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!

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