Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Ascent of Everest, by John Hunt

In commemoration of 60 years of Everest ascents, I'm (finally) bringing to you Sir John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, the official account of the first successful climb of Everest. Even 60 years later, this is still a fun book to read. The prose and style are about as different from earlier Everest books as the 1953 climb was from the early British attempts from the north. Whereas the 1951 reconnaissance and the 1952 Cho Oyu training climb were amateur adventures closely related to the early attempts in organization and follow-through, John Hunt brought a level of professionalism and militarism sorely needed to get a group of top climbers and Sherpas to work effectively together towards the extraordinarily difficult goal of placing the first mountaineers on the summit of Everest. Though Hunt cites a number of reasons, including the experience of earlier expeditions, weather, and technology, that his expedition reached the summit, it was only through his determined application of information available to him that his team was able to put the pieces in place to have two separate parties in position to make viable attempts upon the summit. Even if these days an ascent of Everest seems like a relatively easy logistical project, many things that modern Everest climbers take for granted were largely determined by the 1953 expedition, whether the style of oxygen apparatus (and rate of flow), the increased need for fluids up high, aluminum ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, the locations of Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp, the Lhotse Face as an approach to the South Col, stocking assault camps before the climbers arrive, the need for rest between high-altitude forays, proper meal-planning, or even synthetic shoes. Based on my Everest reading, I don't think it was a coincidence that Hunt suddenly got everything right on this climb.

It's so easy to slip into the mistake that the 1953 climb was somehow a story of Hillary and Tenzing. There are literally hundreds of books that will tell you so. Hunt does a good job of making The Ascent of Everest a group story, showing the amazing accomplishments of the climb's many participants, such as Westmacott's work on the Icefall or Lowe's epic on the Lhotse Face. Unfortunately, he also does a great job of focusing the spotlight away from himself. Many of the climbers would later cite his great interpersonal skills and his drive to lead through example from the front of the climb as inspirational. They don't mention, however, his genius in pulling together all of the details ahead of time that would get them up the mountain. His "Basis for Planning," written in November before their climb, is almost exactly the logistics they would eventually follow, down to the number of men needed to carry loads, the days it would take to accomplish each part of the climb, and the climbers needed at the South Col and above. (He even cites the few changes made from the details in this document in the Appendix.) If ever Everest had an unsung hero, it is John Hunt.

I seriously enjoyed coming back to this book after 15 years (since I first read it). It's a lovely book, especially for an "official" account, as Hunt has none of the stuffiness in his style that would be expected from a military man or based on the style of earlier Everest narratives. Though he glosses over some points of conflict, he faces controversy, such as Tenzing's being lionized by the crowds, with realism and some measure of humility. His interpersonal skills work well in print as well as on the mountain, and his climbers come off here as a band of hard-working real-life men, rather than either heroes or minions. He had a tough job trying to please both the Royal Geographical Society crowd and the general audience that would take interest in the book, yet he does a fine job relating logistical and technical information while moving the narrative along. If you haven't yet read this book, it's about time! Congratulations on 60 years, guys!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Edmund Hillary: First to the Top, by Dan Elish

Dan Elish writes a young readers' biography of the leading man of Everest in Edmund Hillary: First to the Top. It's a strange mix of the tale of the man and the hero, as Elsh interviews Hillary and plays down his larger-than-life status, yet focuses on his climb of Everest to the detriment of many other amazing (or important) parts of his life. He does make the story of Everest thorough and interesting, and he is not afraid to discuss complexities such as Hillary's motivations or the treatment of the media after the ascent. Other parts of his life that Elish covers include Hillary's life of philanthropy, his trips to the Poles, search for the Yeti, his upbringing, his career, and a little about his family. There are some extra sections on polar exploration, and some history of Everest as well. The book includes a number of photographic illustrations that cover Hillary's life and some more modern Everest expeditions. Overall, Elish writes a fun book that gives a great impression of Hillary's character, though I don't think it gives the most balanced view of his life.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Vast Unknown, by Broughton Coburn

