Monday, October 29, 2012

Ghosts of Everest, by Hemmleb, Johnson, & Simonson

Jochen Hemmleb, Larry Johnston an Eric Simonson turn over the story of their quest to solve the mystery of Mallory and Irvine to Bill Nothdurft in Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine. The book narrates both the 1924 Everest expedition in which Mallory and Irvine walked into the clouds and the 1999 research expedition that found George Mallory's final resting place. Though Conrad Anker's mountaineering intuition ultimately led to their great discovery (See Anker and Roberts' The Lost Explorer.), Hemmleb's enthusiasm and intellect really seems to have set the ball rolling and gotten the searchers to the general location. Hemmleb and Johnston band together with Graham Hoyland, who was working to get a 75th anniversary search expedition off the ground (See his Last Hours on Everest.) through the BBC and Eric Simonson. According to this book, the BBC was a bit of a pain, but a necessary one, though I'll bet Peter Firstbrook, the director, disagrees. (See his Lost on Everest.) They head to Everest, and the North Face has blessedly little snow during their search. The rest is history.

When I saw Hemmleb's name first on the cover, I initially thought I would be reading something thoroughly academic. The book is a bit more basic, but entertaining, aiming to please a general audience. Hemmleb's talent shows through, however. He identifies cadavers by the color of their socks, and using photographs triangulates the location of the Chinese camps that would serves as a reference points for their search. His analysis of the photographic evidence of the 1960 summit climb is lovely. His working out the possibilities of Mallory and Irvine's oxygen consumption is compelling, and his analysis of Odell's many statements on his vision is thorough. I felt voyeuristic seeing the pictures of Mallory's body clinging to the slope. I do not believe I (and the rest of the world) should be seeing them, but I do find it poetic that history has shown us Mallory's bare buttocks instead of his summit photos!

For a revision of the Mallory story based on the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition's findings, see Breashears and Salkeld's Last Climb. This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, found here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dark Shadows Falling, by Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson discusses the ethics of climbing Everest and narrates a climb of his on Pumori in Dark Shadows Falling. He was first bothered by Everest climbers after viewing footage from Ronald Naar's 1993 expedition, in which Naar and his teammates discuss what to do after an Indian team leaves a (living) fellow climber stranded on the South Col only 30 meters from them, and they ultimately reason that doing nothing is the best course of action, even though the climber is waving at them. A further incident in 1996, during which a Japanese team climbs past two distressed Indian climbers who survived a storm and an overnight bivouac high on the Northeast Ridge, causes him no end of grief. As a survivor who was left for dead (who by all rights should have died), he stands up for the severely distressed, demanding others help, or at least show compassion for the dying in their final moments. Simpson also discusses the tragedy on the other side of Everest in 1996, contrasting it with these two heartless (but perhaps rational) acts, pointing out that even if Hall made a poor decision helping Hanson to the summit, he at least stayed by his side to the end, while Harris climbed back up to render aid. He also uses the examples of Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau to show that severely frostbit and hypothermic individuals have a chance of being saved.

He makes an attempt on the South Ridge of Pumori post-monsoon in 1996. The recent events are heavily on his mind during his climb, especially as snow conditions make for quite a bit of waiting at Base Camp. The book includes a number of conversations with his teammates about the commercialization of Everest and the ethics of climbing it. He's not sure that commercial operations have a place on Everest, but then again if someone offered a climb in the same style to him on a platter, he's not certain he wouldn't take it. The book provides a unique perspective on the ethics of climbing, especially when it discusses making the ultimate decision of saving someone else or looking after oneself. It's a thoughtful reflection on not just the risks of climbing, but on what those risks might lead to.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Near Death in the Mountains, edited by Cecil Kuhne

Cecil Kuhne brings together a collection of excerpts from some of the most famous mountaineering literature in Near Death in the Mountains: True Stories of Disaster and Survival. His cuts are relatively large, with only thirteen book excerpts for a 500-page collection. You really get a feel for the books this way. Some of his excerpts, especially those from episodic works, such as Peter Potterfield's In the Zone or Bonatti's The Mountains of My Life, worked quite well. Also, Parrado's Miracle in the Andes made a great story, as the climbing section of the book works well on its own. Several of the excerpts, however, were pretty awkward. Davidson's Minus 148 Degrees leaves off before the great storm with the unbelievably low temperature or the summit push. Simpson's Touching the Void stops after he breaks his knee, but before his abandonment and epic descent. Several others end just as things start to look like they might work out, and then the editor explains the end of the book. I found it overall a bit icky.

