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.

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