Monday, April 28, 2014

Dead Mountain

The third book in the cold-weather troika of books is Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar. It is also the most bizarre and best introduced by the facts. In 1959 nine experienced hikers from the Ural Polytechnic Institute set off on a journey through difficult terrain in the Ural Mountains of Russia, a trip that would earn them Grade III certification. They would need to be gone for sixteen days with at least eight in uninhabited regions and with no fewer than six nights in a tent. This rather dreary past-time was, in fact, very popular in Cold War Russia. When the hikers, who came to be named the Dyatlov group after their rather charismatic leader, failed to return after three weeks, a rescue operation was mounted. Eventually their tent was discovered with many of their boots and coats lying inside. The tent doors were still laced closed, but there was a large rip in the side of the tent. Over the course of the next several weeks the bodies of the hikers were found. Most died of hypothermia, though a few had headwounds. A couple were in a frozen embrace, all were shoeless.

The theories were countless, including a snatching by a yeti (or by the Mansi tribe which lived in the area.) Visitors from outer space were proposed, but none of the suggestions made sense once it was determined that the slash in the side of the tent was made from the inside.  Lev Ivanov, who headed the investigation, pronounced that the situation was due to "an unknown compelling force."

Enter Donnie Eichar who was fascinated by the incident and determined to shed light on it. To do this successfully, to follow the footsteps of the hikers and to write a compelling book would, I imagine, require that the investigator be a good writer, reasonably versed in Russian and accustomed to crossing large expanses of snow and ice. Donnie Eichar is a film maker, but the two other people who appear on   the jacket must have been used as co-writers. His Russian is non-existent, and that was a distinct problem (though bits of Russian songs and poems are interspersed with the text to give it a Russian feel.) As for experience, he says, "I had seen snow less than a dozen times in my life."

Nevertheless, I give him credit for his resolute determination to solve the whole question of what happened to the Dyatlov party. He does a believable job. You will have to read the book. Spoiler alert—Karman vortex.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Serendipity Yet Once More

Some time ago my son-in-law passed this book on to me, while my daughter asked, "Mom, why do you like to read these books about people undertaking dangerous expeditions?" I did ask myself this question in print some time ago, but luckily for you, I can't find that post. The answer had something to do with being warm while others faced the cold—or rapids—or mountains.

Many of you have read Endurance, the story of Shackleton, his ill-fated, aborted attempt to cross the Antarctic and his courageous and  eventually successful attempt to reach safety and rescue his crew left behind on Elephant Island. So have I, but I need to go back and read it again, because I don't believe there was any mention of the other integral part of the expedition. Realizing that he and his men would not be  able to carry enough food and equipment for his entire crossing of the Antarctic, Shackleton planned to have another ship sail to the opposite side of the continent to go out and lay stockpiles that the main expedition could use at the end of their journey. Actually, the word "plan" is used loosely. Shackleton had little money, he bought the ship Aurora which was to transport the Ross Sea party sight unseen and picked up many of the crew in Australia and Tasmania, including some scientists with no polar experience, a newly-minted clergy man (for the adventure) and other  ill-assorted officers and men. The Aurora made it to land and began to unload the provisions that were to be taken a third of the way across the continent. The land party and the dogs disembarked—when the ship got caught in a current which took it way out to sea, leaving the land party of ten men with little in the way of clothing or provisions for themselves.

The Lost Men is the story of how the land party fashioned clothes out of tents and odd bits of fabric, dealt with the problem of an uncouth sailor who knew how to train the dogs and his opposition by the de facto officer who did not, but never once gave up on the promise they had made to Shackleton—never knowing that Shackleton had not set foot on the continent of Antarctica. They fulfilled their promise at a terrible price and the author does a wonderful job, unearthing a hardly known story, interviewing descendants and wading through diaries and other documents relating to the truly "harrowing saga." It is a gripping and bone-chilling account, made even more powerful by actual photographs of the crew.

By chance, at the same time my son gave me a copy of Sir Edmund Hillary's book, View from the Summit. Although one section deals with his remarkable ascent of Everest, there are several sections relating other adventures he undertook. Obviously he was a man destined for great things, although I was somewhat disappointed in his attitude. Sir Edmund was a great humanitarian who built hospitals and schools for the sherpas in the foothills of Everest, but when writing of his fellow climbers, he was often less than gracious. "I don't quite know why I seemed to be doing the majority of the work at this stage" (p. 92), "I don't know where Earle Riddiford was at this time—he often seemed to disappear on his own agenda." (p. 73)

Where does the serendipity come in? When an Englishman with the risible name of Bunny (Sir Vivian) Fuchs planned an expedition to cross the Antarctic from the Shackleton Base on the Weddell Sea across to the Ross Sea, he asked Hillary to supply depots from the Ross Sea to the Beardmore Glacier, thus duplicating the journey made by the Lost Men. This time the intrepid explorers had the advantage of communications, up to date polar clothing instead of rags, Sno-cats and "three Fergusons and a weasel" to pull their laden sledges across the ice. Their predecessors used man power. The fact that nowhere does Sir Edmund mention the earlier men who covered the same ground surely means he had never heard of them. He writes vividly of the ever-present danger of crevasses opening up, fog, poor visibility and screaming gales. But when a couple of the party suffered minor physical problems, one of which was a back strain from an old rugby injury!, they were air-lifted out. I thought admiringly of the ten men of the Ross Sea party who had no safety net. They ate fresh seal meat to ward off scurvy, though the clergyman succumbed to the disease and two more members of the party disappeared, presumably falling into an open lead.

So just by chance I read these two books, one after the other. But if you do read two books, the combination of Endurance and the The Lost Men will be unforgettable.

Monday, April 07, 2014

More Basketball/More Food

Last Saturday we got to the Final Four in the NCAA Basketball Tournament (Florida vs Connecticut, Wisconsin vs Kentucky: Connecticut and Kentucky won.) I include the names of the teams as an aide- memoire because in a week or two someone will ask which teams were in the Final Four—and I will have completely forgotten. The final begins in just over an hour, and we have already eaten dinner, but on Saturday I was faced with the problem I had had the previous week. What to eat for dinner while watching basketball.

There seemed to be an easy solution: make a small pan of lasagne to eat, while making two large pans to freeze for Easter. Not that we eat lasagne for Easter: our main celebration is Easter breakfast, with the Iowan celebrating his Iowa heritage by cooking an enormous amount of ham. One way and another it takes all morning, and then everyone stays around for the rest of the day and I wanted a head start on some of the other dishes I would need at the ready.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have lost some of my cooking acumen, but I got about half way through preparing the lasagne before realizing my mistake. I was supposed to mix parmesan cheese with the ricotta, but instead I had mixed a large amount of mozarella. Those Italians with their cheeses ending in "a" were to blame. What to do? I simply added the parmesan as well and figured it wouldn't taste too bad. It didn't.

Which I think is more than can be said for the recipe on the back of the noodle box. Kroger calls the recipe, "BBQ Chicken Lasagna". By clicking on this photo, you can read the ingredients: ground chicken breast, chili powder, red onion, BBQ sauce, black beans, frozen corn etc. In essence, we have the ingredients of a tasty Mexican dish, in which case, why not use tortillas? Because it would not sell lasagne noodles, that's why. And two bottles of BBQ sauce? It doesn't even look too appetizing.

Half an hour before the Final. I'm rooting for U-Conn.