For Everest, Kuhne chose Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge. Kuhne includes the final stocking of camps and end-run logistics up through the sunrise after the unintended bivouac. Though I'm not certain where exactly I would otherwise stop the story, I hate leaving climbers on the mountain, especially after a night that might have frozen them to its side. If you're curious about The West Ridge, I would suggest reading the whole thing. It's a short book, and it's a great book. Other books excerpted in this collection include Krakauer's Eiger Dreams, Harrer's The White Spider, Herzog's Annapurna, Roberts' The Mountain of My Fear, Roskelley's Nanda Devi, and Tasker's Savage Arena.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

This My Voyage, by Tom Longstaff

Tom Longstaff sums up a lifetime of adventures in This My Voyage. He writes about his experiences mostly in the mountains as both an explorer and a climber. Though he was one of the earliest serious climbers in the Himalaya, he covers climbs worldwide, including the Alps, Caucasus, Rockies, and the Arctic. He climbs with an attitude similar to myself, constantly turning around to see the view, and much more interested in seeing what's on the other side of the mountain than achieving a summit. This did not stop him from climbing the highest summit yet reached, ascending Trisul in 1907 on a trip to the Himalaya with Bruce and Mumm. I had often heard that he climbed to the summit alone, but he makes it clear that made it to the top with two Swiss guides and a Gurkha in a long rush from a relatively low camp. (You may also read that he held the record for highest summit for a long time, but Mitchell and Rodway recently proved that Kellas climbed a higher mountain in 1911. See Prelude to Everest.) Longstaff is known as an early advocate for light travel in the greater ranges, especially for his explorations around Nanda Devi and in the Karakorum. I was impressed by his early use of crampons for fast and light ascents in the Caucasus and for his relatively modern tolerance for discomfort on a mountain climb, such as bivouacs without sleeping gear in good weather. I was happy that he said that his favorite place to climb is the Rockies, both for the quality of terrain and the company in the lower elevations. I also found to my liking his defense of British mountains, both as mountains rather than hills and ranges with their own form and personality rather than just warm-up peaks for the Alps.

He writes, of course, about climbing Everest, both his own experience and a short synopsis of subsequent climbs. I don't know why, but I hadn't connected Longstaff's Trisul ascent with Bruce and Mumm's Himalayan expedition before, which was a consolation climb for a thwarted attempt at obtaining permission to reconnoiter Everest. He also brings up Bruce's attempt to set up and expedition through Nepal in 1908 and Rawling's attempt to set up an expedition for 1915. I appreciated that he gave Wheeler full credit for the discovery of the East Rongbuk Glacier, rather than Mallory. (He also writes about his climbing with Wheeler and his father in the Canadian Rockies.) His tale of the 1922 climb is somewhat short, mentioning his work lower on the mountain, the frostbite and other health problems of the climbers, and his subsequent evacuation of the worst climbers. I was hoping for some details on Irvine from their 1923 Spitsbergen expedition, but he only mentions him once in passing; Longstaff does provide the details from the sea-going side of the expedition. (Irvine was on the sledging party with Odell.) Also, there's some interesting details on Odell from the story of Odell and Longstaff's sledging journey on Spitsbergen during the 1922 Arctic summer. I was hoping to glean some behind-the-scenes details from the Everest committee or other such, as Longstaff was such a pivotal figure in the creation of so many of the Everest parties, but alas, this is not that sort of book! It's an enjoyable read, nonetheless, from a true lover of mountains.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Epics of Everest, by Leonard Wibberley

Leonard Wibberley hams up the drama of the early Everest expeditions in The Epics of Everest.  I finally figured out the book that everyone keeps talking about, when they say that people shouldn't write about declaring war upon or conquering a mountain. He establishes his army against Everest in Chapter 1 and keeps the metaphor going for a good part of the book. He out-dramatizes even Francis Younghusband (which is hard to do!), though he lacks much of Younghusband's romance and passion. (See Younghusband's The Epic of Everest.) Considering that Wibberley wrote the book while living in Hermosa Beach, California without having visited the Himalaya or even climbing a serious mountain, he does a pretty good job of describing both the landscape and the difficulties of climbing Everest (such as breathing in the rarefied air). It's pretty clear that he got his information on the expeditions from the official account books, as his storyline follows them pretty closely. Correspondingly, his facts on the 1953 expedition are sparse, since he wrote the book in 1953, and had no official book to condense.