Broughton Coburn brings back to life the 1963 American climbs of Everest in The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest just in time for their 50th anniversary. Today, May 23, is actually the anniversary of Hornbein, Unsoeld, Jerstad, and Bishop's miraculous survival of a night in the open high on the Southeast Ridge, then the highest bivouac in history, after their climbs to the summit. Coburn had a hard act to follow, as James Ramsey Ullman, author of the official account, Americans on Everest, is quite a storyteller. Whereas Ullman tries to sort out the climbers by showing how they were individuals, Coburn draws them together, especially with his early narrative in the Tetons, where many of the climbers crossed paths well before the expedition. He showcases the pact made between Hornbein, Unsoeld, and Emerson to stick together, as well as the special bond between Corbet and Breitenbach. He does a good job of giving space in the narrative to many of the supporting climbers, who played pivotal roles in the climb, even if they did not reach the summit. (Interestingly, Will Siri is a bit of a cipher here, just as in Ullman's account.) Coburn uses a wealth of sources, as well as contacts with the climbers and their families, to write a colorful narrative that's both entertaining and informative.

The climb, even fifty years later, is still an amazing story. Dyhrenfurth pulled together a talented and intelligent climbing team with the support of a number of study grants and a large contribution from National Geographic, in exchange for turning the team members into climbing test subjects for pyschological, physiological, and social experiments. With a huge amount of supplies, the team pulls off two separate climbs of the South Col route, in addition to a bare bones, against-the-odds traverse of the mountain around the West Ridge. Coburn does a great job of making the West Ridge climb special. (He also had a tough act to follow here with Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge.) Also, he updates the second climb of the South Col by Bishop and Jerstad with additional information from Bishop's perspective. (Jerstad's inner musings already made it to print in McCallum's Everest Diary.) To tie the story back home and into history, Coburn interjects the happenings of the American space program during the expedition. Following the climb, the author gives a short continuation of the lives of the climbers, including three climbers' participation in a CIA spying program, Corbet's overcoming adversity, and Unsoeld's life of teaching and climbing. Overall, this is a great book to celebrate the anniversary of landmark climb on Everest.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ascent of Everest, by Tytus Huffman

Tytus Huffman tells us a story about Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing to the top of the world in Ascent of Everest. The 31-page children's book, published in 1978 and illustrated by Gary Rees, treats their climb as a grand adventure, led by Sir John (Hunt). Huffman sets the stage with some history of Everest, before following Hillary and Tenzing (with some other people) on their climb of Everest. Though he simplifies the climb into a story of two people and treats the sequence of actual events somewhat liberally, the author does a good of mixing storytelling with facts, creating a narrative that both teaches and entertains. The illustrations work well with the story, using action shots to complement the drama, in a mix of color and line drawings. Both the storyline and the illustrations seem somewhat dated (understandably), but it's a lovely little volume for seekers of Everest nostalgia. Overall, an entertaining book!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Peak Performance, by Tori James

Tori James travels to the top of the world in Peak Performance: The First Welsh Woman to Climb Everest. In this short work, James relates her journey, from her boyfriend inviting her to go with him to the summit and beyond, in down-to-earth prose that should appeal to a wide audience, especially the youth see hopes to inspire. The length of the book (88 pages) covers over some of the grand effort over eighteen months of seeking sponsorship, gathering supplies, physical training (including climbs of Kilimanjaro and Cho Oyu), and climbing the mountain. She shows, however, that a great accomplishment, such as climbing Everest, requires a lot of preparation, and that the sooner started, the better.

