in 1933 in a blizzard while leading ten Sherpas. Tilman's article on the 1938 expedition is telling. He spends less time discussing food (which is generally a subject covered in detail in his diaries), and a lot more decrying the health of the party (which he said wasn't all that bad in Everest 1938, published nine years later). Wang and Chu, of the 1960 Chinese expedition, tell of their summit day (and night) in their article, making both a sentimental and politically correct account of their high-altitude survival and success. Singh, leader of the 1960 Indian climb, gives a summary of their ultimately foiled attempt, writing a bit more conservatively than the official account book (written for Indian rather than international audiences). In addition, there are several appendices, covering topics from the abominable snowman (didn't like) to high altitude physiology (pretty decent) and Maurice Wilson (an intriguing personal account). I especially enjoyed reading Morris' newspaper account of the first ascent of Everest.

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