Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Call of Everest, by D. K. Khullar

D. K. Khullar looks back on the 1984 Indian Everest expedition that he led in The Call of Everest: First Ascent by an Indian Woman. The expedition was so troubled, that it took Khullar several years before he could look back on it dispassionately. With a short prep time, a large team, improvised logistics and funding, and a mixed-gender expedition that looks to put several women on the summit, the climb is bound to be interesting. The snarkiness and interpersonal conflict in this book is a far cry from the tidy, yet heroic expedition accounts of the 1960s (Lure of Everest, The Everest Adventure, Nine Atop Everest), but is tame compared to Galen Rowell's In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods. Khullar's candid writing is a significant change from the traditional leader's account, writing harshly of both his own performance and that of several of the climbers. It all seems a bit strange for an expedition in which so many climbers (five) made it to the summit.

The team climbs the mountain during the pre-monsoon season alongside the Bulgarian team attempting the West Ridge Direct (see Doskov & Petkov's How We Climbed Everest or Savov's Everest: The Bulgarian Way). They interact with the Bulgarians, especially as the Bulgarians have superior supplies, trading support on the Bulgarians' descent on the Southeast Ridge for surplus oxygen canisters and radios. It seems like Providence had it out for the Indian team, as two support staff die early in the climb, climbers face two major avalanches with multiple casualties, and high winds prevent one of their summit climbs. Also, five of their team would later face climbing deaths soon after this expedition. The climbing ethics of the time come out in this one, as Phu Dorji is castigated for making a solo push to the summit after his two rope mates turn back. Similarly, Khullar receives quite a bit of criticism for only getting one woman to the summit. I can't say it was for lack of trying! Khullar has nothing but praise for Bachendri Pal, the woman who made it. I think he would have been equally happy had Rita Gombu (Tenzing Norgay's granddaughter) also made it. It's a fantastic story and a bit of an odd book. Well worth a read if you find a copy!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Abode of Snow, by Kenneth Mason

Kenneth Mason writes a pretty thorough book in Abode of Snow: A History of Himalayan Exploration and Mountaineering. He published the book in 1955, a bit of a frustrating time to stop, as much of the early exploration was beginning to culminate in climbs of the big Himalayan peaks. However, his early publication could as easily be a blessing in disguise, as a lack of big news on the climbing front allowed him to focus on the many smaller expeditions that are left out or marginalized in later Himalayan histories, such as Osmastson's Bandar Punch climbs, Hunt's winter climbing in Sikkim, or Ruttledge's later surveys. The book is a great summary of Himalayan early history (including just about everything from the Jesuits to WWII), and a handy starting resource for the researcher. Mason clearly knows his material, and he not only summarizes but analyzes the many expeditions in the book, cutting the Workmans down to size, giving mixed reviews to the Schlagintweit brothers, and writing a diatribe against Fritz Wiessner. As the author is a surveyor, he is sure to point out the crucial role they play in the early exploration and later climbing of Himalayan mountains. (He also stumps on the ineffectiveness of aneroid altimeters on Himalayan peaks.) 

Regarding Everest, Mason writes the most interesting information on its prehistory. Though he gives plenty of room to the climbing expeditions (the licit ones, at least), the information is largely from official sources, mainly the expedition books, including Hunt's The Ascent of Everest. He credits Bruce over Kellas for the use of Sherpas on the Everest climbs, both because of his Gurkha affiliation and his role in advising and organizing the expeditions. The author provides tantalizing information about the aborted 1906 Everest expedition. I had no idea that the members, including Bruce, Conway, and Mumm, had actually been confident enough in their travel, that they had collected stores and headed for India before receiving notice that their plans were for naught. (Mumm had even looked into bringing oxygen.) As a consolation, an Indian national surveyor, Natha Singh, was allowed into Nepal to map the some territory along the Dudh Kosi near Everest, and the trio of climbers headed off to explore lower mountains in Garwhal and Kashmir. 

For a more up-to-date and (perhaps) scholarly history of Himalayan climbing, consult Isserman and Weaver's Fallen Giants.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tenzing: Hero of Everest, by Ed Douglas

Ed Douglas writes a much-needed modern biography of Tenzing Norgay in Tenzing: Hero of Everest. Unlike his ropemate for his climb to the top of the world, Ed Hillary, Tenzing suffers from a shortage of books about his life, save his autobiographies. His first, Tiger of the Snows, co-authored with James Ullman, is a fairly good take on his early life, though it leaves much of his personal details in shadow. His second, After Everest, written with Malcolm Barnes, discusses his work at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and his many travels, but is a less-than-rigorous look into his personal and family life. We get a sense of the older Tenzing in his son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay's book, Touching My Father's Soul, but with all of these, we still only have a somewhat superficial picture of one of mountaineering's greatest heroes.