James climbs Everest during the 2007 pre-monsoon season via Nepal under Henry Todd (along with Bo Parfet and Pat Hickey, see Parfet's Die Trying and Hickey's 7 Summits) and guide Kenton Cool. James and her boyfriend, Ben's, core group includes two friend from Ben's business school, and they gain sponsorship as a small team and bring a group of trekkers to raise funds for their climb, in addition to the Prince's Trust. They make the usual acclimatization forays, to Camp I, II, and III. Some weather delays their summit climb, and Ben and James' health delays it yet again. Her summit climb is as good as can be expected, and she especially enjoys the sunrise on the way up---about as happy of an Everest book as they come!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Everest 1953, by Mick Conefrey

Thank you, Mick Conefrey for bringing some much-needed clarity and life back into the story of the first climb of the world's highest mountain in Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent. It's about time that Everest readers have a single source for the most up-to-date and interesting information on the first ascent, as much of it is scattered throughout the literature or entirely absent. Conefrey writes a compelling narrative, wonderfully researched, that reveals much of the drama left out of the squeaky-clean narratives of the 1950s. He covers the 1951 reconnaissance and the 1952 Cho Oyu "training" climb, in addition to the big show, and gives some background before and after the main story. He introduces the many players, such as Earle Riddiford, Campbell Secord, or Griffith Pugh, that often get marginalized or erased in the average Everest telling and shows that the first ascent was a group story and a group effort, regardless of who made it to the top. He may or may not be excused for making it a very British story, depending on your perspective, as he calls Everest "our mountain" and puts British participants in the best possible light. (Michael Ward even gets a pass for mouthing off and doubting the abilities of his leader.) Regardless, the book is a gem of the Everest literature, that puts the controversies, drama, and details of Everest's first ascent back into the history books.

His new information comes from a variety of sources, whether from expedition journals (some only recently available), in-person interviews, dedicated research, or recent writings of participants. It was great to read a researched explanation of the knighthood controversy (Why Hillary and not Tenzing?). I enjoyed the filled-out story of Bourdillon and Evans' climb to the South Summit, based on Bourdillon's journal and later interviews of Evans. Further details of the leadership controversy (Hunt vs. Shipton) were engrossing. The terrible mismanagement and interpersonal squabbling of the Cho Oyu climb explains much that seemed strange to me. I find it amazing that so much of this (and much else) hasn't made it into print before!

One detail in particular got me thinking. He mentions that Hillary's fall into a crevasse during his and Tenzing's race to Advanced Base Camp and back wasn't a big deal at the time it occurred and only later was it a problem for him. (Details of the fall emerged during the hubbub over Tenzing's triumph over Everest upon their return to Kathmandu, becoming a bit of an embarrassment for Hillary.) I find it interesting that Hillary's fall (and Tenzing's save) has changed over time even further. Nearly every children's book about Hillary and Tenzing's climbing Everest (Yes, most of them leave everyone else out of the story.) dedicates a part of the narrative to this close call, and either shows it as the moment at which they form a bond (not entirely true) or a supreme moment of drama that illustrates the dangers of Everest (well, sort of...). What's amazing to me is that this afterthought (at the time) of an occurrence has become a linchpin of so many Everest narratives and such an important moment in the developing history of the climb. It's one tiny illustration of the way that history (even Everest history) changes over time as authors interpret events and later authors reinterpret earlier writings. I wonder what (if any) significance Hillary's fall will have in a Everest narrative written 100 years from now.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On Top of the World, by Mary Ann Fraser

Mary Ann Fraser writes and illustrates Hillary and Tenzing's final climb to the summit of Everest in On Top of the World: The Conquest of Mount Everest. She describes in pretty good detail their experiences, from the establishment of Camp IX on the Southeast Ridge to their reaching the top. Along the way, she describes previous events, such as their approach and the first summit attempt by Bourdillon and Evans, and explains many of the tools they use to climb, such as crampons and their oxygen system. At the end, she tells a bit about the history of climbing Everest (where she makes here only true mistake, stating that women first climbed Everest in 1989, rather than 1975, and that the first to do it were Americans, rather than Japanese and Chinese (Tibetan)), including political access to different sides of the mountain over the years, a bit about Mallory and Irvine, and a few subsequent climbs. Notably, she is careful to present Hillary and Tenzing's success as a group effort, both within their team and across history. The illustrations depict the climbers fairly well, though Everest's landscape is a bit awkward at times. They add drama to the story and do a good job tying into the storyline. Overall, Fraser creates a great book for kids interested in the first ascent of the world's highest mountain.

