Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mountaineering in China, compiled by The People's Physical Culture Publishing House

Mountaineering in China, compiled by The People's Physical Culture Publishing House, documents for Western audiences in photographs the early successes of the Chinese in their home ranges up to the first ascent of Shishapangma in 1964. Along with the photographs are photo captions and a short text on each of the expeditions, in English. Like Another Ascent of the World's Highest Peak: Qomolangma (about the 1975 Everest expedition) and A Photographic Record of the Mount Jolmo Lungma Scientific Expedition (1966-1968), this book's photos are approximately thirty percent journalism and seventy percent propaganda. However, this earlier book (before the Cultural Revolution) seems more innocuous in its representations than either of the others, tending towards superficial images such as climbers holding a bust of Chairman Mao or a large group of climbers holding a flag on a summit. The book includes images from expeditions to Minya Konka, Amne Machin, Mount Everest, Kongur, Mustagh Ata, and Shishapagma.

Everest gets two chapters, one covering the expedition, and a second covering the final assault. The photos of Base Camp are awe-inspiring, with enormous barracks tents in addition to an even larger mess tent. The crowds of people in the photos are amazing for the time, wearing relatively equal outfits of a mix of decent (windproofs) and frightening (boots) gear. There are a couple of photos of climbers climbing to the North Col taken with a pretty good telephoto lens. Photos on the North Col show their camp to be on the Col proper. Photos unfortunately stop just shy of the Second Step. The final assault chapter tells the standard story of Liu, Wang, Chu, and Gonpa in longer prose than other chapters, namely because the only photos are of the post-ascent celebrations. I'm curious if they were inspired to continue on to the summit through the night more by true ambition (either personal or for the country) or by a fear of returning without success. There's actually a photo showing an assault team, with a caption that says "We'll not come back until we have conquered Mount Jolmo Lungma!" I found the earlier chapter, about the expedition and build up of camps on the mountain, more interesting, simply because I already know the story of the final assault quite well. Also of interest, the mountain has incredibly little snow for their climb. If ever there was an opportunity to happen across climbers and equipment of the past, they would have had it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Imperial Ascent, by Peter L. Bayers

Peter Bayers interprets the back story to some of mountaineering's most famous narratives in Imperial Ascent: Mountaineering, Masculinity, and Empire. Using three early books about Denali and four famous works about Mount Everest (Younghusband's The Epic of Mount Everest, Hunt's The Ascent of Everest, Tenzing's Tiger of the Snows, and Krakauer's Into Thin Air), Bayers shows that the modern climbing narrative is an agent of imperialism. This is a book directed towards an academic audience, specifically those with some knowledge of post-colonial theory, and not necessarily Everest. (I had no idea before reading this book that post-colonialism was such a widely-discussed topic.) I read the Everest chapters, as I, embarrassingly, have never read the Mount McKinley books he discusses. He makes a pretty good case against Younghusband, but as the narratives progress in time (Of course, according to Bayers, history isn't exactly progressive these days.), I found myself less fond of his arguments. I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in discussing the book, as Bayers does not clearly define for people out of the loop some of his important terms, such as "masculinity," and "the sublime;" he, however, defines "imperialism" very specifically, stating that even thinking about other countries or cultures qualifies as imperialism. Here goes---I hope I don't wade in too deep!

Younghusband, of course, can easily be accused of thinking of other countries and cultures. In addition to a number of adventures and travels throughout central Asia and the Himalaya, he led the 1904 invasion of Tibet that sought to secure British interests in the region over those of the Russians. If any Everest writer could be accused of imperialist banter and a heightened sense of masculinity, it would be Younghusband. Epic is a work of both patriotism (read: IMPERIALISM) and romantic ideals that hams up the drama to relate the stories of the first three Everest expeditions, that he oversaw as head of the Everest Committee. I wouldn't say that the book is especially bad in its imperialist bent, but it can certainly be taken as an example of the times, especially in the author's disposition towards Sherpas and his need to work up the national spirit of his audience. Bayers takes the narrative apart and examines the details that prove both its chauvinistic masculinity and its agency for empire. I felt that he moved along from point to point without resolving some his arguments and bringing up some interesting things, such as the concept of the Tibetan archive and Younghusband's spirituality, that were interesting, but seemed to distract from his purpose. Things such as Younghusband's using war allegory in his writing, his insistence upon climbing without supplemental oxygen, his praising the physical prowess of the climbers all point towards a negative hyper-masculinity. Everest's being in a distant land, the expedition's hiring Sherpas to participate in their Western expedition, and the expectation that they live up to Western cultural norms are harbingers of imperialism. While I agree that the book can be interpreted in such a way, I can't go along with Bayers' insisting that Younghusband's and the other authors' narratives must be regarded as he interprets them.

