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.

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