Tuesday, June 25, 2013

National Geographic: 125 Years, by Mark Collins Jenkins

Mark Collins Jenkins presents a celebration of the organization behind the world's most recognizable journal in National Geographic: 125 Years: Legendary Photographs, Adventures, and Discoveries that Changed the World. They've come a long way since their founding, and the book traces the development of National Geographic, both through their media and as a supporter of geographical ventures. The book divides the story of the organization roughly into the years it was lead by different people, most notably several generations of the Grosvenor family. In addition to the main narrative, there are plenty of sidelines highlighting the great accomplishments of explorers National Geographic has supported over the years. As it is a celebration, the book focuses on success storiesand the progress of the organization, and it shouldn't be mistaken as a thorough history. I found the tracing of the growth of their media the defining feature of this book, as it notes everything from the first photographic illustration and first monthly issue, to the first cover photograph and color photograph, to the development of their television channel and website. As with any National Geographic publication, the book is full of first-rate photographs.

Mount Everest overall plays a small role in this book, as the film of the 1963 American ascent (which they heavily supported) happened to be the first National Geographic television special. I feel like the editors treated the climb a bit with modern eyes, treating the media rather than the expedition as the great human accomplishment. (See Grosvenor's 1963 Great Adventures with National Geographic, the 75th anniversary celebration book, for an idea of how they saw it at the time.) There are additionally some oblique references to Everest, such as a mention of Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner's climbing the 14 8000-meter peaks.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Conquest of Everest, by Lowe & Lewis-Jones

George Lowe, along with Huw Lewis-Jones, presents a photobook commemorating the 60th anniversary of Everest's first successful climb in The Conquest of Everest: Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent. Lowe, the last surviving climber on the team (a couple Sherpa participants still survive), passed just before the anniversary of the ascent, but not before putting together a first-rate memoir and photo exhibition of the climb. He speaks with nostalgia for Himalayan times past, when climbs were still adventures into the collective unknown, and the Everest-industrial-complex hadn't yet taken hold. His narrative of his Himalayan climbs mainly retells stories found elsewhere (see his From Everest to the South Pole, for instance) though the telling here is more mature and focuses more on his photographic duties. His reflections on Everest, however, are quite special, something that could have only come from a witness of great history and lifelong involvement in the Himalaya. Additionally, several other famous climbers (Bonington, Messner, Cool, and others) associated with Everest provide their own take on Lowe's contributon and the history of Everest.

The photographs are a terrific collection. Many of the images are previously unpublished, and they give a broader representation Everest's first climb than any photobook so far. Though Alfred Gregory's images are lovely (see Alfred Gregory's Everest or Alfred Gregory: Images from Everest to Africa), Lowe tended to be at the sharp end more often. Here we see pictures of the initial work in the  icefall, Lowe's epic on the Lhotse Face, and a number of pictures from the South Col and Southeast Ridge. Not all of the images in the collection are by Lowe, but his contributions add quite a bit of action to the photographic record. I also appreciated seeing a number of pictures from the 1951 Murkut Parbat climb and the 1952 Cho Oyu attempt, especially of Lowe's and Hillary's climb of the Nup La. Overall, this is a grand collection---a must have for afficionados of Everest history!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Everest: The First Ascent, by Harriet Pugh Tuckey

Harriet Pugh Tuckey writes a biography of her father, Griffith Pugh, while setting the record straight on his role during the 1953 expedition in Everest: The First Ascent: How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Tuckey faced a complex task, as her emotional distance from her father prevented her from getting to know him before his death, his archives were shipped off to California before she started writing, and nearly everything written about Everest fails to mention him. (I should know...I've read most of it!) She writes a sophisticated tale of a man who was terrible to his family, and yet treated others with deference and worked tirelessly to solve adventurers and athletes' problems with altitude, cold, and heat. He came to be a part of the Everest experience as a physiologist through a recommendation from a Himalayan Committee that was determined to get things right in 1953, even if it meant resorting to professionalism, militarism, and (Gasp!) science. Pugh set to work redesigning the climbers shoes, clothes, sleeping bags, stoves, mattresses, tents, diet, hydration, oxygen use, and acclimatization regime with the singular purpose of getting climbers to the top of Everest. He gained what insights he could from the Cho Oyu "training" climb, fighting to get his science taken seriously, and used his results, in addition to experience from the Second World War in preparing mountain troops, to revolutionize the way the world's highest mountains should be approached. Tuckey pieces together his efforts, both through official channels and behind the scenes, to get his scientific innovations to be used, including a drawn-out conflict over how much oxygen should be carried and used. She also defends his conduct on the mountain, as he was treated in early accounts either as a scientific nuisance or comic relief, whereas the primary sources state otherwise. Though he would later be almost entirely written out of the official history of Everest, he never bothered to defend or highlight his pivotal role in getting climbers to the summit.

