Sunday, July 29, 2012

Everest: El Desafio de un Sueno, by Rodrigo Jordan Fuchs

Rodrigo Jordan Fuchs writes about his Chilean team's climb of the Kangshung Face in Everest: El Desafio de un Sueno: Los Primeros Sudamericanos en la Cumbre / Everest: The Challenge of a Dream: The First South Americans on the Summit. The team, with six climbers, a doctor, and two Sherpa, climbs during the pre-monsoon season of 1992 via the route blazed by Stephen Venables, Ed Webster, Paul Teare, and Robert Anderson in 1988 (see Venables' Everest: Alone at the Summit). Their size appears to be just about right for a relatively safe ascent (Is there ever actually a truly safe ascent on the Kangshung Face?), with teams pairing off and spending days working the line up the Neverest Buttress and the Cauliflower Towers, while one pair rests, and another ferries loads along with the Sherpa. They face considerably deeper snow than Anderson's international crew above the buttress and also a short section of very technical ice climbing similar to Webster's Wall that prevents them from establishing their second camp. Their first attempt at the summit, with three climbers intended to try for the top, is turned back by deep snow and poor weather. Their second, due to fewer fit climbers and resources, was meant for two summit climbers (Fuchs and Christian Garcia-Huidobro), but Juan Sebastien Montes stays on to climb to the summit without additional oxygen. The team puts in a epic amount of work to get to the summit, with two additional climbers pile-driving through deep snow with very heavy loads to the South Col to make way for the summiteers. Their limited oxygen supply only allows for sleeping oxygen at the high camp and a single bottle for two climbers starting at 8400 meters.

The book is an enjoyable read. If you're more observant that I, then you'll notice that everything, including the main body of prose is in both Spanish and English. I spent days fighting my way through the Spanish version with some basic Spanish skills and a dictionary. When I got to the end, I found everything I just read available to me in English! I was surprised to find out I pretty much figured out what was going on. There are plenty of photographs in the book, with captions in both English and Spanish, as well as an introduction to the team, a short bi-lingual glossary, and an introduction. The 1992 expedition was actually the fourth attempt on Everest by Chileans. The first came quite close to succeeding, placing a team at a high camp at 8300 meters on the Northeast Ridge, but a storm pinning the summit climbers down for three days. In 1986, Victor Hugo Trujillo died in a serac collapse on the North Col and ended another climb (see Stokes' Soldiers and Sherpas for an outside perspective). In 1989, another team made it quite high on the West Ridge, but storms again ended their attempt. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Everest Story, by Tim Vicary

Tim Vicary writes a reading comprehension book for mid-level school children in The Everest Story. He focuses the prose on the expeditions of 1921, 1922, 1924, 1953, and Reinhold Messner's 1980 climb, with a couple mentions of other climbs, such as the 1952 Swiss attempt. Additionally, he frames the history of Everest with the mystery of Mallory and Irvine, including the discovery of Mallory's body in 1999. He includes a number of photographic illustrations, a glossary (a strange one for a climbing book, defining words such as "dot" and "knee," while skipping mountaineering terms he uses, such as "crevasse"), and a collection of questions and activities based on the reading.

Though I suppose the book serves its purpose as a reading comprehension tool, the information in the book is at times misleading and at others incorrect. I never would have expected a book printed by the Oxford University Press to contain as many as three factual errors on a single page (page 5), and so much misinformation throughout. Though the author for the most part gets the story correct, details continually evade him, such as Hillary's meeting the 1953 expedition in Kathmandu (or perhaps Bombay, if you want to get technical) rather than Thyangboche, George Everest's not actually making the first maps of the Himalaya, or Norton and Somervell's 1924 Camp VI not actually being placed higher than anyone had ever climbed. Additionally, his quotes are sometimes theoretical or perhaps paraphrased, such as foregoing Conrad Anker's famous 1999 "mandatory group meeting" radio message in favor of dialogue telling his fellow searchers to come down and look at this. His questions for the most part make sense, though some of the multiple choice questions have multiple correct answers. The analytical questions made me happy, but I wonder how well kids who need to have "tiny" defined for them in the glossary would do with them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Approach to the Hills, by Charles F. Meade

