Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Mountain: My Time on Everest, by Viesturs and Roberts

Ed Viesturs, with David Roberts, writes about his ten expeditions to the world's highest mountain, along with a commentary on selected climbs throughout its history, in The Mountain: My Time on Everest: The Irresistible Lure of the World's Highest Peak. The book follows much of the same pattern as his two earlier volumes, on K2 and Annapurna (K2 and The Will to Climb), in that he relates his own experiences on the mountain in question (and others) to many of the great climbs of the past, and he gives much fuller details of his own expeditions to the mountain than in his No Shortcuts to the Top, the tale of his climbing the fourteen 8000-meter peaks.

I appreciated getting full details on his early climbs, including ones that did not get him to the summit. His trip to the Kangshung Face gets a lot of attention, especially his wavering back and forth, as a relatively young climber, between going for it despite the dangers and listening to his survival instincts. His first attempt, via the Great Couloir, that got him within 300 meters of the summit, establishes his abilities at altitude; I had no idea previously that it was a paid-for trip by a group of Arkansas climbers, who decided that some professional guides might make great substitutes for Sherpa. His solo attempt, via the Japanese Couloir, is more than just a bum trip, but rather a trial against horrendous snow conditions and the limits of his mountaineering instincts. More details of the 1990 International Peace climb emerge, in which Viesturs makes the summit for the first time, without supplementary oxygen.

His commercial trips, including his guiding climbs in the early and mid 90s, his film projects, and his Eddie Bauer climb, also come to life. He leaves the details of his 1996 IMAX climb to his earlier works, but he writes considerably more detail on his two early Everest guiding trips, such as how he ended up climbing to the summit without oxygen after his client was too exhausted to continue on his first guided expedition, and his good impression of Erling Kagge, the first to reach the "three poles" under his own power (You may remember that Edmund Hillary drove a tractor to the South Pole, and took a flight with Neil Armstrong to the North Pole...), on his second. His 1997 NOVA climb sounds like a lot more fun than he originally portrayed it, and the crowds during his recent climbs sound like more of a problem than he wanted to admit earlier. Even so, Viesturs doesn't knock commercial climbing, or even say that having so many people on the mountain is necessarily wrong.

His history is perhaps a little more ordinary than his two previous books covering a single mountain. While he can get away with picking favorites while relating the history of K2 or Annapurna (since they've overall had considerably fewer climbs and their histories are familiar to quite few), Everest has an established timeline for English-speaking audiences that's a bit hard to ignore. He gives credit to Mallory's mountaineering judgement on the 1921 reconnaissance, though less so in subsequent years. He's impressed by Norton's great effort in 1924. Shipton and Tilman's minimalist ethic catches his attention for the 1930s, stating that if they'd just had better weather in 1938, the history of high-altitude climbing might have been completely different. The 1963 American ascent, via the West Ridge, impresses him as one of the most daring and phenomenal climbs in Everest's history. He also discusses the historical canon of China's two North Ridge climbs, Bonington's Southwest Face climbs, Messner and Habeler's bottle-free ascent, and Messner's return to climb Everest solo. I'm glad he took time to add to the English-language record with his descriptions of the 1980 Polish winter ascent and Loretan and Troillet's 1986 40-hour midnight dash to the summit (See Loretan's Den Bergen Verfallen.). I appreciate that even if Viesturs and Loretan have completely opposite climbing styles, that Viesturs can still show a lot of respect for Loretan's achievements in the mountains. Though I'm grateful for the foreign-language information he did cover, I'm a bit sad he didn't continue on and perhaps discuss the Soviet climb of the Southwest Pillar, the Yugoslav or Bulgarian West Ridge Direct climbs, or the Japanese climbs of either the North Face or the Northeast Ridge Direct. He does help the world out a bit, by bringing attention to the two American climbs on the Kangshung Face in 1981 and 1983, which culminated in six climbers making the summit. Then again, his own Great Couloir climb would have made a lovely parallel to the Australians' climb in 1984, and his Kangshung Face climb would have made an interesting comparison to the 1988 climb nearby by an incredibly small team of four.

I enjoyed this book. I appreciate reading a highly-experienced climber's opinion on the history of Everest, and I'll take whatever I can get. Since I have read so much about Everest already, I most enjoyed getting the gritty on Viesturs' less-vaunted attempts. His history is pretty accurate, and his analysis makes sense. This might be a book directed towards previous Viesturs/Roberts readers, but it is certainly accessible to anyone who's read a climbing book or two. I'm looking forward to more collaborations by Viesturs and Roberts in the future. Hope you like it!

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