Hunt poses more of a problem with his narrative. Bayers goes so far as to say that Hunt's saying "darkest Africa" asserts imperialist tendencies, rather than describe the dense forests of the Congo, and that the reason he does not discuss the sublime in his narrative is that it is pre-supposed, based on Britain's imperial history. (I suppose it would help if I fully understood what he meant by "sublime"...) In a similar vein, Hunt's joy at their making the summit in time for Elizabeth's coronation is a sign is to the author Everest's figurative subjugation to royal authority. To go even further, Everest's topography, according to Bayers, is a blank space for British heroes to enact their masculine desires. Yikes.

Tenzing's chapter made more sense to me. Bayers picks up on his apologetic, yet slightly subversive tone. The leftovers of imperialism certainly had something to do with the Sherpas treatment at the British embassy in Kathmandu, and Tenzing had a culturally difficult role as intermediary (which he partly shared with Charles Wylie) between the British expedition and the Sherpa high-altitude porters. There's occasional arguments that seem more academic than useful, but Bayers' argument overall comes off as believable here.

Bayer's discussion of Krakauer's book seemed mixed to me. He has to stretch to get Krakauer connected to imperialism, stating that his childhood respect for Willi Unsoeld, who participated in the 1963 American Everest expedition, links him with America's imperial past. Masculinity is a bit easier, as Krakauer freely admits that the American climbing scene he grew up in was pervaded in a hyper level of machismo. Correspondingly, Bayers believes that Krakauer feels feminized by subordinating himself to his guides on his Everest climb. (I somehow doubt Krakauer would put it that way.) Ang Dorje's compromise that allows the icefall work to begin before the puja ceremony shows that western cultural standards are infringing upon Sherpas on Everest.

The parts of the book I read seemed like a game of taxonomy to me. These narratives do not necessarily fit into the boxes Bayers attempts to place them in, as some of his arguments work quite well, while some are a stretch. I appreciate intelligent analysis of climbing and climbing literature, but I found this book more intellectual than intelligent. Tell me otherwise. This is a book that could make for some interesting discussion.

Amusing side note: In the book, quotation marks play an essential role, as a means to distance Bayers from words that might offend, while adding a bit of cynicism. I was impressed in the Hunt chapter, where he uses the effect four sentences in a row, but then in the Tenzing chapter, I found four uses over the course of ten words. "Impressive."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Everest Diary, by John McCallum

John McCallum creates a fine narrative of Lute Jerstad's 1963 climb of Everest as a part of the American expedition in Everest Diary: Based on the Diary of Lute Jerstad, One of the First Five Americans to Conquer Mount Everest. Jerstad is consistently a part of South Col-Southeast Ridge climbing team in this split expedition. Like Tom Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge, Jerstad's story stays focused on the side of the mountain the protagonist climbs. McCallum, I imagine, makes an excellent sports writer for his era, though he takes a bit of getting used to for modern-day climbing readers. He can at times be very dramatic, almost overly so, and doesn't always get the mountaineering stuff correct. He spins and excellent narrative, however, and Jerstad's diary entries (which play a large part in this book) are insightful, and at times poetic. Jerstad spends an amazing amount of time high on the mountain, and it's a real testament to the human spirit that he spent as much time as he did at altitude, and still managed to climb to the top and back down, including a night out on the upper Southeast Ridge.

This book has a significant advantage over the official account, Ullman's Americans on Everest. Ullman's tidy writing leaves a bit wanting in moments such as Jake Breitenbach's death, the dispute over route priorities, and the frightening ordeal of four climbers' unplanned bivouac near the roof of the world. Jerstad's personal and thoughtful remarks make up for this somewhat, especially when read in tandem with Hornbein's The West Ridge. Jerstad's writing confirms that the Americans were largely unaware of the breadth of the smallpox epidemic happening nearby at lower elevations, that Hillary's Kantega / Taweche expedition had to face head-on, as Hillary remarks in Schoolhouse in the Clouds. (Hillary also mentions that the Sherpas find the Americans strong, since they carry loads as well; while Jerstad here remarks that he can't believe how eager the Sherpas are to do things for him, such as setting up his tent and washing his clothes.) Similarly, Jerstad's narrative reinforces Ullman's perspective on the woman with burns on her face whom the Americans "unnecessarily" helicopter to Kathmandu to save her life. I recommend this book, both for the narrative, but especially for Jerstad's perspectives on life and mountaineering.

