Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mountaineer, by Chris Bonington

Chris Bonington presents a photo essay of his climbing life in Mountaineer. The book reads like a series of climbing lectures, with presentations on focused areas of Bonington's adventures, such as his experiences on British cliffs, his short career of photojournalism, or his big Himalayan walls expeditions. In addition to his own experiences, he discusses how climbing has changed over his lifetime, including equipment, attitudes, professionalism, and group dynamics. His life and climbs cover an important range of climbing history, beginning with the working-class British cragsmen, the the highly-structured expedtions of the 50s through the 70s, to the transition to small teams tackling big Himalayn objectives in the 1980s. The photos are a well-taken, grand collection, from places few dare tread, whether the North Face of the Eiger, the West Buttress of K2, or the Southwest Face of Everest, to name only a few. This book is not to be confused with an autobiography, however, as the photos and essays stay focused on his climbs, and discuss very little of his life away from the mountains.

His Everest material is a large part of this book, as Everest played a large part in his life. Much of it is the standard fare previously published in his Everest books, covering his climbs on the Southwest Face, the Southeast Ridge, and the Northeast Ridge. It's still good stuff, but doesn't add much value to this book for the dedicated Bonington or Everest fan. It's pretty handy, however, to have a large collection all in one place. (See also Chris Bonington's Everest.)  I did notice some original stuff covering his 1985 Southeast Ridge climb, and I enjoyed seeing material from his more recent climbs of lower, but still imposing Himalayan peaks.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Kid Who Climbed Everest, by Bear Grylls

 Ten years before actual children started climbing Everest, Bear Grylls wrote The Kid Who Climbed Everest: The Incredible Story of a 23-Year-Old's Summit of Mt. Everest (AKA Facing Up). The book covers a short part of his life, from his parachuting accident that caused him a serious back injury to his climb of Everest. He and three friends, including Neil Laughton (survivor of the 1996 disaster), climb under Henry Todd's Himalayan Guides during the 1998 spring season via Nepal. Grylls, like many Everest authors, tries to cover up a bit that he's climbing on a commercial team, saying things like his smaller team joined forces with Todd's larger team, etc. Grylls and his friend Mick Croswaithe arrive a Base Camp a couple weeks early to get acclimated; they also have a close call in the Khumbu Icefall before climbing has officially begun. The larger team follows the standard acclimatization scheme, with Grylls doing well up until illness knocks him out of the first summit attempt. 1998, for the uninitiated, was the year of the forgotten rope, in which a large crowd of climbers turned back at the South Summit (including Gryll's teammates) because no one brought a rope. Grylls and two teammates make a second attempt, with Gryll's climbing into history as the youngest Briton to climb Everest, for a couple years. (Current record is held by George Atkinson, aged 16.)

Grylls has come a long way since climbing Everest, and it was fascinating to read his first book again after reading his more recent work, Mud, Sweat, and Tears. The Kid says very little about his military background, not even mentioning his SAS(R) selection. It does, however, discuss his love of tough runs through Brecon Beacons and his fluency in Spanish and shows him to be a first class pusher and survivor. Soon, perhaps, he'll write a book with a little more detail on his television career.

For people who have a habit of reading Everest books, this book is a fairly interesting one to get to after reading a couple others. Recently, Gryll's teammate Graham Ratcliffe's book, A Day to Die For, tries to sort out a mystery about the 1996 disaster regarding whether the guides were receiving weather reports. Grylls mentions that Todd is receiving weather reports from Bracknell at $500 a piece. I'm surprised Ratcliffe never noticed, as he was doing the same in 1996. Also, Grylls mentions the Singapore team often---even including their leader, David Lim (author of Mountain to Climb), in his acknowledgements. In an explanation of why he got to the top in his expedition and earlier military expeditions had failed, he mentions their large sizes bred too much competition rather than mutual support. Mark Anderson's On the Big Hill seems to contradict this sentiment regarding the 1988 attempt on the West Ridge. Also Brummie Stoke's 1984 North Face attempt was toasted by terrible luck rather than infighting. I think if many of the climbers on these expeditions had had the level of commercial service that Gryll received, on the route he climbed, they would have also had a great chance at making the summit.