Douglas does some rigorous research to look into the truth behind the image of Tenzing. He tracks down Tenzing's true birthplace, discusses his early family life and his parents, and analyzes his role among a community within Darjeeling. The author goes through many of the well-known stories and ferrets out details that others have overlooked, such as Tenzing's visiting and doing favors for his family in Tibet during his travel with Earl Denman, his mother's accompanying him to Lhasa along with Professor Tucci, and implications of his taking Daku as a second wife. He sets Tenzing against other well-known people in his life, such as Ang Tharkay and Edmund Hillary, to measure his character and discusses his motives during important moments, such as before his Everest ascent and his trip to Nanga Parbat.

I appreciated Douglas' research into the lives of the many other climbing Sherpas. He adds some humanity to the representation of some of the most famous, including Sen Tensing, Dawa Thondup, Ang Tsering, and Ang Tharkay. Also, he shows the complex nature of the Sherpa identity, with a range of outsiders self-identifying as Sherpas (including Tenzing), and the changing social identity of the Darjeeling Sherpa community. (For an introduction to the early Sherpa climbers, read Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest.)

This is a great book besides a great biography. Tenzing's story is dramatic and complex, with both glory and a facade of financial success. Douglas works in the details that make an interesting story a engrossing read. Highly recommend!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sacred Mountain: Everest, by Christine Taylor-Butler

Christine Taylor-Butler writes a refreshingly culturally-sensitive young readers' book on Sherpa culture and climbing Mount Everest in Sacred Mountain: Everest. She states that Everest is a sacred mountain to people who live both to the north and south of it. She separates out traditional Sherpa life from its somewhat odd reality, discussing Sherpa agriculture, religion, customs, and family life before getting to western influences. She discusses Everest as a sacred summit, even bringing up Miyolangsangma and the Five Sisters, but it seemed strange to me to place its religious significance before the practical. Though she mentions Solu briefly, the cultural information in the book is primary about the Sherpas of Khumbu. Additionally, there is some natural history in the book, including the geologic formation of the Himalaya, the wildlife of Everest's outlying areas, and a plug for conservation. Throughout, there are photographic illustrations that make for a beautifully set book.

Taylor-Butler's climbing material is somewhat off, but it luckily (and rightly!) plays only a part in her book on Mount Everest. The climbing facts are a bit wacky at times, such as calling the Sherpas on the 1953 expedition "guides" or that people generally climb the "South Face" of Everest. Other things, such as her stating the 1921 reconnaissance traveled to Tibet before returning to Darjeeling to pick up the expedition's Sherpas are closer to being wrong. (Howard-Bury did travel to Gyantse, in Tibet, in 1920 while seeking permission, but that was before the expedition was even organized.) On the other hand, it was great of her to cover the recent Sherpa and Sherpani expeditions to the top of Everest! Though she gives the expeditions only a couple pages, it's the most thorough book resource I've found on these climbs so far. A well-researched book from an outsider looking in.

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Just for the Love of It, by Cathy O'Dowd

Cathy O'Dowd, the first woman to climb Everest from both Nepal and Tibet, writes about her climbing life in Just for the Love of It. Her first ascent, via the Southeast Ridge from Nepal during the pre-monsoon season of 1996 as a part of the South African team under Ian Woodall, is affected both by the tragic events of the May 10 storm that caught members of three expeditions high on the mountain as well as the dissolution of her own team due to conflicts during the trek to the mountain. I appreciated that she gives her point of view of the conflict, as her earlier book, Everest: Free to Decide (co-authored by Woodall), ignores it, and there was only Ken Vernon's acerbic Ascent and Dissent to go by. I think she does an OK job defending her side of things, but both sides' testimony is so far from each other and so vitriolic that it's hard to tell who's telling the truth. Her climb gives her and her audience something else to focus on, and she pushes herself higher and higher, only to find herself on the South Col caught up in the events of the tragedy. They return to climb to the summit, the last team to make an attempt that season, though her teammate Bruce Herrod does not return from the top.