Wibberley's a good reader and disciple of the Everest literature up to his time, but he adds superlative to a lot of the facts. He also states opinions that make him sound extraordinarily dated, such as climbing Everest without oxygen is impossible, the West Ridge will never be climbed, the Northeast Ridge will never be climbed, small parties have no chance on Everest, and several others. He gets most of the facts right in the history of Everest, and the book is a fairly good condensed version of the attempts of the 1920s and 1930s. Epics does not recognize Earl Denman's attempt upon the north side in 1947 in its history, but his and Denman's book (Alone to Everest) were published concurrently. There are many more up-to-date histories of climbing Everest, including some that are better-written; I'd recommend Roberto Mantovani's Everest: The History of the Himalayan Giant for a book directed towards similar audiences, though I wouldn't turn away from Wibberley's book if it's what's available.

This is a revision and expansion of an earlier review, which begins here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More Than a Mountain, by TA Loeffler

TA Loeffler writes about her 2007 pre-monsoon Everest climb in More Than a Mountain: One Woman's Everest. She participates in an International Mountain Guides expedition in Nepal. Her book focuses on her life journey up to the mountain in addition to the climb, including earlier adventures, such as biking from Lhasa to Kathmandu and climbing Mount McKinley. Her preparations include a range of physical activities, from running to hockey (She's from Labrador.) to using a Go2Altitude system. She uses her quest for Everest to inspire young people, speaking to over 10,000 school children in the year running up to her climb, and saying that everyone has Mount Everests in their life. Additionally, she writes about her Buddhist spiritual path and the inspiration she draws from the support of others. She has a thing for Tim Horton's Vanilla Dip donuts.

She decides to commit to climb Everest after an attempt on Elburs under Phil Ershler (See his Together on Top of the World for more on his life.), when he admits that she's ready. She has a terrible time raising money for the climb, and ends up paying for most of it herself, though the assistance she gets from friends and schools means quite a bit to her sentimentally. During her trek to Base Camp and during the climb she writes about her interior struggles in addition to the exterior challenge. She spends quite a bit of her climb sick, both with bronchitis and stomach upset, making for a desperate struggle to keep up with the acclimatization rounds. I'll let you read the end, however.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tales from the Top of the World, by Sandra K. Athans

Sandra K. Athans writes a childrens' book about her brother's experience on Everest in Tales from the Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest with Pete Athans. While I hope that one day there will be a book for grown-ups on Athans' Everest adventures, I'll happily take a kids' book for now. Athans first introduces us to Everest and its history before setting off on hypothetical climb of the mountain. She is specific in her descriptions of a modern-day commercial climb of the Nepalese Southeast Ridge route on Everest (she does mention other routes, however), and she interrupts the storyline at different points to tell of her brother's experiences that happened in the same locations along the way. She focuses on his rescues, such as evacuating a paraglider accident victim at Base Camp or his role in the helping climbers down from the South Col during the 1996 disaster. She also brings up moments during his expeditions in which he made important decisions, such as his turning his expedition around at the South Summit in 1995 or his choosing a safer route over the West Ridge during the 2003 anniversary climb with Brent Bishop. There are also sidelines called "Ask Mr. Everest," in which Pete Athans answers questions such as "How do you go to the bathroom on Mount Everest?" or "Have there been any deaths on your expeditions?". I like that she weaves in important information regarding safety and preparation into the prose, and that the advice for young people interested in Everest is gain a lot of experience first. Overall, It's a pretty good book for an introduction to modern Everest climbing and a fun book for Pete Athans fans. I hope you like it!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sherpas, by James F. Fisher

James F. Fisher sums up his anthropological experience with the Sherpas in Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal. Fisher has the unique experience of helping to create the single biggest vehicle for cultural change in a community (the Lukla airstrip) and then becoming an anthropologist and studying what happens. The book begins with a narrative (including journal entries) of his first trip to Khumbu, as an US Peace Corps volunteer and aide to Sir Edmund Hillary during the 1964 expedition / project that constructed the airstrip, as well as three schools. After studying anthropology, he decides to return to Khumbu to see what effect the schools are having upon the culture of the Sherpas, but soon learns that the airstrip (that was originally designed to fly in supplies to build a hospital) has outgrown its original purpose and had the greater effect than the schools. Whereas Khumbu had 50 international visitors in 1964, thousands of tourists were visiting Khumbu annually in the 1970s, when he returned. (Instead of a 9-14 day walk, it is now just a 40-minute plane ride away.) The book includes results of his education studies as well as subsequent studies made during the 1980s, focusing on education and cultural change. Overall, the book is not as rigorous as an Ornter (Life and Death on Mt. Everest) or as intellectual as an Adams (Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas), but Fisher's practical topics and easily-understood language make this book approachable to general audiences, and his intelligent conclusions make it worth a read. I can understand why Ortner seemed pleased to cite him!