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On the Big Hill, by Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson writes about his experience filming the 1988 pre-monsoon British Services Everest Expedition in On The Big Hill: A Non-Climber's Everest. The first television series covering a real Everest climb was actually twenty years older than Discovery Channel's Everest: Beyond the Limit. With a crew of four and two porters, Anderson (with no previous mountaineering experience) sets out to make a television series covering the military's attempt on the West Ridge. His book covers his personal experiences as well as transcripts from taped interviews of climbers during the expedition. He and his crew have a tough time keeping up with the physical demands of filming at high altitude, though they do manage to film as high as the West Shoulder and convince some of the military climbers to carry video cameras even higher. Anderson frequently interviews Dougie Keelan, the expedition leader, and they discuss the messy interaction of a film crew versus a military mountaineering expedition in addition to Keelen often eloquently speaking on Himalayan mountaineering, leading an expedition, and other related topics. The film crew finds itself emotionally involved in the success of the expedition, not merely for their own success.

The climb is a joint services climb, with many of the climbers having been on previous Everest expeditions, including under Brummie Stokes in 1984 (see Stokes' Soldiers and Sherpas) and the Joint Nepalese-British Services expedition of 1976 (see Faux and Fleming's Soldiers on Everest). They work efficiently, taking advantage of some early good weather, setting themselves up for their first summit bid before May. Ultimately, weather and snow conditions deal them a dirty hand, and they have a difficult time in the Diagonal Ditch and the Hornbein Couloir. They climb at the same time as the tri-national Nepal-China-Japan Friendship expedition, which has a considerably larger budget and a considerably larger film crew, and which beams live satellite footage from the summit on a national holiday. Also on the mountain, but unmentioned, is the intrepid Kangshung Face crew led by Robert Mads Anderson, as well as an Australian team climbing from Nepal.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Himalaya, by Jan Reynolds

Jan Reynolds writes a day-in-the life story for children of a young Sherpa girl and her family in Himalaya: Vanishing Cultures. The book follows Yangshi in her daily routine living in Namche Bazaar with her mother, father, and siblings. She is told of her family's history by her father, helps her mother with chores, plays with her sister after she returns from the weekly market, attends the monastery with her father, tends her family's yaks, and later attends a Mani Rimdu celebration. The book describes the culture of the Sherpa during Yangshi's grand day, including the trade between Nepal and Tibet, their Buddhist beliefs, their small-time farming and herding, and their cultural history. The story is accompanied by photographic illustrations of Yangshi and her family taken by the author.

This book has (thankfully) almost nothing to do with climbing Mount Everest. Though Yangshi's father uses their yaks to carry supplies to Base Camp for climbers, the story stays focused on Yangshi's family and Sherpa culture. It seems to me that too many kids' books (or is it all books) treat Sherpa as a people specially bred for carrying equipment up the world's highest mountain and ignore their full humanity and broader homeland. Perhaps because Jan Reynolds spent her time climbing around Everest rather than up it (see her Everest Grand Circle), she got a better sense of the local population, or maybe she's just more intelligent and sensitive than the average climber.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Because It's There, by Dudley Green

Dudley Green puts together a masterwork in his Because It's There: The Life of George Mallory. This book is a reworking and expansion of his 1991 Mallory of Everest, spurned by the discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 and a return of interest in Mallory's story. Green quotes first-person sources at length, and draws together a range of perspectives to bring back the spirit and drive of the man of Everest. Refreshingly, Green gives fair space to Mallory's life before Everest, and I've learned a lot about him that other biographers generally ignore, such as his passion for education reform and his devotion to the League of Nations. I especially enjoyed reading details of Mallory's tour of the northeast United States, since I knew little about the tour besides his famous quote to the New York Times. 

