Thursday, January 23, 2014

Invisible on Everest, by Parsons & Rose

Mike Parsons and Mary B. Rose write a history of the stuff climbers use in Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers. Though they write a history that covers much of the specialized equipment used in the quest for the summit, they write in the most detail about their own areas of interest and expertise, with focuses on fabric development and women's early climbing attire, as well as the exponential growth of the domestic outdoor gear market (and those who made a living from it) in the 1960s through the 1980s. They trace the development of active cold-weather clothing from early polar journeys to the top of Everest, through the development of Gore-Tex, and argue that early explorers and climbers were not so ill-equipped as they appeared. Rose argues that women's climbing in skirts during the 19th century was more of an exception than a tradition, and follows the growth of climbing clothes for women from the earliest examples to the use of (gasp!) shorts beginning in the 1930s. Parsons traces the origins of climbing hardware, including karabiners, nuts, cams, ropes, axes, and harnesses, with detail on British and Continental developments, and some nods to US innovations.

Everest warrants its own chapter, with details on the equipment development for the expeditions from 1921 to 1953. The authors credit Mallory with a practical eye for equipment and a care for detail. Smythe gets major credit for his continual and conscientious attention to the developers of his equipment. I wish I could have read some details about Pugh. Everest was a phenomenon apart from the development of gear for the masses, but it had an effect on it, with early examples of down clothing (1922), the mummy sleeping bag (1933), synthetic boots (1953), and zippered pockets (1924), among other innovations. The public nature of the expeditions brought suppliers great advertising, and jump-started the careers of some young guns, while exclusion meant especially bad press for some of the established firms.

Overall, the book is an entertaining read, I imagine both for climbers and armchair enthusiasts. I appreciated the authors' arguments, but I craved more detail (which is probably why they followed up this book with the Mallory replica clothing project). I felt like the hardware chapter could make a book unto itself with some expansion, and that the clothing of climbers could easily make another. I loved the illustrations from old gear catalogs, and the many quotes from them as well. I think you'll like it!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ice, Steel, and Fire, by Linda Parker

Linda Parker writes a series of profiles of some of Britain's most intrepid travelers of the Modern Era in Ice, Steel, and Fire: British Explorers in Peace and War 1921-45. She picks an interesting and perhaps overlooked set, as many writers have already covered the great explorations of participants in the Great War, such as the Mount Everest reconnaissance, or the turn-of-the-century journeys of Younghusband, Wollaston, Bailey, and others. Parker's explorers head out to decidedly remote locations, whether crossing Greenland, surveying Antarctica, sailing the Aleutians, scrounging in the southern Amazon, or penetrating the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, and then apply their unique skills to the battles of World War II. Parker picks subjects with decidedly interesting stories both in their explorer days and their war careers, so some famous British explorers, such as Eric Shipton (who served as a trainer during the war), are left out. She includes, however, the explorations and war careers of George Binney, Spencer Chapman, Quintin Riley, Peter Fleming, Andrew Croft, Sandy Glen, Martyn Sherwood, R. E. D. Ryder, Lancelot Fleming, Augustine Courtauld, and Bill Tilman. 

Tilman is the Everest connection to this set, and a bit of an exception to the list, as he participated in both world wars. Parker writes of his crossing of Africa on a bicycle, a little of his African mountaineering, his exploration and climbing of Nanda Devi, and his 1938 attempt on Everest, before writing significantly more on his World War II career in North Africa, the Middle East, Albania, and Italy. The 1938 attempt gets about two pages of summary, with Tilman quips about oxygen and the weather, but overall dry treatment. Tilman's participation in the 1935 Everest reconnaissance is but a two-sentence interruption to the story of Nanda Devi. Parker analyzes a bit more Tilman's army career, such as suggesting why he remained a relatively low rank. It's too bad the narrative stops at 1945, as Tilman's exploration and war service blend uncomfortably as he pushes the limits of "being lost" while wandering round politically sensitive areas in Central Asia soon after the war.

Overall, I felt like Parker could have done more to analyze and explain, as this is a narrative of the grey areas between exploration and service to one's country. Too much of it was summary and exposition, and not nearly enough it the interesting stuff that can go along with a good story. The Martyn Sherwood chapter, especially, had a lot of potential to ask or even answer some fascinating questions. The stories are entertaining, but the book is more an introduction to the topic than a definitive volume.