Fisher generally brings up Everest regarding a specific Sherpa's work history. There are some other references as well, however. He discusses the high percentages of Khumbu Sherpas in the early climbs of Everest, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. As Khumbu Sherpas have been able to find safer profitable work, their numbers have dropped over time, so that now (1990, in his book) higher percentages of Solu Sherpas are participating on mountaineering expeditions, and other ethnic groups (Tamang, Newar) are beginning to get into the business. (Today (2012) the trend continues, so that an average Everest "Sherpa" staff regularly contains a variety of ethnic groups.) He also brings up the 1988 Nepal-China-Japan Friendship Expedition in the context of measuring the change in Sherpa cultural identity, as the Sherpa climbers wore Nepali formal dress to a reception in Kathmandu, when before, during similar receptions, Sherpa climbers had worn Sherpa formal attire.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Top of the World, by Steve Jenkins

Steve Jenkins writes and illustrates a book for children in The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest. The text includes a short history of climbing Everest, discusses the natural geography, and prepares the reader for theoretical trip up the Nepalese South Col route. The information is overall pretty good, with only a few minor problems. The history includes mentions of Mallory and Irvine, Tenzing and Hillary, and Reinhold Messner. He discusses the formation of the Himalaya, the weather and flora found at different elevations near the mountain, and how avalanches occur. His climb includes a rundown of specialized gear, events that take place (such as a puja), a description of locations on the mountain (like the South Col), and some other climbing information. The highlight of the book for me is Jenkins' cut paper collage illustrations, which have a surprising realism for the medium. They include beautiful mountainscapes, famous photos rendered in paper, native animals, and a number of other subjects, all done with an artistic range of textures and colors. A great book for kids!

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mud, Sweat, and Tears, by Bear Grylls

Bear Grylls writes about his youth, facing selection for the SAS(R), climbing Everest, meeting his wife, and other important life experiences in Mud, Sweat, and Tears: The Autobiography. It's a great introduction to the beginning of Gryll's life, with plenty of detail about his early pivotal life events. His earlier book, Facing Up, covers a couple years well (from his skydiving accident to the top of Everest); Mud, Sweat, and Tears broadens the narrative, showing how his family history and his young life likely effected his development into a determined, principled, and adventurous man. He discusses his life at Rugby boarding school and at Eton before getting into the details of his intense struggle to enter the SAS (R). His Selection process takes up a large part of the book, especially the mountain trials, detailing his interior and physical struggles without getting too specific about geography. His actual work for the SAS gets little space due to the nature of the work, but we learn a bit more about his skydiving accident than the earlier book, as well as some more specifics about his recovery.

His Everest story isn't quite as inspirational as in Facing Up, but it does seem more personal. He convinces Neil Laughton to let him climb as a part of his small team under the overall organization of Henry Todd in 1998 during the pre-monsoon season. He and a friend arrive a week earlier for extra acclimatization and climb together until Grylls gets sick. In this version, Grylls includes the rest of the Henry Todd climbers when discussing who climbs when, including Graham Ratcliffe (see his A Day to Die For). You may remember from Ratcliffe's book or others (such as David Lim's Mountain to Climb) that on the first big summit attempt, the climbers, including several from Gryll's team, ran out of fixed rope at the South Summit and turned back. Grylls, too sick to climb then, gets a later chance for an attempt after betting against an incoming storm and getting away with it.

I was a bit surprised when I saw how little of the book was left after the Everest climb. Like he says on page 372 (of 400), "this was really just the beginning." His gives his early relationship with his wife some space, as well as his children, his home, and his work with the Scouts. His subsequent adventures and TV work (Man vs Wild) only get a summary. Personally, I was hoping to read about all this stuff and finished the book a bit disappointed. Perhaps Grylls, like the most famous British Everest personality, Chris Bonington, will be releasing subsequent volumes for his autobiography! It's a fun and fast-paced read; just don't let the inside cover teaser trick you into thinking that there's more to the book that his early life.

