Friday, September 21, 2012

Fearless on Everest, by Julie Summers

Julie Summers delves into the history of her famous relative in Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine. The author makes a lucky strike after she convinces her extended family to root through their attics in search of missing documents by Irvine, uncovering a trove of letters, photos, and other historical goodies collected by his father. She significantly updates his biography, giving his historical representation emotional depth, greater intelligence, and a comprehensible set of motivations. (For a bare-bones account of his early life and two major expeditions, see Herbert Carr's The Irvine Diaries.) She hashes out many of his activities that are relatively ambiguous in earlier literature, such as what he actually climbed before heading to Everest, his relationship with his best friend's step-mother, why he was likely chosen for the Everest climb, and his brief skiing career. The found archive includes technical drawings of Irvine's redesigned oxygen apparatus (as submitted to Siebe Gorman before the expedition) that looks like a much tidier version of what he eventually created from the junk that the firm sent to India for the climbers' use. Overall, Summers writes the book Irvine has deserved for quite a while, changing him from a stereotype to a stupendous character.

Summers fills out the 1924 Everest expedition story with a collection of letters Irvine wrote to friends and family. His previously-available diary documents mostly basic details about his movements and the Sisyphean repair and redesign of the oxygen apparatus en route. The letters (and some photos) add quite a bit of color and emotion to his tale, and Summers sprinkles quotes from them into the well-known narrative of the climb. Additionally, she includes excerpts from some of the 70 consolation letters kept by his family, including the full text of a letter from Norton. She mentions that Odell remained a life-long friend of the family, especially to Irvine's father, and discusses his change over time of his story of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine. She puts down Mallory's choosing Irvine to accompany him for the summit climb to a mixture of utility and mentor-ly affection, and she takes comfort that finding Somervell's camera could only conclusively prove their reaching the summit, and nothing will ever definitively disprove it. She believes that Odell might have been using an oxygen set that had been malfunctioning and had parts pirated from it, thereby deriving little benefit from its use. Correspondingly, Irvine's archive includes a letter stating the great benefit he got from using one of his refashioned oxygen apparatuses to ascend the North Col. Over the course of the expedition, she shows Irvine to be both a mechanical wonder and a physical powerhouse, who, even according to Hingston, was fitter than Odell at the time Mallory chose summit parties. She writes a great defense of Irvine, and a great book, to boot!

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