Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Romance of Mountaineering, by R. L. G. Irving

Robert Lock Graham Irving comments on the history of mountaineering, including his own time in The Romance of Mountaineering. Irving makes a strong plea against the attitude picked up by such authors as Ruben Ellis (see Vertical Margins), stating that climbing should be a personal act between the mountain and the mountaineer, instead of a sporting venture or an act of nationality. For a British mountaineering author, Irving is refreshingly international in his history, complimenting continental climbers when they do well, though he has a strong distaste for the recent trend of ironmongery and is amused by the pitiable accomplishments of Americans at the time. (Romance was published in 1935.) His facts, of course, are a bit dated, but his analysis and perspective are unique and fascinating. He runs against the emerging trend of climbing as an expression of national identity and the need to "beat" others at climbing. He believes there is a limit to what men should do on mountains, and exposing oneself needlessly to rockfall and using a rope for anything beyond a margin of safety are right out. More than half his book discusses the climbing of his present day, including the trend of face climbing in the Alps, siege climbing, and the emergence of Himalayan climbing. He gives Graham the benefit of the doubt in his supposed 1883 ascent of Kabru, citing Longstaff's party's progress on Trisul as an example of such swift progress. He states that Bauer's party on Kanchenjunga (1929 and 1931) had accomplished some of the most technically demanding climbing ever, and that Willy Merkl had chosen a practical route on Nanga Parbat, though he should have had a greater margin of safety. Irving makes a fascinating observation that climbers had to rediscover snow climbing when they approached the Himalaya, as much of the recent climbing in the Alps was rock work.

Irving interprets the climbing of Everest through the eyes of George Mallory, as Irving was his friend and climbing mentor. While narrating the expeditions, Irving often quotes letters written to him by Mallory as well as Mallory's diary. He does occasionally use Mallory for his own purposes, such as stating that Mallory was against oxygen use in his argument against supplementary oxygen (though Mallory's opinion changed over time). Irving is very complimentary of Mallory, especially noting his balance and climbing form, even though he still believes Mallory died in a fall. He believes that after the 1922 expedition, there was no more need to return to Everest, as the 1922 group definitively proved that it could be climbed. All subsequent expeditions are simply wasteful expenditures in accomplishing a technical and unpractical feat. He sees the Everest committee as funding a dangerous trend in mountaineering nationalism; if someone climbs in the Himalaya, it should be private venture, without pomp or publicity. I wonder if he would argue similarly if Mallory had returned alive and victorious in 1924. I hope so, as his arguments are a breath of fresh air in the often jingoist climbing writing of his time.

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