Charles Meade puts together an anthology of his mountaineering writings in Approach to the Hills. It covers both his own climbs in the Alps and the Himalaya and his commentaries on the climbs of others. Though he isn't a terribly ambitious climber, he definitely enjoys both the adventure of getting to the mountain and scaling the heights. Most of the writings of his own climbs, as the title suggests, cover in more detail his preparations and travel to the mountains than the actual climb; he actually often switches from a lyrical and analytical tone to a more technical one once he narrates his climbs. I particularly liked his "Pilgrimage to Kamet," as he has some especially beautiful scenery to describe (see Smythe's The Valley of Flowers), and his previous experience in the Garwhal frees him up to contemplate the countryside rather than fret over the details of travel. His commentaries cover some of the more fantastic climbing phenomena of the time, including the scaling of the North Face of the Eiger, the attempts on Everest, and the tragedy on Nanga Parbat. His writing on the new technical climbing of the Europeans is a refreshing middle-of-the-road analysis (as opposed to the vituperations of Strutt) that notes the potential advantages of the modern technical gear as well as the perceived loss of some of the romance of climbing. Though the author is enlightened enough to accept the ironmongery of the continentals, he has a way to go on gender equality, calling Raymond Lambert Mimi Boulaz's "guide" on their ascent of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, not even bothering to mention that they followed the first ascent party by mere hours. Similarly, though he takes an interest in the customs of Bhotias, he unfortunately focuses on their overall utility when praising or haranguing them. His mention of Bhotia animal sacrifice in the Garwhal reminded me of Ortner's (Life and Death on Mount Everest) discussion of the reform of the Sherpa religious rites in the early Twentieth Century to eliminate such practices.

Meade's Everest essay was written in 1940 after all of the early British attempts. He comments on Clinton Dent's 1884 Above the Snowline, stating the expeditions had proven his theory of the cause of mountain-sickness and acclimatization. However, Meade comes up with a strange theory that a climber must move slowly on a Himalayan peak to stay warm, as heavy breathing will cause a man more cold than the elements alone. He quotes an interesting analogy from Hingston, medical officer of the 1924 climb, stating that acclimatization on a very high peak is a bit like a drunkard's increasing toleration to alcohol, as their is a point at which the body can no longer adjust. Meade later gets trapped in the numbers game, stating that 500 feet of elevation gain per hour can be expected from the highest camp, and the summit should be reached in four hours. He stresses that weather is of paramount importance in future expeditions, and that fine weather must line up with the climbers being at the apex of their fitness. (He provides suggestions for what roles slow and fast acclimatizers should play on the mountain so that several climbers will be acclimated at the same time.) He trusts Ruttledges 5 to 1 odds of a successful future expedition over Shipton and Mallory's 50 to 1.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead, by Ian Morshead

Ian Morshead remembers and reconstructs the life of his father in The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead. It's a bit of a tradition in Britain to write a biography of your well-known relative, and the Everest literature contains a number of such books, including the present volume, David Robertson's George Mallory, Julie Summers' Fearless on Everest (Sandy Irvine), Nicholas Wollaston's My Father, Sandy, Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest, and others. Like Wollaston's book, Morshead's is a poignant tale of a murdered father lost at an early age, though Morshead knew his father long enough to have more than a hazy memory of him. Both of their fathers participated in the 1921 Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition, Wollaston as a naturalist and doctor, Morshead as chief surveyor, but Morshead returned in 1922 to attempt to climb the peak. The beginning and the end of the book are autobiographical, with the author's remembrances of hearing of his father's death and a return to India and Burma many years later to see what he can find of the past, including information about his father's unsolved murder.