He faces some stiff competition with Peter and Leni Gillman's The Wildest Dream, published in 2001. (Green's book came out in 2005.) Green writes a thorough traditional biography, focusing on his career and his climbs. I appreciate the details he provides on Mallory's relationship with Geoffrey Winthrop Young, as well as his climbs in the Alps. The Gillmans' work has a more contemporary style, focusing on Mallory's personal relationships, including his family and friends. Green completely glosses over icky or potentially too personal parts of Mallory's life that the Gillmans are perfectly happy to flesh out, such as his potential homosexuality and his relationship with Cottie Sanders. Who's to say, however, that such should be a man's legacy?

I liked going back through this book now that I've had a more thorough Everest education. There were many little details and connections that Green points out that make the book interesting even for the avid Everest reader, such as the name "Everest" sticking to the world's tallest mountain partly due to the 1867 Indian Mutiny that put an end to debate for a while, the grumpy Hinks putting a good word in for Mallory before interviewing for his Cambridge job, or Irvine slowing switching over to calling Mallory "George" in his diaries (see The Irvine Diaries). One especially good morsel is from a letter to Mallory from Young, his climbing mentor, about not taking his wife climbing on their honeymoon, that has other implications: "your weakness, if any, is that you do let yourself get carried away on occasions in the mountains. . . . I think that it is your failing, the consequence of your combination of extraordinary physical brilliance in climbing and of power of mental absorption in it, that you do not, or at least have not, held back from allowing yourself to sweep weaker brethren, carried away by their belief in you, to take risks or exertions that they were not fit for, and which had the crisis come, neither you nor any man climbing could have the margin to cover for both."

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Making of a Mountaineer, by George Ingle Finch

George Ingle Finch writes of his climbs up to 1923, including his attempt on the summit of Everest, in The Making of a Mountaineer. Finch is a curious climber at a time of transition in the mountaineering world, as he is often at odds with the mainstream, whether in his advocacy for ice climbing, oxygen-use, or even taking novices on difficult climbs. He is passionate about ice climbing at a time when skill on rock was often seen as the mark of a great climber (i.e. Mallory, Longland, Preuss, Underhill), and he revels in the cutting of an effective step and using a good pair of climbing irons. His paean to the perfect ice axe, giving ideal dimensions down to the quarter inch, shows both a man in love and true technician. He takes pride that his climbs are almost never epics (excepting perhaps his descent of Everest and his unfortunate first experience of winter climbing in the Alps), and that he takes safe lines that are often difficult. In the Alps, he is almost always accompanied by his brother, Max. (It's too bad Max Finch was dropped from consideration early on in Everest Committee deliberations.) They revel in traverses, make a couple new lines (including the North Face of the Dent d'Herens), and make what they can of the Alps in winter. In his chapter on the Dent d'Herens climb (1923), Finch makes an interesting defense of bringing tyros (think Bruce and Tejbir on Everest) on difficult climbs, saying that they are safer than the moderately-experienced climber, provide a fresh perspective, and that a hazardous climb is a reflection upon the leader, rather than the man who follows.

His Everest material is similar, but shorter than his concurrently published Der Kampf um den Everest (The Struggle for Everest). He's a bit more sarcastic here, such as in his description of his fellow climbers' "love" of the oxygen drills on the approach march and his denigration of the size of Everest. (Like Smythe, he points out that Mount Blanc is a greater vertical climb from the beginnings of the glaciers to the top.) He has plenty of reason to be, as he had been led to believe he would be returning to Everest, only to be left out of the 1924 climb when the RGS secretary became annoyed with him, and this after being shortchanged in 1921. His 1922 climb, along with Geoffrey Bruce, set a world altitude record, and came considerably closer to the summit than the previous party. He believes he definitely proved with his oxygen-assisted climb that the use of oxygen at extreme altitude is essential, and he believes no one will ever reach the summit without it. It amazes me that someone with the scientific training of Finch, who can obsess over the slightest details of the design of an ice axe or a camera, was later upstaged in the design of his oxygen system by the young Sandy Irvine, who removed several pounds of unnecessary parts and made it more user-friendly in 1924.