Sunday, September 23, 2012

Everest Diary, by John McCallum

John McCallum creates a fine narrative of Lute Jerstad's 1963 climb of Everest as a part of the American expedition in Everest Diary: Based on the Diary of Lute Jerstad, One of the First Five Americans to Conquer Mount Everest. Jerstad is consistently a part of South Col-Southeast Ridge climbing team in this split expedition. Like Tom Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge, Jerstad's story stays focused on the side of the mountain the protagonist climbs. McCallum, I imagine, makes an excellent sports writer for his era, though he takes a bit of getting used to for modern-day climbing readers. He can at times be very dramatic, almost overly so, and doesn't always get the mountaineering stuff correct. He spins and excellent narrative, however, and Jerstad's diary entries (which play a large part in this book) are insightful, and at times poetic. Jerstad spends an amazing amount of time high on the mountain, and it's a real testament to the human spirit that he spent as much time as he did at altitude, and still managed to climb to the top and back down, including a night out on the upper Southeast Ridge.

This book has a significant advantage over the official account, Ullman's Americans on Everest. Ullman's tidy writing leaves a bit wanting in moments such as Jake Breitenbach's death, the dispute over route priorities, and the frightening ordeal of four climbers' unplanned bivouac near the roof of the world. Jerstad's personal and thoughtful remarks make up for this somewhat, especially when read in tandem with Hornbein's The West Ridge. Jerstad's writing confirms that the Americans were largely unaware of the breadth of the smallpox epidemic happening nearby at lower elevations, that Hillary's Kantega / Taweche expedition had to face head-on, as Hillary remarks in Schoolhouse in the Clouds. (Hillary also mentions that the Sherpas find the Americans strong, since they carry loads as well; while Jerstad here remarks that he can't believe how eager the Sherpas are to do things for him, such as setting up his tent and washing his clothes.) Similarly, Jerstad's narrative reinforces Ullman's perspective on the woman with burns on her face whom the Americans "unnecessarily" helicopter to Kathmandu to save her life. I recommend this book, both for the narrative, but especially for Jerstad's perspectives on life and mountaineering.

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

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