Henry Morshead made a number of travels to unsurveyed and remote locations, including Spitsbergen, the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra (with F. M. Bailey), the Garwhal Himalaya, the Northwest Frontier, and he was noted for his hearty constitution and his near imperviousness to discomfort. He wasn't actually an avid mountaineer, even if his climbed high on both Kamet (along with Kellas, see Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest) and Mount Everest, though he often scaled passes and peaks in his role as surveyor. Though Morshead ran the show for the Everest survey, he was only one of a number of surveyors who together mapped a very large amount of uncharted territory and corrected quite a bit of Ryder and Rawling's 1904 survey. In his letters, he alone, perhaps, recognizes the efforts and impact of his Indian survey team. Conversely, I was a bit amazed that he called Wheeler's much-touted photographic method used to survey the massif of Everest "thirty years out-of-date!" It was actually his survey job that prevented Morshead from serving as the transport officer for the 1924 climb.

We gain some fresh insights into Morshead's participation in the 1922 climb of Everest in this book. The author makes sure to point out that his father was only able to put together his kit at the last moment and only using things he was able to pick up in Darjeeling. (If his efforts were at all similar to Earl Denman's 25 years later, as depicted in Alone to Everest, then his kit must have been poor, indeed.) Ian Morshead emphasizes that his father actually ended up borrowing clothes for his summit climb, and that it was most likely a dearth of appropriate clothing rather than his disregard for his health that eventually caused his serious frostbite. Morshead's toughness comes through as he walks quite a bit on the way back from Everest, nearly at a normal gait as they reach Darjeeling, and as he makes light of the loss of parts of his fingers. The Everest chapter is centered on the letters Morshead wrote during the expedition, which find him scheming both about his next family vacation and his next Himalayan adventure with Bailey (perhaps Bhutan, or Lhasa). He is close friends with Jack Hazard, who would participate in the 1924 climb, and coincidentally, Ian Morshead becomes good friends with his Winchester classmate John Mallory, George's son.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To the Top, by Stephen Venables

Stephen Venables writes a history of climbing Mount Everest for young readers in To the Top: The Story of Everest. He weaves his own climb up the Kangshung Face with a small international expedition (see his Everest: Alone at the Summit) into the overall story, narrating his experiences in sections, while comparing his climb with other historical ascents in others. Venables focuses on the early history climbing Everest, covering the 1921, 1922, 1924, 1951, and 1953 expeditions in some detail, while mentioning occasional details from the 1930s climbs and the 1952 Swiss attempts. A later chapter covers the 1963 American traverse, the 1975 Southwest Face expedition, as well as the climbs of Reinhold Messner, while giving nods to Junko Tabei, Macartney-Snape's Australian crew, Troillet and Loretan's speedy climb, the Poles' climb in winter, and the 1983 American ascent of the Kangshung Face. The photographs in the book are well-chosen and quite clear, meant to highlight the upcoming digitization of the Everest Archive of the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library (found here).

Venables writing is high quality. He writes in a fairly plain style, but generally avoids oversimplifying facts. (His stating that Morshead and Wheeler conducted the survey in 1921 is one potential oversimplification, forgetting fellow surveyors Singh, Thapa, and Khan, photographer Khan, and sixteen assistants.) He only makes a few minor mistakes in his history, such his stating that the 1922 expedition erected a cairn to memorialize the seven lost Sherpas or that Hillary's Khumjung school was the first Sherpa school. Compared to the young readers' authors who show pictures of the wrong mountain or write that Hillary and Tenzing stopped for tea on the South Summit on their way up, these errors are hardly worth mentioning. For a general history of Everest, this is so far my favorite book for young readers. I hope you like it!

