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.

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