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.

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