Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lost on Everest, by Peter Firstbrook

Peter Firstbrook writes a biography of George Mallory, in addition to telling of his own participation in the search for Mallory's body, in Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine. The book is a shorter and perhaps less fond telling of the tale of George Mallory than most other biographies. Firstbrook covers Mallory's life, with a focus on his role for the Everest expeditions, showing that Mallory was not quite the hero that many assume, but rather a man with poor judgement who often caused troubles. Firstbrook's Mallory isn't quite the horrid dilettante portrayed in Unsworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History, but neither is he the fascinating personality of Gillman's The Wildest Dream or the ambitious career man of Green's Because It's There. Perhaps Firstbrook's portrayal of Mallory is fair, as certainly it cuts him down to human proportions, and provides an easy explanation for his disappearance. That's the trouble with history---unlike observation, which is a compromise between one's perception and reality, history is a further compromise between the observations of others (many of whom are long dead) and the perception of the writer. There are so many plausible Mallorys out there, that the greatest mystery about him (to me) isn't whether he made the summit, but who, exactly, was doing the climbing!

In addition to the biography, Firstbrook traces the history of the clues that led to the discovery of Mallory's body on Everest. He tells of the formation of the team (Firstbrook led the filming of the trip) that would go looking for him in 1999, with only a limited personal perspective. He was there, after all, in the role of a professional observer. In his writing, at least, he avoids some of the pettiness present in other books about the same trip, and instead focuses on the actions that led to the discovery of Mallory and the climbing of the mountain. His own conclusions about the plausibility of Mallory's making the summit revolve around the timing of Odell's observation versus climbing times by members of the search team.

Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 Everest disaster: some early thoughts

Everest climbers have faced their worst disaster in history, with at least 12 high-altitude porters killed (4 still missing) in the Khumbu Icefall by an avalanche. So many of the comments I've read on news articles are by people who have read an Everest book or two. (Krakauer's Into Thin Air is often cited.) What does one say who has read the history of Everest from beginning to end and back again? What can one say?

My first instinct is to think back to the closest incident in scale, when seven porters died in an avalanche in 1922 on the North Col, and climber Howard Somervell bewailed "Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed - why, oh why could not one of us Britishers [or fill in the blank] have shared their fate?" He continued, "I would gladly at that moment have been lying there dead in the snow, if only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had indeed shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk." After the 1922 climb there was quite of bit of searching for a scapegoat within the climbing community, with sides blaming the climbers (George Mallory, specifically, even if there were three climbers alternating leads) and others defending. Ultimately, little was done about that tragedy beyond fighting over blame, or at least little else is mentioned in Everest's recorded history. Two of the climbers who survived both the avalanche and the war of words actually returned to Everest two years later.

I also think of some of the predictions of Everest writers, whether Krakauer's belief that little, if anything would be learned from the tragedy of 1996, or Jenkin's (Call of Everest) comments that the concentrated crowds of people on Everest are inviting such a tragedy (though he imagined troubles on the Lhotse Face). I worry that because the victims of this tragedy are Nepalese porters, rather than foreign climbers, that we, the observing public, won't sit and analyze what went wrong here the way we did in 1996, when [only] eight foreign climbers died; we supported the publication of no less than 17 books about 1996. How many books will I be able to read about 2014?

There are very few books available that treat Sherpas and other Himalayan people as people, rather than some kind of "other," either to be studied (many anthropological studies are available), employed, or left out entirely. Even Tenzing Norgay's "autobiography," Tiger of the Snows, while subtly pushing back at some cultural stereotypes, accepts many others. Here's a short list I've encountered:

M. S. Kohli's Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends
B. N. Mullik's The Sky Was His Limit
Jamling Tenzing Norgay's Touching My Father's Soul
Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest 
Zuckerman & Padoan's Buried in the Sky

My prayers go out to the victims and their families. What a dark day on Everest!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Wind in My Hair, by Brigitte Muir

Brigitte Muir finds peace and strength during her climbs of the Seven Summits in The Wind in My Hair: An inspiring account of one woman's dream, and how she made it come true. She writes of her development from a woman drawn to the dark places of caves and the shadows of strong men to an independent and inspiring climber who sets out and achieves her dream. From her home in Belgium, she seeks out the world and ends up falling in love in and with Australia, marrying and climbing with Jon Muir. After he finally climbs Everest (See Sorrel Wilby's Beyond the Icefall.), and she makes some early forays into the Himalaya (Shivling, Hidden Peak), Muir declares that she will climb the Seven Summits. As an underemployed climber dedicated to her sport, she faces similar financial challenges to Pat Morrow (See Beyond Everest), but without the cachet of having already climbed the world's highest mountain. She lands sponsorships and works farm labor to pay for her trips, but at times (sometimes for years), she has trouble getting together the cash for the bigger climbs. She ultimately guides someone to the summit of Vinson (while still paying many of her own expenses) before landing a dedicated and interested group of sponsors and promoters for her Everest trips.

Muir, like her husband, has a rough relationship with Everest, making several attempts before finally making it to the top. She tries on the North side in 1993 and 1995, and again from the South in 1996, before her success from the South in 1997. She climbs under Jon Tinker and OTT in '93 and '95, along with Pat Falvey (See his Reach for the Sky.), her husband, and several others. She runs into unfortunate circumstances high on the mountain during both her summit attempts in 1995, and returns without a summit. In 1996, she opts for Henry Todd, and gives a much rosier picture of him and his operation than other climbers, even on the same permit (See especially Ratcliffe's A Day to Die For.) Todd does run out of supplies for a second attempt (or is it third), however, and sends his team packing while other groups are reaching the summit. Her record of events on the South Col during the May 10/11 disaster are considerably more lucid than other eyewitness accounts. Her 1997 climb, under Team Ascent, goes well when she finally makes it up during a late weather window.

This is my favorite (so far) Seven Summits book, as Muir clearly uses the quest as a journey rather than a checklist, works in some humor, and writes eloquently about her inner self and her experiences. Her climbing life is quite a bit more than the continental high-points, and her development as a person and a climber kept my interest throughout the book. Highly recommend!