Monday, December 16, 2013

Filming the Impossible, by Leo Dickinson

Leo Dickinson, who along with Eric Jones filmed Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler's first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen, writes of a life of filming the world's great adventures. Beyond Everest, Dickinson films and participates in such projects as the first filmed climb of the North Face of the Eiger, exploration in Patagonia, the first descent by kayak of the Dudh Kosi (including the highest ever canoe launch at Everest Base Camp), ballooning over the Sahara, attempts at ballooning around the world, and skydiving from both planes and balloons. His writing is as dynamic as his films, with the unaffected perspective of someone who uncovers something new and interesting even in well-trodden paths. He pushes the limits of filming, with cameras mounted on kayaks, lightweight cameras with batteries wired from within a climber's down suit, helmet cams for skydiving (not so standard in the 1970s!), and filming ballooning from a rope ladder attached far away from the basket. Throughout the book are high-quality photographs from each of his adventures.

He meets Reinhold and Ushi Messner at a mountain film festival, and Reinhold first invites him to Dhaulagiri, and then to Everest. Dickinson has some troubles with the altitude, but Eric Jones eventually makes it as far as the South Col of Everest. I did not realize until reading this book, that Messner's filming during his summit climb (which would later cause him snow blindness) was actually for Dickinson's movie. Dickinson provides an outsider's perspective to Messner and Habeler's climb, though with few surprises. He credits their reaching the summit mainly on Messner's determination and belief in himself, pointing out that Habeler waffled quite a bit on oxygen and wished to go down during their summit climb in marginal weather. Dickinson's subsequent film, Everest Unmasked, would later win awards at the Telluride, Trento, and Banff mountain film festivals.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Letters from Everest, by George Lowe

George Lowe, pivotal member of the 1953 climb that made the summit of the world's highest mountain, gives an account of the climb through a series of vivid letters written back home to New Zealand in Letters from Everest: A First-Hand Account from the Epic First Ascent. While working with Lowe on his memoirs (found in the recently published The Conquest of Everest), Huw Lewis-Jones came across several piles of correspondence, including a lovely series of letters from the first ascent of Everest, meant to fill in friends and family on the details of the climb. Within, Lowe writes plainly of climbing Everest, providing a sense of reality lost in many of the carefully edited accounts prepared for the public (think Hunt, Hillary...). Details come to light that would have been otherwise lost, such as Lowe's dicey return from the Lhotse Face with a team a Sherpas during a whiteout (reminiscent of Longland's frightening epic on the North Ridge 20 years earlier), the true extent of John Hunt's physical efforts, or the level of madness surrounding Tenzing upon the team's return to Kathmandu. Perhaps my favorite is a clarification of the context of Hillary's famous, "Well, we knocked the bastard off" comment, with Lowe writing that it was said more incredulously than insidiously.

Lowe is a wonderful personality who perhaps stayed too quiet too long about the Everest climb. He writes quite well and provides a more modern and down-to-earth telling than any of his cohorts. All the more impressive is that it was written at the moment, at high altitude, and with a multitude of distractions and discomforts. This book doesn't quite substitute for a full telling of the first ascent of Everest, but it's an excellent supplement for someone already familiar with the story, and a gem for the true aficionado. Enjoy!