Monday, March 12, 2007

Climb Every Mountain

I love books about exploration and adventure. We have already talked about crossing miles and miles of arid sand in search of salt ,
about sailing across a treacherous ocean on a few square feet of balsa wood and the saga of the great Robert Falcon Scott .

I’ve read a number of books about traveling unexplored and hostile rivers in the last few months: Nepal and Siberia seem full of them, not to mention their accompanying gorges and rapids. My favorite area of exploration is mountaineering. The first paperback book I remember owning was Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. The name of that mountain, like so many others, is a siren song: Changabang, Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Kangchenjunga, Nuptse. If you want an uplifting but tragic account of mountaineering, try the splendid The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2 by Jennifer Jordan.

I just read a book about the pioneers of British mountaineering, the climbers who followed Sir Edmund Hillary. How sad that his first ascent route—the equivalent of the four-minute mile—is now referred to as the “yak route.” I’m somewhat critical of the book, and I’ll get to the reason later, so I am not going to name it. The last time I mentioned a book (fortunately favorably) the author left a comment here and I don’t want this guy coming after me with an ice pick.

So why did I plough through all 516 pages? I couldn’t ignore the importance and the drama of the selected climbs. The book was also a concise history of British mountaineering and the only the British could understand the chasm between the two schools of climbers—those who had taken up the sport at their public school or at Sandhurst and honed their skills as members of the Oxford or Cambridge Mountaineering Clubs and on trips to the Alps, and those who ventured at weekends from Northern industrial towns and their jobs as laborers to the nearby Peak District with little or no equipment but a passion for climbing. To their credit the two groups merged on these expeditions where skill and courage were the common bond.

And it is the story of these men that held my interest. What an extraordinary bunch of human beings. Time after time I would follow them agonizingly down a mountain after an expedition marked by unbelievable hardship and suffering and breathe a sigh of relief—only to turn the page and find them packing up for another expedition. Doug Scott literally crawled down from a mountain with two broken legs, but more often death claimed the wounded or the unwary.

So what didn’t I like about the book? The author is a climber, but he wasn’t on these expeditions. He knows the bare outline of the climbs, but the climbers certainly didn’t take notebooks along with them. They were often too tired to melt snow for a hot drink: there was no chance they could preserve their impressions and their thoughts. So the author decided to manufacture these musings as a filler. Obviously he needed to pad the pages: there are only so many ways to describe ice and snow and rock and cold. My feeling is that he could have included a lot more in terms of background and logistics—who financed the trips, how they provisioned them—and certainly some maps. I could have used some diagrams of the faces of the mountains, showing the site of the various camps. His photos were back and white, and though he wrote at length about the rock band on the Southwest face of Everest, he doesn’t attempt to point it out on the photo.

It is the thoughts of the climbers that he manufactured in labored New Age jargon that really put me off:

He felt empty and abandoned, furious and stricken, frightened, without resource. He wanted the night to end. He wished it might go on forever, to delay what was to come.
What amazed him was the inexhaustible nature of his memory. He could skitter anywhere he liked, crossing continents of time to recover fields of blurry data. He was a boy in a library; he plucked books at random from the shelves to find he had read them all.
I really didn’t get the significance of this passage:
. . . he was conscious of carrying his heart in his body. The earth became a moving flood and entered him: he woke and struggled and black fear rose—it seemed composed of everything he knew. The sun receded and vanished and something clanged; he felt a terrible pain. The flood of earth had turned to pitch or cinder but someone had left a door just barely ajar and not for the first time in his life he was lost entirely in a wish to thank someone. He reached for the door but something caught and his head turned as if to greet or beckon a pursuer.
I was too busy unscrambling the metaphors to realize Dougal Haston had died. A similar barrage of woolly mystic drivel obscured the death of Joe Tasker on the Northeast Ridge of Everest.

It was hard to mourn him: I was too busy looking to see if John Tesh was dragging a piano up the mountain to play the requisite accompanying mood music.

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