For a similar book written for adults, see Venables' Summit of Achievement. This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, which can be found here

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, by Sir Edmund Hillary

Edmund Hillary writes about his lifetime of adventures in Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. His book had fortuitous timing, as later the same year it was published, he lost his wife and one of his daughters in a plane crash in Nepal. He mentions in the book that if he died tomorrow, he would die a happy man---if he had only known what was in store for him, instead! The book catches him on a lifetime highpoint, as he had already climbed Everest, had a number of other adventures, begun his life of philanthropy, and settled into a comfortable family life. Nothing Venture is distinguished by its positive tone, its focus on the external life of Hillary, and his overall great fitness. His next autobiography (along with his son, Peter), Ascent, would turn these paragons on their head, with a introspective, sallow tone that spends much time on his physical decline and thoughts of his family. His final autobiography, View from the Summit, is the most balanced, and also the best representation of his life and work.

Nothing Venture does have its virtues, however. We get a number of details from his lesser adventures that are glossed over or missing from his other works, such as his detailed telling of his jet boating up the Sun Kosi River, his expedition to Mount Herschel in Antarctica, or his family road trip in Australia that turned into a grand adventure after too much rain. He gives a few more details about his Everest adventure, letting a couple skeletons out of the closet, noting Tenzing Norgay's ambition and mentioning his disappointment about not being able to climb with George Lowe. His first Himalayan adventure gets quite a bit of detail in this one (an ascent of Mukut Parbat, see also Lowe's From Everest to the South Pole); he even happens to mention that they were accompanied to the mountain by Keki Bunshah, who would later be the deputy leader for the first Indian Everest expedition (see Singh's The Lure of Everest). Hillary's South Pole adventure gets some explanation here, and he is a bit candid about his differences with Sir Vivian Fuchs, admitting that he (Hillary) was not a great leader for something so logistically complicated and a difficult deputy to handle.

His philanthropy doesn't get as much attention in the book as you might expect. Many of his works are detailed in other books, such as Schoolhouse in the Clouds or High in the Thin Cold Air, and he gives only short narratives of these. Nothing Venture discusses his work at Lukla quite a bit, as he realizes that this airstrip will perhaps have the biggest impact on the Khumbu of any of his projects, for better or worse. He writes about his hospital construction and several bridges that do not make it into earlier books, even mentioning the fundraising for his upcoming hospital project that would cost him half his family. He mentions his philanthropic and business connection to the United States; though initially he's not a fan of the place, he changes his mind after meeting everyday people on a grand road trip. He still worries about its consumer culture, though at the same time he evaluates and refines the camping goods line for Sears & Roebuck and helps World Book Encyclopedia expand its business to Australia.

This is a fun book, but not necessarily a great book. It represents the apogee of classic Hillary, as viewed in High Adventure, etc., as well as his first extended look back at his early life. I have to say that I like the much more human and wizened Hillary of later years, but I hate what he had to go through to get there! 

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Last Secrets, by John Buchan

John Buchan writes about several of the world's most recently explored places in his 1923 The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Exploration. He states dryly that for the most part, the world has no more unexplored places, and that only the mapping and scientific study is left to do before world exploration is complete. His chapters, on such diverse places as the North Pole, the Ruwezori, Mecca, and New Guinea, narrate the adventures of modern (to him) explorers, who seek the last unknowns in world geography. He focuses on the accomplishments of British explorers (excepting on Mount McKinley), and actually many of the early Everest pioneers appear in other chapters, such as Bailey and Morshead's travel to the Brahmaputra, Rawling and Wollaston's attempts upon Carstenz Pyramid, and Wollaston's attempt upon the Mountains of the Moon. Rawling, to whom the book is dedicated, had planned a 1913 reconnaissance to Mount Everest along with Buchan (according to this book at least---Buchan is not mentioned in other accounts (see Mitchell and Rodway's Prelude to Everest), and known for his writing rather than previous exploration), but died at Ypres.