Friday, October 5, 2012

See It From the Top, by Yury Pritzker

Yury Prtizker tells his Everest story and provides a practical guide for others thinking of climbing the world's highest mountain in See It from the Top: How to Climb Everest without Quitting Your Day Job. His own ascent took place in the pre-monsoon season of 2009 under Dawa Stephen Sherpa's Asian Trekking Eco Everest Expedition. He dreamed it, rationalized it, and then achieved his trip to Everest through a home-grown regimen of preparation. His utilitarian focus on his equipment, his information gathering, and his physical training and the hard logic that causes him to maximize the effectiveness of each gives a rare prolonged look into the rational, rather than the idealistic, choices that help get climbers to the top of Everest. He discusses everything from the types of expeditions available and their costs to the calculation of a climber's oxygen consumption for a summit attempt. (The only thing missing was a rubric for negotiating with employers for prolonged leave!) The book is a guide based on how he climbed Everest, and while it contains a lot of information on other options, the most detailed descriptions come from his personal experience.

Pritzker's experience is both iconic and unique. He grew up in Russia taking holidays in the Caucuses, manufacturing climbing equipment with whatever materials he could scrounge, before immigrating to the United States. He progresses from weekend climbing trips from his home in Chicago (Finally, a Midwesterner writes an Everest book!) to climbs of Mounts Rainier, Hunter, and McKinley. He decides to climb Everest next, without previous Himalayan experience, for financial and emotional reasons, but prepares himself rigorously and thoughtfully for the challenge. He once again makes some of his own equipment, enlarging his ascender handle and coming up with a new system for heating his hands and feet. He relies on speed and technique for safety, climbing efficiently and passing many. He felt comfortable making important decisions for himself and chose Asian Trekking for their supported, but unguided climb. He was scrupulous about his health and followed a strict acclimatization scheme to give himself maximum advantage on his summit attempt. If you want specifics, read the book! As a postscript, he interviews his wife, Svetlana, about her experience at home and about her program of visualization and motivation that she uses to coach others, including her husband.

Speaking of postscripts --- his book is self-published, and some of his typos made for some wonderful mental images, such as "chain strokes," rather than Cheyne Stokes, breathing, that makes me think of a power tool that is having trouble starting, much like the climber in his sleeping bag. Also, his "Yellow Bend" (Yellow Band) brought to mind the great U-shape of Everest massif, and his "wondering around" made me think of the mental state I am often in as I wander. I don't hold any of these unintentional puns against the author, I rather enjoyed coming across them!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Climb, edited by Kerry & Cameron Burns

Kerry L. Burns and Cameron M. Burns pull together a short collection of classic and relatively new ascents in Climb: Tales of Man Versus Boulder, Crag, Wall, and Peak. It is an anthology from a wide range of years, from Petrach's ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336 to a 2006 work by Paul Ross, and, as the title suggests, covers a wide range of styles of climbing. The editors did assemble pieces that, with one exception, explore the inner workings of the climber, tying together a seemingly unruly set. Their finding older works, such as Leslie Stephen's essay on the Schreckhorn and Isabella Lucy Bird's of Longs Peak, that defied convention (however conservatively) by giving more than just a dispassionate route narrative, impressed me. For the most part, the essays are taken from climbing journals or excepted from books, though Ross' "A Tale of Two Epics" is previously unpublished. It's an overall entertaining set, characterized by passion, humor, and determination rather than death and near-misses.

Mike Thompson writes about his experience with Bonington's 1975 Everest Southwest Face expedition in the final chapter, "Out with the Boys Again." Originally published in Mountain magazine in 1976, the piece gives a lot of the interpersonal details and humor that are missing from Bonington's official account, Everest: The Hard Way. He discusses the separation of the expedition into A and B teams for the trek to the mountain and the development and dissipation of both official and underground authority. (Note that he is an anthropologist.) He discusses the more humorous aspects of his fellow climbers' personalities, provides some anecdotes, and notes the heavy absence of Don Whillans. He narrates in short prose his own role in the climb, and ends the piece after his climb to Camp 6 to support the first summit attempt, before things got dramatic and somewhat messy. It's a bit of a relief to read an account by someone who doesn't take a Bonington climb too seriously! (For a serious contrast, one of Ross' epics details a climb with Bonington, Whillans, and MacInnes on the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru.)