Thursday, December 13, 2012

Vertical Margins, by Reuben Ellis

Reuben Ellis explores the often troublesome connections between climbers and empire in Vertical Margins: Mountaineering and the Landscapes of Neoimperialism. Ellis uses the accounts of three modern-era expeditions by Halford Mackinder, Annie Smith Peck, and John Baptist Noel to probe the cultural baggage requisite for a mountain climb in a distant land. The author provides a focused analysis on the history of mountain writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how it got tied into the genre of the exploration narrative, and how climbing a mountain gained nearly as much imperial significance as the more innately political exploration journey. Also important is the role representations of adventure, such as mountaineering books, played in shaping the culture they supposedly try to escape. This is intelligent writing, with plenty of room for grey areas and possibilities within Ellis' arguments, even while he presses the reader to follow him deeper into his line of thinking (a welcome contrast to Bayers' dogmatic Imperial Ascent). In the chapter on Mackinder, Ellis analyses Mackinder's only-recently published account of his ascent of Mount Kenya, the journey's connections to his academic career in geography as well as the overall history of the Royal Geographical Society. (He often references Cameron's To the Farthest Ends of the Earth.) For Peck, he hashes out her The Search for the Apex of America, about her attempts on Illampu and her ascent of Huascaran, discusses her writing about the economic development of South America (including in Apex), and the importance of her politics (including women's suffrage and support for Roosevelt) to her mission.

Regarding Everest, Ellis discusses the British imperial connections to the early Everest expeditions through John Noel's Through Tibet to Everest, as well as the research into the backroom politics of the expedition organizers done by Unsworth and Salkeld in Everest: The Mountaineering History. Ellis focuses on the filming of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions by Noel, and how the films played a pivotal role in both the promotion of the climbs and the ruining of the prospect of future climbs. He places the films in the context of the history of mountaineering photography, British filmmaking, and the sub-genre of adventure documentaries, noting the poor timing of the later film at the tail-end of the crash of British film in 1924. In addition, he shows the filming of the climbs as another form of geographical control---just as surveying and mapmaking define a location in terms of a particular culture. I found his analysis compelling, especially when placed against pretty good contextual research. I think you're going to like this one!

Friday, December 7, 2012

To the Top from Nowhere, by Vilane & Jennings

Sibusiso Vilane, with the help of Gail Jennings, tells of his becoming the first black African to climb Mount Everest in To the Top from Nowhere. Vilane grew up in South Africa and Swaziland, and progressed from herding goats and cows to attending school (and doing quite well) to eventually becoming a game ranger. He met John Doble when he volunteered to walk in the game reserve with him on his day off (and continued to do so), and his life has led a new course ever since. Doble was convinced that Vilane would make a good mountaineer and could even climb Everest, and he encouraged him, pulled strings for him, and sponsored him on his climbs, first to Kilimanjaro in 1999, then a Himalayan training regime in 2002, and then Everest in 2003. Vilane faced a sharp learning curve, with Kilimanjaro as his first experience at altitude, three trekking peaks as his next experience, and then Everest. He does well with the altitude, though the cold affects him greatly. Differences in culture play an important role in his narrative, as he is not used to sharing a tent, eating most of the foods available to him, using a computer, or being the object of a great deal of attention due to his skin color. Additionally, money is consistently a concern for him, especially during his first Everest trip, as he has very little to spend, and is fortunate in the kindness of others for things such as calling home.

Vilane actually makes two trips to Everest, first from Nepal via the Southeast Ridge in the spring of 2003, and again from Tibet via the North Ridge in the spring of 2005. Both times, he uses Jagged Globe for his climb, first as a member of a guided expedition, and then as an outfitter for his trip from the north. He climbs to the top in 2003 under the leadership of Robert Mads Anderson. (See his Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo for his several earlier attempts on Everest.) For his return trip, he invites Sir Ranulph Fiennes (I really enjoyed his To the Ends of the Earth, about his transpolar circumnavigation of the earth.) to climb with him to raise money for three African charities. A few other South Africans join them. Vilane, three teammates and two Sherpa make the summit in an initial attempt, but Vilane faces a harrowing descent. Fiennes turns around at 8400 meters in a second party due to a feared heart attack. Since the publication of his book, Vilane has moved on to complete the Seven Summits, as well as trek to both the North Pole and the South Pole.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mountain Madness, by Robert Birkby

Robert Birkby writes about the man behind the image in Mountain Madness: Scott Fischer, Mount Everest & A Life Lived on High. Birkby, both a friend and client of Scott Fischer, gives a balanced view, detailing his life and climbs, including his childhood, his family, his major climbs, and several commercial trips, including a few that included the author. He shows Fischer to be an exuberant, driven climber fostered in the NOLS program who had a special attraction to Mount Everest. Though ambitious, Fischer's love of climbing always outweighed his organizational and business sense, and he didn't have a lot of respect for authority, including his own. While Fischer could be a great cheerleader and figurehead, Birkby shows that he depended on others to do much of the grunt work in his business as a mountain guide service provider. Birkby pieces his life together with interviews with family, friends, and fellow climbers, with special attention given to Wes Krause, Wally Berg, and Ed Viesturs for some of his bigger climbs. In Fischer's Himalayan career, Birkby uses Rob Hall as a contrast, both in Hall's successes and operations.

Fischer had a long, frustrating relationship with Everest. He organized and nominally led his first attempt, post-monsoon in 1987 via the Australian North Face route. He thought his fellow climbers, none of whom had Everest experience, would be self-motivated to help with load carrying to the various camps, and that all the equipment would sort itself out between the climbers. Despite this, had the weather been obliging, he and several other climbers (including Stacy Allison, see her Many Mountains to Climb) were poised to make a viable, though not strong, attempt on the summit at the end of the season. He returns, this time via Nepal, in the pre-monsoon season of 1989 for On Top Everest medical research expedition, under McConnell and Reynolds, that has the summit as a secondary objective. He and Wally Berg were taken on as ringers to push the route and make the important climbing decisions. Though Fischer makes three attempts at the summit, ultimately a less experienced climber and two Sherpa make the summit after he had exhausted himself, though tragedy strikes on their descent. He returned in 1990 with Glen Porzak's Everest-Lhotse team to become one of the first two Americans to climb Lhotse, but the team was packing their bags before he could get ready for Everest. Finally, in 1994, with a NOLS crew under Steven Goryl billed as the Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition, Fischer made the top without supplemental oxygen along with Rob Hess. His 1996 expedition, of course, is legend. Birkby supplements the usual tale with interviews with his surviving guides Neal Beidleman and Brent Bishop (who led the trekkers), as well as a couple quotes from his clients.