O'Dowd and Woodall, who become romantically involved after the climb, look for other climbing opportunities and end up booking a North Ridge climb of Everest in 1998. Just as O'Dowd was vetted for her first climb in a trip to Kilimanjaro, they try out new recruits in an expedition to Aconcagua and pick two. Once again, there is conflict on the Everest climb, perhaps with less vitriol, though expedition members still leave after some acclimatization forays. Short of the First Step on the Northeast Ridge, she comes across a woman she knows who has spent two nights in the open, slowly dying, and has a very difficult decision to make. The woman is beyond help, though she is coherent enough to plead for her life. After trying to get her back on her feet, the South African expedition (with the exception of two Sherpas) forfeits their climb. O'Dowd and Woodall return the following year, laser-focused on the summit, and achieve their dream.

It was interesting to see O'Dowd grow as an expedition climber, from a rookie in 1996, to an experienced member in 1998, to an expedition organizer in 1999. She does a good job of highlighting both her technical and her emotional development through the climbs. It was nice to finally have one of the 1996 South African team seem human! I found her flashbacks to her earliest attempts at climbing while high on Everest quite effective at revealing the woman behind the oxygen mask. Even in this book, Woodall seems a bit of a mystery to me. Though O'Dowd admits to some of his rage, he seems more aloof than anything else in this work. There's hope yet---Woodall has recently released a book on his return to Everest, The Tao of Everest. I'll have to see if I can track it down.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Climbing Everest, by George Mallory

Peter Gillman collects the published writings of George Mallory in Climbing Everest: The Writings of George Mallory. The book includes Mallory's contributions to the expedition accounts Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921, and The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, as well as some journal articles and a couple Times news dispatches from the 1924 climb. I was bit disappointed that Gillman didn't include Mallory's many known letters from the mountain and about the expeditions, as I feel they add a wealth of information and perspective about his experiences. Even the 1924 expedition account, Fight for Everest, includes his letters to his wife from that climb.What's included is still makes for a great story, with a thorough account of the 1921 reconnaissance. As the first mountaineer to get a close look at Everest, Mallory makes the most of his great privilege and solemn duty. I love that someone with romantic streak was the first to explore Everest's environs, as I can only imagine what the narrative might have been with a Raeburn or a Strutt providing the prose. Mallory's many descriptions of Everest at times make it sound majestic (such as his comparison of it to Winchester Cathedral), and at others imposing, but dis-proportioned (perhaps a Matterhorn could stand on its summit...).  His personal discovery of penitentes makes for a lovely explanation of their form. I appreciate that even though Mallory was a bit out of his league in his first trip to Everest, he gets the important details correct and even 91 years later, his words still largely ring true. (No stodgy, laughable opinions here.) He admits that he knows little of Himalayan snow, and describes its peculiar character; he gives himself a hard time for loading the camera plates backwards and for overlooking the entrance to the East Rongbuk Glacier. Similarly, his 1922 writing is exciting, but modest, with an analysis that makes sense, especially for the time. Though he took the deadly avalanche quite personally (as did Somervell), he is careful not to place blame in his published accounts.

Gillman, who also co-wrote a first-rate biography of Mallory, The Wildest Dream, includes a postscript describing the events of 1924 that Mallory was unable to narrate. At least in the audiobook edition (which I reviewed) there is also an interview with Gillman that explains some of the surrounding details to the narrative that are not made entirely clear by Mallory's writing alone. I appreciate Gillman's attachment to the mystery of the events of 1924 and that he felt no need to speculate on or explain away what we (currently) cannot know. I agree that there's something lovely about a mystery that is likely to forever remain unsolved.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Heroic Climbs, edited by Bonington & Salkeld

Chris Bonington and Audrey Salkeld pull together a fantastic collection of mountaineering writing in Heroic Climbs: A Celebration of World Mountaineering. Theirs is perhaps the first anthology I've come across that brings together both top quality writing and largely untrodden (actually much of it is previously unpublished) material. The editors gather a wealth of famous names, including Scott, Hunt, Rutkiewicz, Nunn, Saunders, Webster, Blanchard, Khrischaty, Habeler, Hillary, Messner, Diemberger, Houston, and many others, and present some of their most difficult or interesting climbs that you've probably never read about. Though both Peter Boardman (Sacred Summits) and Joe Tasker (Savage Arena) wrote about their climb along with Doug Scott on the third highest mountain, they largely played down the perils of their first summit attempt, whereas Scott in "Lightweights on Kanchenjunga" stares down his own mortality in a bitter fight for survival during a terrible storm. Similarly, we finally get Habeler's perspective on his climb with Messner of Hidden Peak. Tony Streather gives full details of his trying climb on Haramosh, a climb I'd heard called "tragic," but knew nothing about. Greg Mortimer details his sailing to and from Antarctica on a yacht (not designed for ice breaking) to climb a mountain. Messner, Hasse, and Kurtyka give histories of under-recognized regional and national climbing. I was excited to read works by so many climbers that I'd heard about, but that I'd never read. In addition to the climbing narratives, Salkeld and Venables provide brief introductions to each of the regions covered in the book. Also, Salkeld hunted down a beautiful (and often useful) array of photographs to accompany the stories.