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Everest, by George Craig

George Craig presents a narrative and photographic history of climbing the world's highest mountain, circa 2003, in Everest: 50 Years of Struggle to Reach the Top of the World. While I object to the subtitle, (people had been struggling considerably longer than 50 years to climb Everest by 2003), I enjoyed this quick presentation of Everest's history. Craig aims for a general British audience (This is a very British-centric telling.), avoiding academic discourse and drawing many conclusions for his readers, so that they can sit back and enjoy the story. The photographs are pretty much the standard set for Everest histories, though he does find some rarely-used pictures to illustrate the 1951 reconnaissance and the 1953 ascent. One photo caption amused me, stating that it was a photo of Edmund Hillary on the summit of Cho Oyu, 20,000 feet above the Nangra La (Three things wrong here.), though it was a glaring exception to most of Craig's accuracy. His representation of George Mallory was a bit off by my standards, but I didn't really have a problem anywhere else in the book. He covers the full range of Everest history, from early surveying to the 1999 discovery of Mallory and the 2002 (to be on television for 2003) fiftieth anniversary climb by descendents of Everest's famous climbers.

His focus, given the anniversary, is on the 1953 first ascent climb, with a quarter of the book devoted to it. It's really the highlight of the book, because Craig puts a good deal of thought into its presentation. He shows that there was a lot to prepare for, and still a lot to overcome by the time the British arrived at the mountain, even though most of the route had already been climbed. He contrasts the efforts of the British with that of the Swiss in 1952, especially in regards to Hunt's leadership, the climbing of the Lhotse Face, and their oxygen equipment. He reminds us of the drama of Bordillon and Evans' ascent of the South Summit and of the difficult journey of Hillary and Tenzing. Overall, a great presentation!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Everest Exposed, by George Band

George Band, participant in the 1953 first ascent of Everest, sets the record straight in Everest Exposed: The MEF Authorized History. His story of Everest is refreshingly readable and accurate, covering the pre-history (surveying, etc.) of the mountain up to the present (2003), with an extended narrative of his experiences and the overall climb in 1953. Band is well-versed in the literature of Everest, and he often quotes earlier accounts and mentions the perspectives of earlier histories. The book's structure is traditional, with the earlier expeditions serving as a lead-up to the first ascent, and subsequent climbs covered in less detail. (I'm a bit of a fan of Ahluwalia's Faces of Everest, in which every climb gets nearly equal treatment; this was considerably easier to do in 1978, however, than 2003.) He makes the early Everest story more enjoyable than most, especially for modern audiences. I actually had trouble putting this one down. His later history is covered in two chapters towards the end, first covering new routes to the top, and then different sorts of records, such as ski descents, oldest, or youngest. He chooses highlights well, mostly on merit, with some British stuff thrown in for his likely audience.

I most enjoyed Band's account of the 1953 climb. So often, modern books treat it like it is long-past history. Band reminds us that many of the climbers are still around (as of 2003), and that the climb is still living in the hearts of its participants. His narrative is fresh, with quotes from the newly available journal of Tom Bourdillon, as well as his own. He writes of his fellow climbers as people, rather than figures, treating Michael Ward with sympathy for his enchainment to his medical duties, George Lowe with respect for his great fitness, and John Hunt with regard for his approachability, in spite of his great responsibility.

This book is well worth your time. In addition to the narrative, Band peppers the chapters with his own experiences, reliving many of the great journeys in Himalayan history later in his life, whether meeting Erhard Loretan on a 40th-anniversary trek to Kanchenjunga or ascending the Rishi Gorge into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (to name only a couple). He also has the opportunity to meet Ang Tsering, the last surviving member of the 1924 Everest attempt, in Darjeeling, who shares some interesting information on his climbing career, as well as the ill-fated Everest climb.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Explorer Tales: Mount Everest, by Nancy Dickmann

