Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Epics on Everest, edited by Clint Willis

Epics on Everest is one of a number of adventure compilations by Clint Willis. He has put out several on mountaineering, and this one is a special tome published for the 50th anniversary of Everest's first known ascent. I've read a couple of his collections all the way through before I started this blog, and I've found that they're generally pretty enjoyable. Beware, however, that Willis generally chooses the most exciting parts of the books he includes; if you plan to later read the books through, reading the chapter in the compilation may spoil your read.

Willis picks a pretty good list to read. It's overall accessible, entertaining, and a fair showing of the literature you're likely to find on a bookstore shelf. His authors, with the exception of Wilfrid Noyce, are all fairly recent, and include a number of well-known climbers, including Anker, Bonington, Boardman, Boukreev, and Venables. With the books, Willis includes three articles, by Boardman, Bonington, and David Roberts. Since I have or will be covering the books, I'll talk about the shorter works here.

Peter Boardman writes about his experiences high on Everest during the 1975 Southwest Face expedition in his "All the Winds of Asia." He was the youngest climber in the group and made it onto the second summit party, along with Pertemba and Mick Burke. He tells the story of his summit day from the top of the fixed ropes, to the summit, and back to Camp VI and intertwines the narrative with his impressions of the moment both at the time and afterward. Unlike Bonington's Everest: The Hard Way, the official expedition account, Boardman's narrative gives a first-person perspective both to the second climb and to the events that led the death of Mick Burke. In Boardman's later book, The Shining Mountain, he shows that he was clearly affected by Mick Burke's death and that he overall felt that something did not sit right with him about the Everest expedition. I don't really see much of that here, and I wonder if it took him a long time to think it through before the events of this expedition took hold of him.

David Roberts gives an analysis of the climbing relationship between Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in his "Messner and Habeler: Alone at the Top." Roberts gives a short narration of their expeditions together (including their climb of Everest in 1978 without bottled oxygen), a mini-biography of each, and an analysis of their motives and abilities. He also includes quotes from an interview with Habeler; I think this article would have been perfect if he had scored an interview with Messner as well. It is very well done, however, and I think his analysis is overall pretty well justified. I liked reading a critique of Messner written during his career, since I was unaware of him at the time and most of what I've read about him looks back to his mountaineering days. Within the next couple months, I plan to read Messner's Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate and Habeler's The Lonely Victory back-to-back to get a impression from both sides of the Everest climb that ended their partnership. 

Chris Bonington's "Absent Friends" relates his 1985 ascent of Everest via the South Col and the many memories stirred on the mountain. I can only imagine the bittersweet moment of finally arriving at the top of the mountain that you have spent most of your career climbing with friends who are now long passed. His is a climb in memoriam, and it's sad to think that Bonington's successful career as a professional climber and expedition leader came at the expense of so many lives, including on Everest Tony Tighe, Peter Boardman, and Joe Tasker. You can also read about Bonington's 1985 expedition in his Chris Bonington's Everest. Additionally, Ed Webster includes some more amusing details of the expedition in his Snow in the Kingdom, including Webster's and Bonington's losing at poker to Dick Bass in base camp. On a side note, Bonington briefly became the oldest person to ascend Everest when he reached the top.


  1. Mike Groom's "Sheer Will" is a bit of a treasure in this one. Copies of Groom's book are currently going for $40 or more, so you might try an introduction through Willis' collection before handing away a larger sum of money.

  2. Since I'm unwilling (at the moment anyway) to pay for "Sheer Will" I've compromised and ordered Clint Willis' book. I've read others by him and enjoyed them. In addition to being an armchair mountaineer, I've also sailed around the world and been lost at sea many times....from the safety of my armchair.

    Mainly I'm writing to say how much I'm enjoying your site and reviews. I only discovered your site last night and I've already added several books to my Everest To Be Read list!

    1. Thanks for the note. Glad I could be of service!

  3. I should make a correction for this post. David Roberts did interview Reinhold Messner for his piece, "Messner & Habeler: Alone at the Top." Whereas Messner gave him a reserved and formal hour, Habeler spent most of an afternoon talking over beers with Roberts. It shows in this article. See more details in Roberts' "Moments of Doubt."