Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mixed Emotions, by Greg Child

Delve deeper into the absurd world faced by climbers in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child. This, his second collection of essays, after Thin Air, showcases a larger variety of climbing objectives, from an epic ascent out of his teenage years, to a career's climbs on El Capitan, to the adventures surrounding his Himalayan climbs. Also, he profiles several famous climbers and meditates on death and near-death. His wit makes the book well worth reading, and I found that sections of it even appeal to my anonymous test subject (er...wife), who would rather read the phone book than a mountaineering narrative. Great comedy tells truth, and Child is expert at twisting an audience from absurdity to enlightenment, making profound statements that mix easily with laughter. His coming-of-age story, "Taking the Plunge," is perhaps the single greatest narrative of a climber's youth, with a literary form sure to please the academics, humor to appease the masses, and a great bit of heedless danger to draw in the armchair mountaineer.

I love this book (This is my third time reading it.), both because Child is a great climber and writer, and because he is a great climber and writer who climbs with and writes about a number of other great climbers. Doug Scott's personality and climbing style make more sense here than either Scott's own Himalayan Climber or any of the writings of Chris Bonington. Don Whillans' late climbs (Shivling, Broad Peak) and his legacy have a superb interpreter and witness in Child, more positive than Perrin's The Villain, and (wishful thinking here) perhaps more acute. Voytek Kurtyka gets some early recognition in the English-language media here, with a profile that rivals Bernadette McDonald's, in Freedom Climbers. Others, such as Rick Allen, Tom Whittaker (Higher Purpose), Steve Swenson, Pete Thexton, Michael Kennedy, and John Roskelley (Stories Off the Wall) manage to come off as great people in Child's writing, especially in trying moments.

Though this book predates Child's Everest climb (See his Postcards from the Ledge for that bit.), there's certainly some Everest material here. Both in Doug Scott's and Don Whillans' profiles, Child brings up their Southwest Face climbs. Roskelley's thwarted attempts on technical routes on Everest are provided as an explanation of his angst at so many climbing the standard routes during his and Child's attempt on Menlungtse. Several Everest climbs are brought up in "The Other Presence," which discusses unexplained companions high on mountains during trying circumstances, long before Maria Coffey ever got around to writing Explorers of the Infinite. Did I mention that this is a great book? Please read it. Please?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Man of Everest, by Kenneth Moon

Kenneth Moon writes an early (1962) young readers' biography of the first person to stand on the summit of Everest in Man of Everest: The Story of Sir Edmund Hillary. Written back when publishers believed kids were perfectly capable of having an imagination and an attention span, the unillustrated, 100-page book reads like a classic boys' adventure novel (and almost is one!). Moon's own imagination played an important role in the narrative, as many facts are jumbled, or just plain wrong. The story is dramatic and fun, but there's not much else to be said for this book. The author covers Hillary's early life and climbs, his initial Himalayan adventures, his climb of Everest, his return for the yeti, and a jaunt to the South Pole. He passes off the Silver Hut expedition as some kind of science thing, and he prefers not to mention Makalu at all (just substitute "Barun Glacier," and it take less explaining, right?). He poses Hillary's Everest experience as a hero's quest against the "White Giant," showing how Hillary led the team through the Khumbu Icefall, and all the way to the summit. If you don't mind a bit of historical absurdity, this one can actually be a bit of fun.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On the Ridge between Life and Death, by David Roberts

David Roberts reveals even more details of climbing career, especially the effect that three early traumatic experiences had upon his attitude and outlook, in On the Ridge between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined. Considerably more mature than The Mountain of My Fear and more thorough than "Moments of Doubt," Roberts' current volume (in addition to the standard biographical stuff) analyzes his many climbs in Alaska and weighs them against his home life, his career, and his psyche. At times, especially during grad-school and teaching, his career is but an off-season to his summers of climbing. Meeting and marrying his wife complicates his climbing to a degree, but he for the most part remains driven. Ultimately, he defines himself for a long time by his climbs, and looks to them for emotional and intellectual sustenance. He's not certain that his attitude is the right one, and he works to explain his mental universe during his expeditions to find an answer to the riddle of why he (and others like him) climbs.

The book is more universal than it appears, as its lessons will haunt anyone who defines himself by what he accomplishes. Roberts' death-defying climbs are an extreme case of what men will do to gain the recognition of their peers. However, is our pride in what we do (career, hobby, vocation) misplaced? Aren't there more important things out there? What are we actually accomplishing?

