Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest, by Ed Webster

Ed Webster writes one of the very best Everest books in Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest. It's got pretty much everything an Everest reader could ask for: difficult routes, fancy climbing, large teams, small teams, solo climbing, run-ins with famous climbers, newly-discovered Everest history, great photographs, triumph, tragedy, ultra-present danger, even the love interest that critics demanded for the 1924 climb. Webster chronicles his three expeditions to Everest in the 1980s---first a pre-monsoon West Ridge Direct climb via Nepal in 1985 under Dave Saas and Jim Bridwell with a large American team, next he accompanies Roger Marshall to Tibet in 1986 to photograph and chronicle Marshall's monsoon-season solo attempt, and lastly he participates in the 1988 pre-monsoon four-person ascent of the Kangshung Face.

There's a lot going on around Everest while Webster is climbing, and he's gregarious enough to talk to the many people around him. In 1985 he plays poker with Arne Naess (Drommen om Everest), Dick Bass (Seven Summits), and Chris Bonington (The Everest Years) and gets advice from David Breashears (High Exposure). In 1986 he has a front-row seat for Erhard Loretan (Den Bergen Verfallen) and Jean Troillet's night-naked ascent of the Supercouloir, hangs out with British climbing legends Brummie Stokes (Soldiers and Sherpas), Joe Brown, and Mo Anthoine (Feeding the Rat), and gets to know the Chileans. In one telling scene, he accompanies Rodrigo Jordan Fuchs (El Desafio de un Sueno) to the Raphiu La to look over the Kangshung Face---both would later climb it. Though his 1988 climb is characterized by its remote location, he still meets Tenzing Norgay's extended family and visits Tenzing's boyhood home.

I love how the stories build upon one another. The first climb is pretty much the standard Everest West Ridge narrative---we're a big team, we climbed the shoulder, then weather and/or interpersonal conflict finished us off before we could mount a serious summit bid. (See Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way or Roskelley's Stories Off the Wall for additional examples.) Webster does have some personal business to attend to, and the climb is an exciting, if conflict-ridden introduction to high-altitude. The next is a more laid-back assignment, but Webster gets a chance to be himself, climb by himself (all the way up Changtse), without any pressure to impress any sponsors. Things don't always go well with Marshall, but with Marshall such is to be expected.

The last climb is really the grand show---an amazing adventure that I feel fortunate to read about. If anybody topped Reinhold Messner's solo climb without supplemental oxygen (The Crystal Horizon) as far as expanding the limits of the possible on Everest, it was this crew---Robert Anderson, Paul Teare, Stephen Venables, and Ed Webster. They climbed a new and difficult route, including technical rock and ice climbing, wallowed through deep snow for thousands of feet, and had enough energy in reserve for three climbers to make a serious try at the summit, sans supplemental oxygen. Their summit climb is followed by a harrowing descent, during which the energy spent on their way up nearly prevents anyone's return.

The book has a number of features in addition. Webster's photographs appear throughout the narrative, including several sections of color images. His bibliography is extensive and subdivided into categories. My favorite feature is his annotated index, that includes note only page references, but a description of the subject, and a list under each heading of the many Everest expeditions of the climbers mentioned.

For a different, and also well-written perspective of the 1988 climb, see Venables' Everest: Kangshung Face.

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