The Everest material includes a narrative by Hillary of his summit day climb, Diemberger's paen to the Kangshung Face, and some mentions in the essays of Pertemba, Kurtyka, and Venables. Hillary's "The Last Lap" is a later telling of his climb with Tenzing Norgay to the summit, and he avoids some of the pitfalls of earlier narratives, such as estimating the height of the Hillary Step and the "fish" references in its climbing. He also admits exasperation at Lowe's quoting him for the media about knocking the bastard off. Diemberger's Kangshung Face piece is a great telling of his relationship with the lesser-known, but dangerous side of Everest, from early fascination to his participation as filmmaker for the 1981 American expedition that ascended the "Lowe" Buttress. Though a thrilling climb, there's unfortunately no book specifically for this one, and I was glad to read some new (to me) details. Venables includes the early history of Everest climbing in his introduction. Pertemba discusses his three climbs of Everest, as well as the effects of mountaineering upon his community. Kurtyka's history of Polish Himalayan climbing of course includes the dual winter and South Pillar ascents of 1980.

I was happy with everything in this book save the title. With the exception of Streather's narrative, and a sideline in Houston's, the only traditional "heroism" is an attempt to rescue a sheep, and perhaps a camera. For the most part, these are narratives of climbs that go right or of the author getting himself out of a pickle. While inspirational and intrepid, I wouldn't call most of these climbs "heroic."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Turquoise Mountain, by Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed restores a sense of awe and inspiration in traveling to Everest in The Turquoise Mountain: Brian Blessed on Everest. His Everest fan-dom begins early, with a childhood encounter with the story of Mallory and Irvine, and his love of the story grows into a need to see and experience their travel. He uses his contacts in the acting world to try to get a documentary and recreation of their experience off the ground, almost to no avail. I felt like Blessed balanced his story well, showing the drama of the early organizing, planning, and begging in about equal proportion to the actual eventual expedition. He and a film team travel to Bhutan, Darjeeling (even riding the old toy train), and Kathmandu before heading to the north side of Everest during the pre-monsoon season in 1990. I was a bit sad that he was unable to follow their travels exactly, but I appreciated that they tried to recreate the experience closely. Blessed even has a period costume made for his journey. In addition to his journey, Blessed is able to meet a number of Everest personalities through the film project, including Capt. John Noel, Chris Bonington, John Hunt, and Reinhold Messner.

Blessed gets a surprisingly friendly welcome by the mountain. Though the International Peace Climb, led by Jim Whittaker, had faced some storms before Blessed's arrival, the film crew gets almost universally good weather (by Everest standards). Their goal is to get Blessed onto the North Col for the culmination of their filming, which will ultimately depend on Blessed's fitness at altitude and the health of the film crew. Blessed is guided and filmed on Everest by a well-established Everest personality, David Breashears, (see his High Exposure), and his sound-recordist, Graham Hoyland, would later make a name for himself in later Mallory explorations and recreations, including his participation in the 1999 expedition that found Mallory (see Hemmleb's Ghosts of Everest). (Hoyland's The Last Hours on Everest is due out some time next year.) The team's climb is officially a part of the International Peace Climb, and they intermingle with the climbers, though they have separate base camps. He also meets Peter Habeler, Mischa Saleki, and Todd Burleson while at the mountain.

Blessed's exuberance spills over in the book. He's the first author I've read who admits to having tickled the sirdar. His excitement for Everest is a force to be reckoned with. He admits that at times it gets in the way, but at others, his enthusiasm helps. It took nearly 70 years to get an artist on Everest; it's about time!

Blessed would later make two additional climbs on Everest, in 1991 and 1993, this time with the object of climbing to the summit, if possible.