Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Summits of Adventure, by John S. Douglas

John S. Douglas writes a popular history of mountaineering in Summits of Adventure: The Story of Famous Mountain Climbs and Mountain Climbers. He indeed focuses on the well-known narratives, though along with the war horses of Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Everest (etc.), he includes the stories of some lesser-known climbs, such as the Meyer family's early explorations of the Alps, Wills' ascent of the Wetterhorn, Mackinder's ascent of Mount Kenya, and some early American ascents. He calls Saussure the "father" of mountaineering, as he provided the catalyst to begin the sport, and comes to a couple other interesting conclusions, such as claiming that Americans did the research that proved key to understanding oxygen use for Everest. (Sale and Rodway would likely dispute this---see their Everest and Conquest in the Himalaya.) For the most part, the book is a fairly good representation of readily available books on mountaineering a la 1954, its publication date. The discussions of mountaineering technology are a bit shaky, the 1953 Everest material is a bit raw, Mont Blanc history is at least pretty good, and the Eiger North Face is full of NAZIs. I was surprised by his relatively neutral portrayal of the 1939 American K2 tragedy, and I was grateful for his Mount McKinley history, even though, at the time Mount Whitney was still the highest mountain in the United States.

Douglas presents the climbing of Everest as the pinnacle of mountaineering achievement, beginning and ending his book with Hillary and Tenzing's final steps to the summit. Most of the early Everest history is presented in quick detail, though Mallory gets a special amount of space and is the focus of the 1921 reconnaissance climb. Most of his information is accurate, though he does include some squirrely details, such as saying that Everest's Northeast Ridge connects to Changtse, that Morshead (rather than Wheeler) accompanied Mallory and Bullock on their climb past the Lhakpa La, including the supposed Russian ascent as though it was hard fact, and saying that Lambert and Tenzing were stopped in 1952 by a "zone of death" above which no man can function. Overall, this is a good book, but not a great one.

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