Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best of Outside: The First Twenty Years, by Outside editors

The editors at Outside magazine present an anthology of inspired writing in The Best of Outside: The First Twenty Years. Confessedly, I picked this one as a way to get Jon Krakauer's original article "Into Thin Air" (which would later be developed into the book of the same title) into my reading, but I found a great collection and some first-rate literature to boot. There's quite a range in this one, from the deeply personal "The Blackfoot Years," by Annick Smith, about her relationship (and a nation's) with a small and beautiful part of Montana, to the tale of a man who sets records by sticking angry ferrets down his pants in Donald Katz's "The King of the Ferret Leggers." The editors do a good job showing the breadth of what Outside can mean, with backyard stories and sports profiles mixed with trips to Peru, Everest, and New Guinea.

Krakauer gets the bulk of his point across in almost a tenth of the space of his book in "Into Thin Air." It's awkward to have read the book before the article, because I can't help but compare one to the other rather than let the article stand on its own merits. It's good writing and compelling, but it's also tough for me to sort out the information and assumptions I've gleaned from the book versus what's here. Though this is quite a long article for a magazine, it's relative brevity means that details are saved for summit day, and much of the rest of the story and gets quick coverage (especially the trek to the mountain, and retreat from the South Col). I'm actually impressed by how much detail overall Krakauer packs into 30-odd pages, defining characters within a paragraph, sorting through multiple teams' logistics, and showing just how complex a modern climb of Everest can be, all the while narrating the hypoxic tragedy that unfolds around him. He doesn't propose many (or any) solutions here, stirring less controversy than his book, and shows, with the death of Bruce Herrod, that few lessons were learned. It's a great read and an important and historic contribution to the Everest literature.

Monday, February 3, 2014

After Everest, by Paul Little

Paul Little profiles the man behind the image in After Everest: Inside the Private World of Edmund Hillary. Unlike most of Hillary's biographers, he shies away from describing Hillary's adventures or accomplishments in detail, focusing instead on the development of Hillary's character and the growth of his family and foundation. Little asserts that though the private and public Hillary are largely the same, few know the man as he is---most think of him as they expect him to be. Using interviews of friends, foundation members, and family (in addition to the myriad of print sources), the author shows Hillary to be a focused, driven, yet down-to-earth adventurer, who sticks to his beliefs and puts amazing reserves of energy into whatever he attempts. He ferrets out details of the inner workings (and at times dysfunction) of the network of foundations which support Hillary's work in Nepal, as well as the family conflicts which have such a great effect upon their operation. I appreciated Little's seeking of the man behind the adventurer, as all too often Hillary books, both biographies and his own writings (think High Adventure or Nothing Venture, Nothing Win) become "Jimmy Job" stories, with great tales of adventure and little substance. Also, as a reader well versed in the literature, I enjoyed Little's commentary and back-stories to several of the most well-known Hillary biographies, including Pat Booth's The Life of Legend, Alexa Johnston's Reaching the Summit, and Hillary's (and Tom Scott's) own View from the Summit.

Regarding Everest, Little shows that Ed (as he refers to Hillary throughout the book) had the right mix of qualities to reach the summit first. Not only did Ed and Tenzing have the motivation and physical stamina to push themselves beyond the abilities of their teammates, but they also shared an inferiority complex versus the British that drove them even harder. While other members of the expedition would succeed at their appointed roles, Ed and Tenzing actively sought out ways to exceed expectations and display their physical stamina, such as their "oxygen trial" or their leading a party to the South Col. Little also puts in a good word for Norm Hardie's unrealized Everest prospects, citing his success on Kanchenjunga.

This is a great book for readers already familiar with Ed Hillary. Though not a great introduction to Hillary, the book colors the character of the man like no earlier work. Little sounds the depths of his depression after the death of his wife and daughter, tests the lengths of his ambition, and shows how the drive that got Edmund Hillary up the world's highest mountain found an even more challenging and wonderful outlet in his philanthropic work for the people of Solu Khumbu. Enjoy!