Nancy Dickmann writes an introduction to Everest for kids in Explorer Tales: Mount Everest. She provides some basic information on the history and act of climbing Everest, utilizing some fancy formatting and copious photographic illustrations. The book is about equal parts necessary information (considering the topic) and trivia, with bar-headed geese alongside information on mountain sickness and Mallory's (er...Somervell's) Vestpocket Kodak getting almost as much space as Mallory. I like, however, that her information is all pretty much correct and current (with the 19-1, rather than the outdated 3-1 summit-death ratio often quoted, and accurate names and dates for the events she covers), and that she covers several of the relatively modern events on Everest, such as Kropp's biking to Everest to climb it (see his Ultimate High), Karnicar's ski descent, and Apa Sherpa's 21st summit climb in 2011. The photos are mostly modern, with the stock images covering the Everest experience via Nepal, and historic images covering the specific climbs and climbers she discusses. Overall, a great book if you're looking for an entertaining book on Everest with pretty accurate information! ("Pretty" due merely to two minor squabbles: the less-oxygen-up-high thing can be misleading, though most books---including books for adults---will phrase it the same way; and Makalu makes a possible stand-in for Everest on page 13, though it is merely labeled "summit," so it might get by on a technicality.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Beyond the Icefall, by Sorrel Wilby

Sorrel Wilby documents the 1988 pre-monsoon Australian climb of Everest with words and photographs in Beyond the Icefall: Australia's Everest Expedition. (Happy 25th anniversary, guys!) She refreshes with her frank, but not too serious style that presents an up-close climbing novice's perspective on the business of large-expedition Everesting. They climb the standard route via Nepal alongside the Japan-China-Nepal Friendship Expedition, which is attempting North-South traverses of the mountain, along with a live broadcast from the summit on a Japanese national holiday. (Of all the 1988 books in English, this one presents the most information on the Asian Friendship climb.) The team pushes to arrive at the mountain early to avoid entanglements with the other climbers, fees for icefall setup, and a diluting of their no-Sherpa support efforts. They string the icefall and make headway to Camp II before the other team catches up, at which point they make compromises in their independence to ease logistics. Wilby covers the trip to the mountain up through the establishment of Camp II with her own perspective, as she had to leave the mountain early to promote her previous book, but she does a good job of narrating the rest of the climb, even if her style gets a little drier. There's a serious close call with their first summit team, which makes a miracle summit climb after a week storm-bound on the South Col. Jon Muir makes a dash (or is it dance?) to the summit when he realizes a rescue is unnecessary for the first team and after recovering from an advanced case of worms.

Wilby's photographs are worth the price of admission for this book. They're some of the clearest and most interesting in print for the parts that she covers, especially the journey to the mountain. Also, Bruce Farmer's contributions add some beauty to the higher reaches of the mountain. The team includes a number of climbers with previous Everest experience, including Farmer (see Dingle and Perry's Chomolungma), Reinbeger, and Muir (see Hillary and Elder's In the Ghost Country). Though critics thought that their ascent would set Australian mountaineering on Everest back, due to the amazing climb by Macartney-Snape's White Limbo crew (see Hall's White Limbo) in 1984, I find their climb, and this book, well worth the effort.

May 2013, A Month of Anniversaries

This month marks the anniversaries of a number of historic climbs on Everest. Sixty years since the first ascent. Fifty years since the American ascent and traverse via the West Ridge. Thirty-five years since Messner and Habeler climbed to the summit without supplemental oxygen. Twenty-five years since the amazing Kangshung Face ascent by four intrepid climbers.

Here are some links to posts that cover some of these great climbs:

1953 First ascent:
Goswami's Everest: Is It Conquered?
Gregory's Alfred Gregory's Everest
Hillary's High Adventure
Hunt's Our Everest Adventure 
Izzard's An Innocent on Everest
Lowe's From Everest to the South Pole 
Malartic's Tenzing of Everest
Morris's Coronation Everest 
Noyce's South Col
Stobart's Adventure's Eye
Tenzing's Tiger of the Snows 

1963 American ascent:
Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge
McCallum's Everest Diary
Roper's Fatal Mountaineer
Ullman's Americans on Everest
Whittaker's A Life on the Edge

1978 gas-free ascent:
Habeler's The Lonely Victory
Messner's Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate 

1988 Kangshung Face:
Venable's Everest: Kangshung Face
Webster's Snow in the Kingdom