Buchan's Everest chapter is a decent exposition on the 1921 reconnaissance and the 1922 attempt upon the summit. He rationalizes an attempt upon Everest more clearly than other writers, saying that although it is expensive and dangerous, it might prevent men after the war from "slipping back into a dull materialism," and that its "value was a vindication of the essential idealism of the human spirit." His quotation from Mallory's article in the Alpine Journal catches Mallory making a political move, as he elucidates his rationale for climbing the North Ridge and gives several good reasons why he would avoid the Northeast Ridge, the route preferred by Raeburn (his mountaineering elder), who only saw the mountain from the East. Buchan also picks some haunting words for 1923 in the quote of Mallory's that states, "It might be possible for two men to struggle somehow to the summit, disregarding every other consideration. It is a different matter to climb the mountain as mountaineers would have it climbed . . ." Buchan does mistakenly base the 1922 climb in the Kharta Valley, but his information and analysis is otherwise relatively good. He is clearly unfamiliar with the work of Kellas, as he wonders in the book whether there will be enough air to breathe at the summit. He is, correspondingly, a supporter of supplemental oxygen, stating that it is no more cheating that wearing warm clothing. I'm curious what Buchan would have to say about the events of 1924!

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, which can be found here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Epic Climbs, by John Cleare

John Cleare documents for young readers the most exciting attempts on five famous mountains in Epic Climbs. The book features fold-out pages with maps, routes, and a range of illustrations that cover the Eiger, K2, Mount Everest, Mount McKinley, and the Matterhorn. Cleare, both a mountaineer and photographer (He helped document the ill-fated 1971 international Everest expedition for the BBC.), picks interesting and relevant information on the mountains to go with the many photographic illustrations, many of which are his own photos. Also, he lays out a lot of data in easily-deciphered tables and diagrams. He covers the history of climbing each mountain, focusing on the more dramatic climbs, such as the 1924 attempt of Everest, or the 1953 epic on K2. The text is broken up to go with the illustrations, mixing in some geographic trivia and color to the histories. There is some cultural stereotyping in this work, such as "Baltis are fiercely proud and often belligerent," but overall the information in the book is pretty good. I'm not sure Diane Roberts would want to be remembered as the cook for the 1975 K2 expedition, however, and one diagram shows the 1953 K2 expedition nearly making the summit (switched with 1939). These are pretty minor things, though, unless you're Roberts or Wiessner.

Everest gets the biggest foldout in this one, as well as the most page space. Cleare covers the geologic history of the mountain and focuses on the 1924 and 1953 expeditions, as well as Reinhold Messner's 1980 solo climb to the summit. Another section discusses the current crowds on Everest, keeping the tone neutral except for garbage left on the mountain, as well as the weather on Everest and a discussion of avalanches. The large fold-out diagrams the two most popular routes up Everest and the features that climbers encounter en route, such as the Khumbu Icefall and the Second Step. The "Reference" section also includes a table of notable ascents of Everest. I'm not sure what to think of his labeling in the table the 1979 West Ridge Direct climb as Slovenian. The leader, Stremfelj, was from Slovenia, as well as most of the climbers, but at the time, it was considered a Yugoslavian expedition. (Note that Stipe Bozik, one of the summit climbers, was Croatian.) Perhaps this is updating history, but it seems a bit anachronistic to me.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Buried in the Sky, by Zuckerman & Padoan

Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan shed some light on the "other" climbers on K2 during the 2008 tragedy in Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day. While the heavily sponsored European and Korean surviving climbers received quite a bit of publicity after an 11-person cull during a late-season summit cattle call, the Shimsali and Sherpa climbers also on the mountain went largely unnoticed. The authors bring attention to their efforts, their heroism, and their humanity, profiling their lives and portraying the tragedy through their eyes. During the tragedy, the perspective creeps somewhat to include the viewpoints of European climbers, but the authors ultimately provide a vivid account of a perfect summit day gone wrong. Though I'd read a bit about the descent towards amateurism on K2 in my Everest reading, I never quite believed that climbers on K2 would depend on high-altitude porters to string the route through the Bottleneck (high above the Abruzzi Spur, on the traditional route). The authors remind us that high-altitude workers on K2 are considerably diverse, speaking a variety of languages that do not always overlap, such as Shimsali, Urdu, Hunza, Tibetan, or one of several Sherpa dialects. They press the point on the diversity of Sherpa dialects, as the two Sherpa protagonists, Pasang and Chhiring, come from opposite ends of the traditional Sherpa lands, Rowaling and the Arun Valley. (I had no idea that Sikkimese is also a Tibetan dialect.)

