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.

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