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier post, which is found here

Friday, September 21, 2012

Fearless on Everest, by Julie Summers

Julie Summers delves into the history of her famous relative in Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine. The author makes a lucky strike after she convinces her extended family to root through their attics in search of missing documents by Irvine, uncovering a trove of letters, photos, and other historical goodies collected by his father. She significantly updates his biography, giving his historical representation emotional depth, greater intelligence, and a comprehensible set of motivations. (For a bare-bones account of his early life and two major expeditions, see Herbert Carr's The Irvine Diaries.) She hashes out many of his activities that are relatively ambiguous in earlier literature, such as what he actually climbed before heading to Everest, his relationship with his best friend's step-mother, why he was likely chosen for the Everest climb, and his brief skiing career. The found archive includes technical drawings of Irvine's redesigned oxygen apparatus (as submitted to Siebe Gorman before the expedition) that looks like a much tidier version of what he eventually created from the junk that the firm sent to India for the climbers' use. Overall, Summers writes the book Irvine has deserved for quite a while, changing him from a stereotype to a stupendous character.

Summers fills out the 1924 Everest expedition story with a collection of letters Irvine wrote to friends and family. His previously-available diary documents mostly basic details about his movements and the Sisyphean repair and redesign of the oxygen apparatus en route. The letters (and some photos) add quite a bit of color and emotion to his tale, and Summers sprinkles quotes from them into the well-known narrative of the climb. Additionally, she includes excerpts from some of the 70 consolation letters kept by his family, including the full text of a letter from Norton. She mentions that Odell remained a life-long friend of the family, especially to Irvine's father, and discusses his change over time of his story of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine. She puts down Mallory's choosing Irvine to accompany him for the summit climb to a mixture of utility and mentor-ly affection, and she takes comfort that finding Somervell's camera could only conclusively prove their reaching the summit, and nothing will ever definitively disprove it. She believes that Odell might have been using an oxygen set that had been malfunctioning and had parts pirated from it, thereby deriving little benefit from its use. Correspondingly, Irvine's archive includes a letter stating the great benefit he got from using one of his refashioned oxygen apparatuses to ascend the North Col. Over the course of the expedition, she shows Irvine to be both a mechanical wonder and a physical powerhouse, who, even according to Hingston, was fitter than Odell at the time Mallory chose summit parties. She writes a great defense of Irvine, and a great book, to boot!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Quotable Climber, edited by Jonathan Waterman

Get the essence of climbing a few sentences at a time in Jonathan Waterman's The Quotable Climber: Literary, Humorous, Inspirational, and Fearful Moments in Climbing. Waterman collected quotes he liked from the many climbing books he has read into a binder that he brings with him on many of his climbs and expeditions. He has distilled and organized his collection into the present volume, separating them into chapters by subject, with an introduction to each topic. He includes a range of quotes, not necessarily from climbers, that elucidates and extends the meaning of the chapter headings such as "camaraderie,"  "hubris," and "humility." While I found the quotes appropriate and thoughtful, I wish each of the chapters could have had scores more quotes, due to the great breadth of the literature (which he describes so well in his Introduction). His binder makes me wish I had bothered to make a similar collection, as I normally mark a page to share a well-written passage with my wife, rather than saving it for posterity. I love that mountaineering literature has so many contemplative moments and philosophical authors, in addition to the action and excitement of the climbs.

Waterman includes a chapter on "The Greatest Hill on Earth," a.k.a. Everest. The material is a bit adventitious, showing Waterman to be more amused by the Everest phenomenon than engrossed. More so than in other chapters, the editor picks humorous or ironic passages, such as Shipton's regret of not attempting Nanda Devi rather than Everest in 1936 or Junko Tabei's calling Everest "only a mountain." The chapter is entertaining, but I feel that Waterman ignores much of the richness of the literature on Everest that he describes at the beginning of the chapter. Where is Tom Hornbein, or Mallory, Noyce, or the many others who write so eloquently or poetically about the mountain and the experience of climbing it? Admittedly, he does include Mallory and Noyce in other chapters, and Everest-related quotes are scattered throughout the book, but I wish Waterman could have captured a bit of the idealized essence of the Everest climb and its literature in addition to the amusing juxtapositions from its history.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow, by Maria Coffey

In Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Maria Coffey reminds us of the consequences of high-stakes mountaineering. She interviews a long list of climbers and their families (focusing somewhat on the '70s British climbing scene she was an intimate part of) to root out the effects a professional mountaineer's career has on the family. Additionally, she updates the reader on her progress (and Hilary Boardman's) on overcoming the loss of her love high on Everest, that she first wrote about in Fragile Edge: A Personal Portrait of Loss on Everest. The book works its way towards more serious matters, first discussing the effects of a climbing career on family relationships, and working towards the effects that mortification and death have had on families of climbers. She gets professional mountaineers to admit to some pretty surprising things; the most shocking interviews, however, come from the climbers' family members, who almost universally seem adversely affected by their loved one's career, even when the climber comes home in sterling condition.