This book's connection to Everest is tenuous, at best. I saw several mentions of Everest in the index and went for it, especially since I wanted to read this book, anyway. Roberts happens to be first on the scene at the death of Dan Doody, participant in the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition. On of his students (and later a life-long friend) happens to be Jon Krakauer, who would later write probably the most famous book on Mount Everest. Interestingly, it took some prodding by Roberts and others before Krakauer considered writing for a living. Roberts collaborated with Conrad Anker on a book about Anker's discovery of Mallory on Everest, The Lost Explorer, but little about it is here. There's also a bit of background to his interviews with Messner and Habeler that would make up "Alone at the Top," found in his Moments of Doubt. Disappointing for me, Roberts overall writes little about his literary career, beyond his early books and his transition away from teaching. I would have loved to have read the back stories to his many subsequent books, as well as his many adventures after his hardcore climbing career. I cannot complain, however, as the title clearly states that the book has another focus. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Conquering Mount Everest, by Jackie Glassman

Jackie Glassman writes for young readers a short introduction to the world's highest mountain, focusing on the 1996 disaster, in Conquering Mount Everest. It's another rough throw-together of a book on Everest, with some good information, and some bad. How can a book with a author, an editor, and a content consultant get so many details wrong? The Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants team didn't climb the South Face of Lhotse (as cool as that would have been---see page 19). Down suits normally worn on Everest aren't designed to protect against -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Sherpas are not born skilled climbers, nor did they move to Khumbu to be near Everest, the home of their gods. Mani Rimdu is not a dance that seeks protection for safe climbing. George Mallory did not lead the 1921 reconnaissance of Everest, nor any of the other early climbs, and his body was not found in 1996. The youngest climber as of the publication of the book (2002) was not six years old, nor do I hope that anyone will ever drag such a young child to the summit. Reinhold Messner is Italian, not Austrian. Hans Kammerlander is fast, but he didn't climb Everest in under seven hours. Though people suffer from lack of oxygen up high, it's the air pressure that's so low rather than the amount of oxygen. I could go on, but this is getting boring.

Incongruously, the tale of the 1996 climb goes fairly well. Using nearly half the pages of the book, it tells of the summit day, and the difficulties faced by the climbers, such as long lines at the Hillary Step, an unfortunate storm, and ambitions overriding safe judgement. We meet Krakauer, Hall, Hansen, and Breashears in the prose, and Weathers and Fischer in the photos. Plenty of folks die in the end. Yea! I'm not certain that if you didn't know the story already, that you'd have a good grasp of what was going on based on this telling, but the facts used for 1996 are mostly good. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Maurice Wilson: A Yorkshireman on Everest, by Ruth Hanson

Ruth Hanson retells the story of one of the world's most intrepid and unusual solo adventurers in Maurice Wilson: A Yorkshireman on Everest. Wilson, without flying or climbing experience, decides in 1932 to fly Everest, crash on its slopes, and climb to the summit alone so that all the world will know the healing power of extreme fasting and prayer. He takes flying lessons, but assumes all he'll need is fitness to get to the top of Everest (perhaps if he'd waited 70 years). Hanson's book traces his unlikely and ultimately tragic journey, from a disillusioned youth returning from the Great War to the slopes of Everest. She adds to his story details regarding his physical and cultural surroundings during his contingency-plan walk from Darjeeling to Rongbuk, based on her own travels and studies. Also, she pieces together what she can of the bureaucratic shenanigans of the officials trying to put his solo flight to an end.

The book is a nice addition to Dennis Roberts' I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone. His strong suit is the details of Wilson's flight halfway around the world, and while he makes the journey across Tibet sound difficult, he doesn't discuss the surroundings much. Hanson brings the people and landscape to life during the second phase of Wilson's journey, especially during his stay at Rongbuk, reminding us that the monastery was the center for cultural life in the area, and not merely a stopover on Wilson's journey. She also follows up on the fate of Wilson's three Sherpa companions, including Darjeeling officials' decision not to press charges against them and two of their returning to Everest in 1935. There is one more book out there about Wilson, Peter Meier-Huesimg's Wo die Schneeloewen Tanzen: Maurice Wilsons vegessene Everest-Besteigung, that I hope to read soon (that is, as soon as it works its way over to me via surface mail from Germany!).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Call of Everest, edited by Conrad Anker

Conrad Anker leads the 2012 Legacy Climb, celebrating 50 years since the American Mount Everest Expedition, in The Call of Everest: The History, Science, and Future of the World's Tallest Peak. The expedition is jointly funded by National Geographic and The North Face, and just as in the AMEE, is a mixture of science and adventure. The book hosts a large collection of authors (nine), each of whom contribute a chapter focused on their Everest expertise, including its geology, ecology, cultural geography, climbing history, medical tribulations, a narration of the Legacy Climb, etc. It reminded me quite a bit of the iconic Everest childrens' book that authors keep trying to write to introduce the concept of Everest (There are at least 50 of them already, most of them poorly thrown together.), but constructed quite well and written for adults. In addition to the main content (including a wealth of photographic illustrations), the book also hosts short contributions from additional authors, such as Julie Summers, Brent Bishop, and Audrey Salkeld, as well as quotes from wide range of personalities. The overall feel is pleasant and the content is engaging, both for general audiences and dedicated Everest fans.

The Legacy Climb is a grand event that starkly contrasts Everest in 2012 and 1963. I appreciate that Anker picked climbers with similar experience levels to the 1963 crew, a couple with Himalayan experience and several with only rock or ice climbing expertise. The science is primarily geology and medicine. I wish the authors had shared a bit of their initial results, just as in the 1963 expedition book (Though the early authors admitted that data was still being analyzed at the time they wrote, they did at least offer some generalities based on what they had seen so far.), rather than only telling us what they were studying. I did like, however, Lageson's sorting out the history of the study of Everest's geology. Also, the devices used by the medical team sounded fascinating. Jenkins account of the expedition does a good job of sorting out the culture of a modern Everest climb, and shows many of scary problems facing the crowds gathering high on the mountain.