Zuckerman and Padoan include an short history of the Sherpa people as well as their relation to climbing. It's a bit more racially-charged that others, perhaps rightly so. Their information on Tenzing Norgay was more so than I'm used to, stating that he was discriminated against as a Bhotia, both in Khumbu and in Darjeeling. They suggest that his flight to Darjeeling with his future wife was an elopement made necessary by his racial status and that he was turned down for the first round of 1935 porter selection due to his race. Also, they state that Tenzing belies his Kharta background by saying that he grew up "under the wing" of Everest, as people around Kharta associate Everest with a hen. Their history of the Rowaling Valley was fascinating to me, especially the religious identification of K2 as the fifth sister in their mountain god pantheon. They create some parallels between K2 and Everest in the book, mentioning 1996 disaster and a number of other close calls, such as Falvey's rescue. The Korean team had just finished a climb of Everest before arriving at K2, bringing along several of their Sherpa climbers. The book's comparisons between Everest and K2 are also used to express K2's difficulty and danger.

Overall, it's a great book with a unique perspective on high-altitude climbing. Hope you like it!

On a side note: anyone else noticed a recent confusion about the "death zone?" Until recently, in the literature, authors have stated that it begins at 26,000 feet. Books published in the last couple years, however, have placed it anywhere from 27,000 feet (current volume) down to 19,000 feet (Mark Bowen's Thin Ice). Is there scientific confusion about it now, or are authors fudging it for effect?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How We Climbed Everest, by Doskov & Petrov

My 300th Everest book! I try to bring you rare and interesting books for my centennial books. For my 100th, I shared S. M. Goswami's Everest: Is It Conquered?, a conspiracy theory written about the "purported" first ascent of Everest in 1953. Book 200 was Shin Seung Mo's Orient Express to Crystal Summit, about the 1987 Korean winter ascent of the mountain, with Ang Rita making the summit without supplementary oxygen. For book 300, I bring you a small volume on the exciting, but relatively unknown 1984 Bulgarian ascent of the West Ridge Direct. 

Kiril Doskov and Nikolai Petrov write about their participation in the 1984 Bulgarian Everest expedition in How We Climbed Everest. The Bulgarians, under Avram Avramov, follow the Yugoslavian line up the complete West Ridge during the pre-monsoon season. They approach the mountain in two teams (for a total of 24), with one team arriving very early to ascend the Lho La, set up a winch system and begin the ferrying of supplies. The other group arrives fresh and immediately starts stocking higher camps and plugging away at carrying loads. Due to their organization, dedication, and some especially good weather, their first climber, Hristo Prodanov makes it to the summit (Sirdar Chhowang returns from 8400 meters after being struck by a falling oxygen cylinder.) without the use of supplementary oxygen at the amazingly early date of April 20th. He bivouacs very high on the mountain, and team member Yankov and Chhowang are unable to reach him before he expires during the descent. A terrible storm follows, clearing everyone off the mountain.