Coffey interviews a number of well-known Everest personalities, including Tom Hornbein (who writes the introduction), Ed Viesturs, Ed Webster, Stephen Venables, Eric Simonson, and Kurt Diemberger, among others. Her personal story, of course has quite a bit to do with the mountain as well. She discusses Webster's and Venables' Kangshung Face climb (see Webster's Snow in the Kingdom or Venable's Everest: Alone at the Summit) and the effects their frostbite had on their outlook and their careers. She also mentions Carlos Buhler's mother's tracking him down during his attempt on the Kangshung Face. She discusses Viesturs' Annapurna climbs, as they were his current project, and Diemberger talks about his career in general, as he has so many climbs to reflect upon. (I wish I could have read more about Buhl's or Tullis' death from him...) She also spends a number of pages on Conrad Anker's assuming the patriarchal role in Alex Lowe's family after surviving the avalanche that killed Lowe.

Like Fragile Edge, this is a difficult book to read, yet it is engrossing. So little is said about the families of climbers in the traditional literature that they almost seem unimportant. (Dougal Haston's wife, Annie, warrants a single sentence in his autobiography, In High Places, for example.) Coffey proves that the literature has its priorities backwards, as the greatest suspense and the most affecting tragedies happen back home and the greatest effect a climber has is generally on his family rather than his partner(s). The stakes are much higher than life and death, as the people who have to endure the loss of a great climber are almost always nowhere near the mountain. Thanks to Maria Coffey for bringing such an important topic to light!

Coffey is also the author of Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes and What the Reveal About Near Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Leading Out, edited by Rachel da Silva

Rachel da Silva pulls together an essay collection regarding women's climbing in Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top. The book has an exciting variety of subjects, from climbing narratives, to women's climbing histories, to essays on the issues that most effect women climbers. There are few harrowing tales here, but rather grown-up reflections on the serious matter of climbing, from motivation and mortality to family and rope mates. Da Silva acknowledges the long history of women climbing and the near disappearance of women's climbing literature in the 1960s through the 1980s. The book, released in 1992, documents the struggle of women for equality on the mountain, and the beginning of some women to meet and exceed the climbs of men. Though it includes essays from several countries, the collection has a Pacific Northwest focus, with essays by the editor, Kathy Phibbs, Nancy Kerrebrock, Kristen Laine, and other well-known western climbers.

The book includes two Everest-related essays: the first an autobiography by Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, and the other about an early cleanup expedition to the north side by Lorraine G. Bonney. Pal's essay is a much-needed supplement to Khullar's self-absorbed The Call of Everest, the expedition leader's narrative of her climb. Though he praises her often, Khullar has little to say about Pal until it is her turn to try for the summit, other than she was expected to do well and that she was relatively inexperienced. Pal discusses her rough upbringing in the central Himalayan lowlands and her singled-minded search for better, and adventurous life. She does exceedingly well in her climbing courses, trains hard, and performs quite well at the Everest selection climbs. She is one of six women on the expedition, and the third sent high for a summit attempt. She climbs direct from the South Col, even though her team has a summit camp set up on the Southeast Ridge, making the climb and return journey in very quick time. Lorraine Bonney describes the trashing of Everest by the "pigs" of its history and her team's effort to remove as much human and artificial waste as they can. She discusses the several methods used by teams to dispose of trash on site and their drawbacks, as well as the imperfect solution of her team's shipping the trash to a landfill in Shegar. The level of waste at the time of their cleanup is disturbing, and I'm grateful that hers and other cleanup expeditions have had a positive impact on the mountain. Also of Everest interest is Nancy Kerrebrock's discussing briefly in her essay the death of her brother, Chris, who was climbing on a remote part of Denali with Jim Wickwire as a shakedown for a later attempt on the Great Couloir on Everest.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Everest, by Rebecca Stephens

Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest, writes a children's book about mountains, with a focus on Everest in Everest: Discover the World's Greatest Mountains from Recordbreaking Heights to Hidden Peaks beneath the Sea. The book comes from the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Book series, so it's a bit cluttered with illustrations and trivia. The information is pretty accurate, and covers a wide range of topics, from plate tectonics to cultural geography, from natural history to climbing gear. The topics move from natural to cultural to climbing, with each two-page spread covering a different topic.

