Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lure of the Mountains, by Michael D. Lowes

Michael D. Lowes writes a long-overdue biography of an overlooked adventurer and climber in Lure of the Mountains: The Life of Bentley Beetham, 1924 Everest Expedition Mountaineer. Beetham, like Mallory, was a teacher and author outside of climbing, who was a specialist in ornithology, specifically the native birds of Britain. He also had a talent for photography, going to great lengths to document birds in their natural habitats. His natural intelligence and interest, as well as his publications, land him a job at his alma mater, Banard Castle School, which he keeps until his retirement. He develops an interest in climbing in adulthood, and takes to it like a fish to water, with his boundless energy finally finding an appropriate outlet. He learns to climb with Somervell, and along with Odell puts in an impressive performance in the Alps in 1923, leading to his recommendation for the Everest climb of 1924. His love of climbing would later lead to a long-term affair with the Atlas Mountains, in addition to the developing of his local crags, along with his students.

His participation in the Everest expedition of 1924 goes largely under the radar. Though he has the drive, energy, and good acclimatization to go far, a bout of sciatica keeps him from the higher reaches of the mountain. He drags himself to Camp III even with the condition, to the consternation and amazement of his teammates, before he is ordered down by the expedition leadership. There is some evidence he was meant to be the still photographer for the expedition, even with Noel's media contract in place. Beetham's photographs are a lovely set, with Somervell appearing in many, and a sense of action among the wonderful settings of the party's travels.

Lowes' writing is at times sentimental, but is unlikely to offend his readers, as a Beetham biography is for true enthusiasts, either of ornithology or Everest. He writes about a man who was described by Somervell as able to get along amicably with anyone, and yet was thought of by some of his students as a sadist, who took his students climbing, never lost or injured anyone, and yet he himself nearly died in a climbing accident. Lowes captures the complexities of his subject, and lets them be, rather than trying to explain away his humanity. A good book and a service to the history of Everest!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Blind Descent, by Brian Dickinson

Brian Dickinson writes about an ideal climb of the world's highest mountain gone terribly wrong in Blind Descent: Surviving Alone and Blind on Mount Everest. In the narrative, he weaves in stories of his experiences of training to be a Navy air rescue swimmer as well as explanations of his faith and values. He goes to Everest as part of a Seven Summits bid, after climbs of Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, and a near miss on McKinley. I like how with such a self-focused and potentially lonely story, Dickinson looks out around himself and writes about his family, friends, and climbing partners in a positive and sincere manner; even when he is alone and blind high on Everest, he recognizes people around the world who were praying for him. (It reminds me a bit of the 1963 American ascent, during which the Jesuits in Kathmandu prayed all night for calm weather and a safe return for the four summiteers, who spent all night marooned near the summit.) I find it interesting that modern Everest writers find it important to reference earlier climbers in their travels, such as James Wilde, the climber philanthropist, visiting Hillary's first school, and Dickinson, the military vet, reading Bear Grylls on his way to Base Camp.

Dickinson's climb, during the 2011 pre-monsoon season, is a relatively minimal commercial affair, with logistics, some meals, tents, fixed rope, oxygen, and a summit-climb Sherpa provided. He does quite well with the altitude, after a bit of adjustment. Things go well for him until he drops and breaks his goggles on the Lhotse Face. One of the two layers of UV protection are still in place, so he continues on. Thanks to initially marginal weather and the illness of his ropemate-for-hire, he gets a summit day to himself. By the time the sun is well up and he is on the summit, his vision has almost completely gone. His descent is harrowing and difficult, but his faith and his Navy training help him to stay calm and make it home to his family.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ganz bei mir, by Kaltenbrunner & Steinbach

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, with Karin Steinbach, tells of her climbs on the world's highest mountains in  Ganz bei mir, Leidenschaft Achttausender. She writes of her life of climbing, leading to her becoming the first woman to climb the fourteen 8000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen and without the use of high-altitude porters. She climbs quite a bit for fun as a student, before becoming a nurse and realizing her dream of climbing an 8000-er on Broad Peak at 23. For a while, she works as a nurse and climbs every chance she gets, before her climbing takes over, and she manages to live the life of a full-time mountaineer. Her quest for the 14 highest mountains starts off well, with a mixture of success and frustration without tragedy, until the year after she goes pro, on Hidden Peak. She has a number of trying moments after that, including an unbelievable survival on Dhaulagiri after an avalanche that killed two others. I only wish she would have written a bit more about her final climb to achieve her record, as there is so little written about climbs on the north side of K2.

She makes two trips to Everest. Her first, pre-monsoon in 2005 after her South Face climb of Shishipangma, was meant to be a Supercouloir alpine climb, in the footsteps of Troillet and Loretan. (See Loretan's Den Bergen Verfallen.) Bad snow conditions turn their attention to the North Col route, with an ascent of the col's west side, and a trip up to Camp V, before one of her ropemates becomes life-threateningly ill, necessitating his rescue. She returns in 2010 to make the summit via the normal North Col route, still carrying her own gear.