Tuckey does a good job of placing the conflicts among Committee members, climbers, and scientists into the context of British society at the time. Public schools tended to treat science as an inferior topic, and the cult of amateurism still ruled over both athletics and adventure. It's amazing to me that at the dawn of the age of mountaineering, climbers could not imagine climbing to the top of a mountain without some sort of scientific purpose, and yet one hundred years later, it would take an especially cunning and driven scientist to get climbers to even pay attention. Based on the evidence Tuckey presents, I can understand why John Hunt was on board with Pugh's recommendations, but I am still astonished that he got the climbers (for the most part) to follow through with them as well.

I think that without this book, history would have eventually come around on Griffith Pugh. However, Tuckey shows that early inattention to his contributions were inexcusable, and rigidly turns the narrative on its head. Michael Ward, in Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration (2003), made initial arguments that Everest would not have been climbed without Pugh's help (with authority - he was there). Sale and Rodway, in Everest and Conquest in the Himalaya, (2011) reiterate Ward's point, but also explain his contributions to high-altitude science during the Silver Hut expedition. What Tuckey does is fold the academic argument into historical and biographical narrative appropriate for wider audiences that also reveals the very complex nature of a man so often represented as one-sided.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Natural Wonders: Mount Everest, by Megan Lappi

Megan Lappi writes a young readers' introduction to the world's highest mountain in Natural Wonders: Mount Everest. Her information is pretty standard (physical and cultural geography, plate tectonics, trash, the yeti, surveying, climbing, Seven Summits, etc.), but she does a good job of presenting it. She gets points from me for being one of the few children's authors to explain the thin air at altitude sensibly. The prose is general, but only occasionally overly-so, and the facts are up-to-date, but with occasional errors. Included in the book are photographic illustrations, charts, maps, a timeline, glossary, bibliography, and some activities. The climbing history she covers focuses on the first ascent, with some information on 1924, Messner, and 1996. The rest of the mountaineering information describes the mechanics, environment, dangers, and hired help on Everest. The book has one glaring, unfortunate problem---the cover illustration is a photograph of K2, rather than Everest, the subject of the book. In case you're wondering, Natural Wonders: K2 does not have Everest on the cover. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Last Hours on Everest, by Graham Hoyland

In honor of Mallory and Irvine's walking into the clouds 89 years ago today (June 8), I present Graham Hoyland's Last Hours on Everest: The Gripping Story of Mallory and Irvine's Fatal Ascent. The book is both biography and history, with Hoyland detailing his life's quest of sorting out what happened to them in their final moments and whether they made it to the summit. Also, Hoyland writes a portrait of his uncle (er...cousin), Theodore Somervell, who climbed alongside Mallory and Irvine in 1924's Everest expedition, and who inspired Hoyland to go looking for the Vest Pocket Kodak that might prove that they made it to the summit. The book provides a fresh look at the evidence (including a bit of new information) surrounding their disappearance, providing the most comprehensive review of the details in a single location to date. Hoyland sees Mallory as the active participant in the duo, and he tries to sort out his character and state-of-mind during the climb, using Mallory's writings and those of his close friends.

Hoyland has had a long relationship with Mount Everest, primarily in a professional role as a filmmaker, but with a decided personal interest. It's interesting for me, as a veteran Everest reader, to see him emerge from a personality in others' Everest books (such as Blessed's The Turquoise Mountain or Hemmleb's Ghosts of Everest) to an Everest author. I've been wondering what he might have to say, as other authors tend to make him sound terribly interesting, but never go into detail about him. Though his 1993 ascent makes him the 15th Briton to climb to the summit, his participation in the 1999 expedition that discovers Mallory's body gets him the most attention and causes him the most grief. He returns to the mountain several times afterwards, in ways related to the search for Irvine, including trying out a first-rate replica of Mallory's clothing below the North Col.

