Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Windhorse, by Brook & Donnelly

Before Erik Weihenmayer started Touching the Top of the World, Julie Donnelly, also blind, trekked to the base of Mount Everest to experience the Himalayas and to raise awareness and funds for the Guide Dog Association in The Windhorse. She was guided by her friend, Elaine Brook, whom you may remember from the climbing party in Doug Scott's The Shishapangma Expedition. Ultimately, the experiences of that expedition helped her make the decision to give up big mountains in favor of leading treks through the mountains. The book is mostly by Brook, and it records her experiences, along with some taped diary entries by Donnelly, during their journey from Paphlu to Kala Patthar and back to Lukla in 1985. (Their original destination was Everest Base Camp.)

Besides Donnelly and Weihenmayer losing their eyes to the same disease there are overall few parallels between their books. Both make sponsored trips to raise awareness, and they both are pushing the social barriers that bar the blind from certain activities, or as Donnelly puts it "getting away from the idea that blind people only do things designed especially for the blind." Because The Windhorse is primarily told from Brook's perspective, I felt like I didn't get very many insights into Donnelly's perspective. I haven't read it yet, but I wonder if this reads in a similar fashion to Eric Alexander's The Summit. (Eric accompanied Weihenmayer on Everest.) Brook does include a lot of conversations between the authors, which helped somewhat, though the really interesting ones seemed somewhat artificial. Come to think of it, this book has a very similar perspective to the movie, Genghis Blues, with occasional personal conversations with the blind protagonist, but for the most part encountering him with sighted eyes. I have to admit, I much prefer something like Weihenmayer's book or Tom Whittaker's Higher Purpose, where a person with a disability comes right out and turns my world upside down, rather than something where I'm seeing or reading about someone doing great things from a typical perspective. 

The Windhorse seems to be as much about the authors' internal journeys as much as it is about a trek in the Himalayas. The two friends get to know each other much better, and Brook seems to learn a lot about her own perspective. Donnelly seems to provide a lot of important information to Brook too late, such as needing clean water to wash her prostheses or her history of an eating disorder. It never really seems to sink in to her that after exertion at altitude she needs to eat and drink a lot more than she wants to. This creates problems for their descent.

On a side note, I learned several things from this book, or specifically, from Brook, the trekking guide, that I did not know about the Everest region. The suffix "-che" denotes a yak pasture, and most Sherpas call the highest pasture near Everest Gorakche rather than Gorak Shep, thus matching the lower Pheriche, Lobuche, Thyanboche, etc. There are several mantras carved into mani stones and walls in the area besides the traditional "Om mani padme hum." Also, though they're probably all gone by now, very small windows are the tradition in Sherpa architecture.

This book had less to do with Everest than I originally thought. Not only do they give Base Camp a pass, but they trek in winter, the low season for Everest. They were originally supposed to have Ang Dorjee, who surmounted Everest twice without supplemental oxygen, as their sirdar, but he died earlier in the year while making a third attempt. They visited the chortens of Sherpas who died on Everest, and also Brook notices in a lodge a picture of the 1973 Southwest Face expedition and notes that most of the climbers are dead now. Overall, I found this to be a frustrating read, though it was occasionally insightful and funny. I think if you begin reading it without preconceived notions of what you'll get out of the book (so, unlike I did), you'll get more out if it!

1 comment:

  1. You can read about Ang Dorjee's death and later burial in David Breashears' "High Exposure."