Thursday, June 30, 2011

Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge, by Bonington & Clarke

Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke tell the story of their tragic attempt, along with Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker, Dick Renshaw, and Adrian Gordon, to scale the full Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest in Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge. The group climbs in a semi-alpine style, with load-carrying to snow caves, but little fixed rope and an alpine summit attempt without supplementary oxygen from below the Pinnacles. Theirs is the first (or possibly second - Chinese?) attempt on this route, and they scale it with four climbers and two in support. The route is notorious because it is long and its biggest difficulties are all above 8000 meters. Notably, this is the first British expedition (1982) to the Tibetan side of Everest since the 1938 attempt led by Bill Tilman.

Things start off quite well. Their logistics work out, and they work well with their Chinese minders. I like that the early foreign expeditions to Everest generally had Chinese climbing celebrities for their liaison officers---these guys get Chen Rongchang, the leader of both the 1960 and 1975 Chinese ascents of Everest. I wish they would have included his impressions of their attempt. Even though the grand affairs he led contrasted sharply with what Bonington and his boys were doing, I don't think he would have necessarily disapproved. I also think it was a strategic move on the part of the CMA to have people associated with the 1960 ascent hanging around with the first several expeditions to visit Everest's Tibetan side. The two support members, Charlie Clarke and Adrian Gordon accompany the yak team on two trips to the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier while the climbers push the route up the ridge. The climbers make swift progress for an expedition, but perhaps slow progress for a four-man climb. They expend a lot of energy making snow caves and generally have late starts, which means that they spend a lot of time up high. Some of them spend four nights at nearly 8000 meters while they dig their third snow cave and push the route up the first pinnacle.

This isn't a particularly happy tale for any of the climbers. Chris Bonington starts to realize his limits and his age as he works away at the upper ridge. Dick Renshaw comes to a realization about his climbing career, and Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, well, you know... I never wanted to read (witness) the deaths of two of my favorite climbers/authors, so I've been holding this book back for a while. I've read their complete books in The Boardman Tasker Omnibus, and I've witnessed their afterlife in the works of Maria Coffey (notably, Fragile Edge, in which she and Hilary Boardman travel to Everest to seek finality). It's about time I connected the dots.

Speaking of connections, this expedition is tied to several others. Ned Gillete's and Jan Reynold's party that circumambulates Mount Everest (Everest Grand Circle) accompanies Chris Bonington and Charlie Clarke on their search of the Kangshung Face for the lost climbers. The British also meet up with Lou Whittaker's American North Face expedition (Whittaker's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide and Wickwire's Addicted to Danger). Additionally, three other later British parties follow Bonington's route: Mal Duff in 1985 (Andrew Greig's Kingdoms of Experience), and Brummie Stokes in 1986 and 1988 (Stokes' Soldiers and Sherpas). In the 1988 expedition, Harry Taylor and Russell Brice completed the Pinnacles, though they retreated down the North Ridge afterward. Finally, in 1995 the Nihon University Everest Expedition, from Japan, completed the climb to the summit in a traditional siege style with supplementary oxygen, the ninth expedition to attempt the route.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. It's also worth reading the brief AAJ entry about the joint Kazakh/Japanese expedition to climb the Pinnacles in 1992.