There has been quite a number of books adding to the knowledge of Mallory and Irvine's fateful climb. Hoyland explores many of them, discussing their relevance to the story and defending what he sees as the proper representation of these two climbers. (It's a little strange to read of someone else who's read all these books beside myself...) He's clearly opposed to Unsworth's idea of Mallory, has some problems with Davis, calls Robertson's book a hagiography, and generally shows how hard it can be to pin down the personality of George Leigh Mallory. He shows that Hozel's early ideas about 1924 are clearly wrong and that his later conclusions aren't all that far from his critics'. He's impressed by Hemmleb's spirit and dedication, but thinks he might be going a bit far in drawing conclusions.

The physical evidence is ultimately what captures Hoyland's attention, whether Irvine's ice axe, the found oxygen cylinder, or Mallory's body, possessions, and clothing. His detail work here is what makes the book. He shows what each piece of evidence might mean and what it cannot mean, going through the information with surprising insight. He pulls together the analysis of many experts, who go over everything from the trauma on Mallory's body, to the true value of the types of clothing he wore, to the minute physical geography of Everest, to the interpretation of the meteorological data from 1924. Using all of the evidence he presents, he then reconstructs, to the best of his ability, Mallory and Irvine's final climb. Hope you like it!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Conquering Mount Everest, by Robert Sheehan

Robert Sheehan writes a short introduction for young readers to climbing the world's highest mountain in Sensational True Stories: Conquering Mount Everest. He focuses on the two main routes used to the summit, the North Ridge and the South Col, talking about their history, terrain, and the logistics of their ascent. In addition, he discusses the physical geography of the Everest region (including an introduction to plate tectonics), climbing Everest without supplementary oxygen, and a bit about overcrowding and trash on the mountain. Sheehan's history focuses on the most famous climbs of each route----1924 for the North (with a discussion of Mallory and the subsequent discovery of his body), and 1953 for the South (focused on Hillary and Tenzing). He gets the overall stories correct, even if he focuses on the "heroes" of the climbs and gets some small details wrong on the 1953 expedition (number of camps, altitude of highest camp). The book is full of photographic illustrations that tie in well with the prose, with a mix of historical and modern imagery, including great photos of specific locations on the mountain Sheehan describes. The book also includes maps, charts, a glossary, and a comparison of mountains throughout the world. Overall, it's a good effort and a solid introduction for kids to the phenomenon of Everest.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mountain, by Sandy Hill

Sandy Hill, survivor of the 1996 Everest tragedy, presents a photobook of some of the most beautiful images of the world's high places in Mountain. The book is large in scope, with a hefty size and hundreds of photos, and is a bit much to take in all at once, as I tried to do. A mountaineer or a mountain lover could easily dwell on some of these photos for minutes or hours, as the quality of printing and the level of detail is quite high. I enjoyed tracing imaginary paths through crevasse fields, like mazes, and searching for the small details that put the peaks in perspective. Hill picks a collection that focuses on the human relationship to mountains, with many images of climbers dangling from ropes and mountaineers scaling the heights, in addition to skiers and mountain architecture. Even many of the images without people are often of peaks and places with a special connection humanity, such as Mont Blanc, Mount Robson, McKinley, or Vinson. Though this collection is eye-catching for any audience, aficionados of mountaineering history will appreciate the breadth of this collection (both in time period and geography), and the importance, in addition to the allure, of many of these photos. If this collection has a fault, it might be its American focus, as Ed Cooper gets plenty of attention (though his images are splendid), and American climbers and peaks cover more pages than any other single region. Otherwise, it could easily be the dream collection of an imagined mountaineering photo museum.

Everest figures prominently in the book, as it has in Sandy Hill's life. She credits her 1994 attempt of Everest via the Kangshung Face as a peak in her emotional connection to mountains, and her 1996 summit climb (with Scott Fisher's Mountain Madness crew) nearly cost her her life. The book contains several evocative images of the world's highest mountain, as well as several famous photos from its climbing history. There were a couple new photos for me from Everest's history: one of Ruttledge sighting the mountain with a telescope during the trek through Tibet, taken by Smythe, and a nice image of Hillary from the 1953 climb, taken during the approach through Nepal. Jimmy Chin's modern photographs of Everest impressed me with their scale and detail.

Do find this book! You're going to like it.