Regarding Everest, the book covers some of its history and a bit about climbing at altitude. Both the 1924 and the 1953 expeditions get their own spread, as does the Seven Summits. Additionally, she mentions Junko Tabei's women's expedition and Messner and Habeler's 1978 climb without supplemental oxygen. I was a bit amused that the "Traverses and Triumphs" sections doesn't actually mention a traverse beyond the title. The mountain rescue, climbing gear, climbing extremes, and technique sections also have a bit to do with climbing Everest and occasionally mention the mountain.

Rebecca Stephens wrote about her experience as the first woman to climb Everest in On Top of the World. She is also the co-author of The Seven Summits of Success. This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier post, in which I was a bit unfair, which can be found here.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Everest: The History of the Himalayan Giant, by Roberto Mantovani

Roberto Mantovani writes a general-audiences showcase of climbing the world's highest mountain in Everest: The History of the Himalayan Giant. It's a large-format book with a many photographic illustrations that gives a shorter and more direct history of Everest than Unsworth's 800-page Everest: The Mountaineering History. Mantovani avoids much of the controversial trivia that is synonymous with Everest's story, such as Finch's non-inclusion in 1921 and Mallory's love life, and sticks to the facts that matter. He shows that Everest can be fascinating without the sidelines, and that a history can be definitive without being droll. The illustrations tie-in to the narrative well, pulling from a large variety of sources and showing the mountain and its climbers from a number of perspectives.

He divides the story into chapters that profile individual expeditions, and at times decades of climbing, depending on the relative importance of the climbs covered. I appreciated his writing about some of the lesser-known middle-years climbs, such as the Japanese climbs of 1969 and 1970 (for even more detail, see Ahluwalia's Faces of Everest). Beginning with the 1980s, Mantovani covers only highlights from the many expeditions. He does, however, include a list of all official expeditions up to the time of writing (1997). The narrative covers climbs up to 1993, stating that after that there are too many at any given time to cover efficiently. He also makes an indirect reference to the tragedy of 1996 at the end. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

All 14 Eight-Thousanders, by Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Messner sums up his career of climbing the world's highest mountains in All 14 Eight-Thousanders. As the first person to climb all of the 8000-meter peaks, Messner broke one more barrier in his life of expanding horizons. The book is an amalgamation of his styles, with some discussion of the future, as in The Seventh Grade, some revelation of the inner Messner (The Crystal Horizon), a bit of history (Second Death of George Mallory), criticizing other climbers (The Naked Mountain), complimenting other climbers (The Big Walls), etc. He relates his climbs roughly chronologically by chapters sorted by mountain. Each of the chapters contains an outline of the history of climbing the mountain, a diagram of Messner's route(s) on the peak, photos from his expeditions, a short narrative of his climb(s) on the mountain, and a short contribution to the prose from another climber associated with the mountain. It's a well-constructed book and a great introduction to Messner for the uninitiated, especially as his writing style is more mature than some of his more famous earlier books. He plays down a lot of the controversy from his career, but cites bad publicity continuously as a problem. He treats his climbs roughly equally, giving them all about the same space, which allows the reader to learn more about his less famous climbs, such as his ascents of Broad Peak or Dhaulagiri.

As the prose is relatively short, there isn't much room for new information on Messner's Everest climbs. If you've read The Crystal Horizon and Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, you won't find any surprises in the narrative. The Everest chapter is perhaps a more sober, but still somewhat idealistic, reflection on his accomplishments. I appreciate that he later lauds Loretan and Troillet for their fast and direct climb up the North Face, though he decries speed as an accomplishment unto itself in climbing. I hadn't known before reading this book that Messner had made a semi-solo attempt on Lhotse from Nepal following his solo Everest climb.

I'm a Messner fan. I like that in his writing he discusses his inner thoughts in detail, hashes out ethics, espouses his personal ideals, and makes any climb, even those in which he turns back, sound like an accomplishment. His style, especially when discussing the interior workings of his brain, is unique. I also appreciate that he is a student of mountaineering history, and seems to appreciate a climb as much for its historical value as its aesthetic. I enjoyed this book. I hope you will too!

Happy Birthday, Everest Book Report

Everest Book Report is two years old now. I'm happy to say that I've brought you approximately 300 books so far with some connection to Mount Everest, and there are still plenty to go! I thought perhaps reading the entire available literature (that I can) on Everest would get old or turn into a Sisyphean task, but I'm still going strong and I believe it's something I can finish. I've tried to keep things interesting by bringing you a variety of books each month, and I'll work to continue that trend. For my blogiversary post, I've read another great book by Reinhold Messner. Enjoy!