Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Soldiers on Everest, by Fleming & Faux

Jon Fleming and Ronald Faux tell the story of the joint 1976 Army Mountaineering Association Royal Nepalese Army Mount Everest Expedition in their Soldiers on Everest. The expedition climbs Everest in the pre-monsoon season via the Southeast Ridge, putting Brummie Stokes and Bronco Lane on the summit. It's a bit strange having summiteers, who for their careers' sake, try to avoid the camera, as they are both members of the Special Air Service, and in the book, there are only partial glimpses of their faces. Jon Fleming, the once-leader-now-deputy (must be a British Everest thing...) provides a broad perspective of the preparations and gives his perspective on the Everest climb. Ronald Faux, a climber and Scottish journalist, relates the overall story of the ascent.

The organizers manage to pull off the expedition as "adventure training," a program begun after Britain closed many of its overseas bases as one way to keep people interested in serving. As such, climbers actually received their regular military salaries during the climb, though they were expected to contribute considerably to the expedition costs. The partnering with the Nepalese Army worked well logistically, though the Nepalese climbers nearly unanimously ran into trouble on the mountain, including one climber who needed an emergency operation at 23,000 feet. Like Bonington's 1975 Southwest Face expedition, the army hired both high altitude porters and separate Icefall porters, though the service members also contributed considerably to the load carrying.

The expedition had plenty of casualties, including the Nepalese climber mentioned above. Terry Thompson met an unfortunate end after stepping out of his tent and into a crevasse. Also, four climbers were swept to their death in their 1975 training climb of Nuptse. One member had a gas cartridge explode in his hands, though he recovered well enough to reach the South Col. There was plenty of illness going around, especially dysentery and hernias, and the summit pair suffered from severe frostbite after a forced bivouac just below the South Summit.

This is an exciting adventure, though the telling is somewhat reserved. It is, however, an official government publication---the only Everest book I've seen so far with an Appendix K! For detail people, however, there's a treasure trove of information in the appendices about preparing for and executing an Everest climb. There are chapters on everything from equipment and rations to ornithology and finance. (They finished the expedition in the black, by the way.) One thing caught my attention---Faux says that the summit pair did not see the Chinese survey tripod at the summit. It was certainly there a few months later for the post-monsoon American expedition, as well as subsequent expeditions in following years (such as Reinhold Messner's 1980 solo ascent in The Crystal Horizon). I hope he got this detail wrong---I would hate to think of the alternative! You can read about this expedition from Brummie Stokes' perspective in his Soldiers and Sherpas.

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