The team members decide that they are not yet finished with the mountain, as many climbers should have a chance at the summit, and the season has really barely begun. They discover that their high camps have been destroyed by wind and avalanches. After reestablishing them with what equipment they can pull together, they send up more summit climbers. Metodi Savov and Ivan Valtchev were next, taking a long time to make it to the summit due to deep snow. Like Hornbein and Unsoeld (see Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge), after a very late arrival at the summit, they decided the best course of action is to descend the Southeast Ridge and end up bivouacing near the South Summit. The authors' (Doskov and Petrov) climb ends up doubling as a summit climb and a rescue. They take into consideration the long climbs of Prodonov, Savov, and Valtchev, and decide on a 9 p.m. departure from the high camp and unwittingly arrive at the summit before sunrise after a seven, rather than twelve, hour climb. They head over the top, and in the dark begin to descend the Northeast Ridge before noticing their error as the sun rises. After reascending to the summit, the authors find the right direction and head down the Southeast Ridge. They come across Savov below the South Summit, as Valtchev had descended to the South Col to try to get help from the Indian team climbing the Southeast Ridge route (see Khullar's The Call of Everest). The authors resuscitate Savov with oxygen and warm liquids and help him down the mountain, staying with the Indian team on the South Col before descending via the Western Cwm to their teammates.

I'm amazed that I have not encountered a tale of this expedition in any of my previous reading, as it has all the drama, athleticism, and gutsy decisions that make for a great climbing story. This book is a slim volume of 38 pages, though it includes some journalistic photographs as well. The authors are careful in their wording in places, I imaging for state censors. I wonder what sort of things I've missed! There is one more, slightly longer book in English about this expedition, Metodi Savov's Everest: The Bulgarian Way, that I would love to read, but I have yet to track down a copy. There are a couple of books on this expedition in Bulgarian, by Avramov and Zakharinov, as well as a biography of Prodonov by Georgiev.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts

Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings showcases the shorter works from David Roberts' career of mountain journalism. He divides the book in three sections, covering his own adventures, profiles of interesting people, and reflections on a climber's life. I enjoyed reading about Roberts' life of climbs, as I have so far really only read his books co-authored with other climbers, such as Conrad Anker's The Lost Explorer or Ed Viesturs' No Shortcuts to the Top. His ascents in Alaska sound impressive, especially for their time. Many of his other essays show off inspired writing rather than grand adventures, describing such excursions as his "tourist" ascent of Kilimanjaro and guiding a group of students in Utah. His writing is refreshingly analytical, with occasional wit; intelligent, but easily understood; honest, but never confessional. His profiles cover many of the great personalities of the American climbing scene, including a group essay of the Harvard Alpine Club greats, Don Sheldon (Alaskan bush pilot extraordinaire), John Roskelley, Fritz Wiessner, Hugh Herr (a double amputee who returned to climb at a high level), as well as an essay contrasting Messner and Habeler, the team that first scaled Everest without supplementary oxygen. His essays exploring the climbing life were my favorite section, especially his acerbic commentary on climbers' autobiographies. (I guess it's nice to read another guy writing about climbing books!) His essay on the life of a public climber brings up an issue his protege Jon Krakauer would later witness firsthand on Everest (see Into Thin Air), with climbers constantly under the eye of the media potentially risking more for a potential success. His "Roping Up" also catches early on the trend of high level climbers to do away with ropes and the frustrating anonymity of fixed-line ascents.

Regarding Everest, the Habeler-Messner essay is the highlight. (It is also found in Willis' Epics on Everest.) When I read it the first time in Willis' work, I was under the impression that Roberts had not actually interviewed Messner. Actually Messner graced Roberts with a precious hour of his time; Habeler, on the other hand, spent an evening at the pub with the author. The essay is well-done, but it is necessarily one-sided. I felt like I got a better feel for Habeler than solely by reading his book, The Lonely Victory, whereas Messner appears quite similar to his media image. The contrast between the two is still, however, interesting, and at times surprising. A bit of Everest trivia worked its way into the book as well. I had no idea that Burdsall, Emmons, Moore, and Young's original plan in their trip to China was to find a way around the British blockade of Mount Everest by traveling through China and Tibet. It was not until after they arrived in Shanghai that they settled for an ascent of Minya Konka (Mount Gongga), the highest summit reached by Americans until 1958 (see their Men Against the Clouds).