I worry that so many Everest personalities, such Salkeld, Hornbein, Bishop, Breashears, and others, seemed to be summing up their Everest relationship in this book, and I wonder who the future of Everest will bring us to continue its story. Is Everest's future really more of what we already have? Is the future of telling Everest's history simply more accurate or critical revisions of the stories we already know? Is the only event we're predicting a serious accident befalling a mass of climbers exponentially larger than the crowd of 1996? Mark Jenkins reminds us that so much of Everest is empty these days. I hope that the Urubkos and Moros of climbing will have better luck in the future, and that someone will once again remind us that Everest is still a mountain with plenty of space for ambitious, talented climbers, rather than a high-stakes theme park with long lines for the ultimate ride.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Beyond Risk, by Nicholas O'Connell

Nicholas O'Connell interviews seventeen famous climbers about their careers and motivations in Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers. His subjects, Walter Bonatti, Chris Bonington, Riccardo Cassin, Tomo Cesen, Peter Croft, Catherine Destivelle, Kurt Diemberger, Jean-Claude Droyer, Wolfgang Gullich, Warren Harding, Lynn Hill, Edmund Hillary, Voytek Kurtyka, Jeff Lowe, Reinhold Messner, Royal Robbins, and Doug Scott, come from a variety of Western countries and showcase a range of climbing styles. O'Connell does a good job of covering the history and styles of climbing, though I would have been fascinated to read an interview or two with Asian climbers to get a full range of cultural perspectives (Kohli, Ang Rita, Fuzhou, or similar), since much of the subject matter is similar. Regardless, O'Connell picks a great set of highly-motivated and dedicated individuals, with a range of personalities. They are ultimately more similar than I'm sure most of them would like to admit, in areas such as risk-assessment, creativity, vision, and the rewards of climbing. However, O'Connell also picks questions that show what makes each climber who they are (or perhaps who we expect them to be), such as asking Bonington about the organization of large groups, or Lowe about ice climbing and gear design. Since I was already familiar with the careers of these great climbers, I was personally drawn to the questions about the inner game of climbing and felt like I could have spent all day reading about what makes these people tick. Whereas personalities such as Messner and Bonatti are already pretty open in their writing, it was nice to get into the heads of some of the more reserved climbers such as (surprisingly) Chris Bonington or Jeff Lowe.

Everest makes a number of appearances in the book, especially in the interviews of Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, and Chris Bonington. I found it interesting that though Diemberger had climbed it, Everest ultimately took backstage to his relationship with K2, the mountain of his destiny. There's not really any unique Everest stuff here, but O'Connell does cover some interesting interior motivation material in addition to the frequently asked questions for these climbers. Also of note is that Tomo Cesen is interviewed before the full fury of the Lhotse South Face controversy erupted, and he is relatively comfortable in relating his ascent.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends, by M. S. Kohli

M. S. Kohli, leader of the successful 1965 Indian ascent of Everest, writes a history and a series of short biographies in Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends: Including the untold story of Phu Dorje, the first Nepalese to climb Sagarmatha. Kohli writes about the Sherpas who climb, focusing on his proteges at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), but also writing an extended biography of Phu Dorje and short portraits of many of the more modern Sherpa climbers. He begins with an introduction to Sherpas, their culture, how they came to be associated with Himalayan climbing, and their early expedition experiences. He then follows with portraits of many of the most famous Sherpas, many of whom he knew personally, both from his climbs and his working at HMI. Tenzing Norgay, Ang Tharkay, Nawang Gombu, Pasang Dawa Lama, Ang Tsering, N. D. Sherpa, and several others receive chapter-length biographies. Kohli writes about their upbringing, their climbs, and their careers, while adding his personal connection to each. Phu Dorje receives special attention, as the book was originally intended as a biography of him. Kohli discusses his special connection to Everest, both in his participation in many of the early Everest climbs, and his destiny fulfilled upon its slopes. The book includes chapters that introduce many modern Sherpa climbers, including Ang Rita, Apa, and Temba, as well as a chapter on Sherpani climbers (that tells the tale of Pasang Lhamu, among others). There are also chapters that tell of Kohli's involvement in Himalayan tourism, discuss environmental change in the Himalaya, and predict the fate of the Sherpa people.

Kohli's perspective is a unique one. He happened to know many of the most famous Sherpa climbers over a long period of time, first through his climbing, then his work at HMI, and later as a booster for Himalayan tourism. His perspective distinguishes this work from Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest, both because he focuses on Sherpas he already knew well and because much from his profiles comes from personal experience. The Phu Dorje biography is a much-needed tribute to a great climber and person. Overall, this is a handy book for getting to know the climbers on the other side of Himalayan mountaineering, the great Sherpas who do much of the hard work on expeditionary climbs, and yet often receive little attention in other works.