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!


  1. Thank you so much for this blog. I hope you know how much it's appreciated. One thing I wonder if you could do, however. Could you please make a note after your reviews as to whether the book is available as an ebook? If only more of these books were available for Kindle....

    1. I'm not sure I'd be able to do that presently, as I'm sybarite enough not to own a reader. It's a great idea, though, and I appreciate it! E-books are a bit of a problem for me, as more and more Everest accounts are being published only in the electronic format. Some day soon, I'm going to have to get with the program, because the history of Everest is leaving me behind!