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.

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