Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Extreme Landscapes, edited to Bernadette McDonald

Bernadette McDonald oversees a collection of inspired writing, in celebration of the International Year of the Mountain (2002), in Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces. She invited authors with a wide range of expertise, from mountaineer and photographer to philosopher and ethnobotanist, to contribute to the overall discussion through their essays of mountains, their effect on people, and people's effect on them. And what a discussion! The quality of writing here is well above the average mountain collection, with thoughtful and intelligent prose in a variety of styles---the poetic and hypnotic effusions by Ehrlich on the experience of Greenland, the blurring of landscape and belief by Schaller, the symbolism and human understanding of Amy, the blending of South and North by Davis, and so much more.

Everest is but a small part of this collection---often used as an example to make a point. Sid Marty shows us that in places such as Everest, some of the places that we treasure the most as a natural wonder have also had extreme human impacts upon them. John Amatt tries to create some lessons from his experience with the 1982 Canadian Mount Everest expedition. Dermot Sommers (Everest, '93) laments the slow disappearance of Khaling Rai, among other mountain heritage languages. Reinhold Messner (Everest, '78, '80) looks for a more controlled, intelligent, and natural use of mountains within Europe. Rick Ridgeway (Everest, '76) profiles Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard as they turn their commercial success into mountain conservatories in South America. Ed Douglas connects the story of his visiting the Kama Valley, east of Everest, to the story of his late father and his passing. Both Bernard Amy and Edwin Bernbaum play with Mallory's "Because it's there..." quote, Amy suggesting that people climb mountains more because they are over there than simply because they exist, and Bernbaum defining Mallory's "it" as "the experience of a deeper reality that gives meaning and vitality to [mountaineer's] lives," poetically declaring that Mallory disappeared into the "it" that was there on Everest.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Everest: The First Ascent From North (Col), by Mohinder Singh

My 400th Everest book! I looked for a good one that was hard to come by and also had a good story, as with my other century books, Goswami's Everest, Is It Conquered? (100), Shin's Orient Express to Crystal Summit (200), and Doskov and Petkov's How We Conquered Everest (300). If you've read Krakauer's Into Thin Air, then you should be familiar with the three Indian climbers, T. Samanla, Tsewang Paljor, and Dorje Morup, who were caught high on the Northeast Ridge of Everest during the storm of May 10th; however, their story is told only as a tragic footnote to the events happening nearby, among and around Krakauer's own team. Singh writes their full tale, along with that of their entire expedition in the book presented below!

Mohinder Singh, Commandant (Retd.) ITBP, writes of the successful, yet tragic 1996 Indo-Tibetan Border Police Everest expedition, which he led, in Everest: The First Indian Ascent from the North (Col). Singh had a tough job, following three failed Indian attempts at the North Col route, and working ahead of and among other expeditions to make the sort of climb the ITBP could be proud of. His is the largest expedition on the Tibetan side of Everest in 1996, and they provide the most manpower and material support for stringing the route and supplying the mountain. He shows how much work it can be, to not only lead an Everest expedition, but to lead an Indian Everest expedition, documenting, without complaining, a bit of the bureaucracy he faces, both from China and his home country. He gives a small taste of the great amount of organization that went into his leading the climb, both on the mountain and beforehand, within the text providing lists of the days' accomplishments, schedules, or bullet points for important information.

Once the team makes it away from New Dehli, the text takes the form of a daily journal, with chapters separating important parts of the climb. Singh provides a great amount of information regarding the team's daily accomplishments, with occasional small interpersonal details and the team's interaction with other teams included, as long as they are important to the overall function of the Indian team. I love the focus of this book, as it creates a bit of a microcosm out of their climb, detailing what it takes, and including only what is important to get a large number of climbers to the summit of the world's highest mountain. The expedition and its climbers are considerably more open---Camp II gets a reputation as an Indian restaurant due to their willingness to share with passers-by, they liaise with other teams to string the route, and they lend the use of their satellite equipment to other teams in need. He focuses the narrative on their working together with the Japanese team's Sherpas to work the North Ridge and his continuous communication with the Japanese leader to coordinate their climbs.

That focus makes it all the more tragic when two Japanese climbers and their Sherpas climb past three dying Indian climbers on May 11. The three Indians had made the summit as the storm of May 10th was building, and were not heard from after their radio transmission from the summit. However, May 11th dawned clear enough to see the climbers with binoculars from the North Col, and watch as the Japanese team stopped for a rest and a snack 40 meters beyond one of the stricken Indian team. After reaching the summit, they again climbed past the three Indian climbers. While Singh does not credit the Japanese with his teammates' deaths, he does find their actions inexcusable and unexplainable. After a period of mourning, he turns to his team to decide a future course. They return to place five more climbers on the summit in a single push a week after the first ascent and the storm.

Some interesting facts from this book: They have a Sherpa, Wangde, who becomes ill from an old complaint, returns to Kathmandu with a team member, and dies in the hospital while they are still on the mountain; this death is not generally recorded in the tally for 1996, though a similar death (Ngawang Topche's) from the South is. Singh claims that his second summit team noticed Dorje Morup, not Tsewang Paljor, in the hollow near the First Step, though most secondhand accounts switch them. Based on the photographs in the book, you'll see that every team member for this climb was issued with green boots---it was not just "Green Boots," (the irreverent name given to the climber in the hollow), with a wild fashion sense. Lastly, this is the only Everest book I've so far read with a section on edible and medicinal Himalayan herbs.