Edited by David S. Stevenson
Books published in 2008 and reviewed in the 2009 AAJ:
- Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. By Maurice Isserman & Stewart Weaver.
- Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season. By Nick Heil.
- High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. By Michael Kodas.
- Dead Lucky: My Journey Home from Everest. By Lincoln Hall.
- Thin White Line. By Andy Cave.
- Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes—and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond. By Maria Coffey
- Forget Me Not: A Memoir. By Jennifer Lowe-Anker.
- Tomaz Humar. By Bernadette McDonald
- Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility in the Horn of Africa. By Majka Burhardt, with color photography by Gabe Rogel.
- First Ascent: Pioneering Mountain Climbs. By Stephen Venables.
- Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia. By Elizabeth and Nicholas Clinch.
Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. Maurice Isserman & Stewart Weaver.
Yale University Press. 579 pages. Black and white photos. Hardcover $ 39.95.
When two professional historians venture into our domain, one might hope for something a little different from the stuff written by climbers. But this is a conventional narrative and an old-fashioned history of great men and their greatest hits, heavy on nostalgia for the glory days of Himalayan climbing. In the introduction the authors unveil their chief theme: the eclipse of the “genuinely admirable qualities [of these mountaineers], including a strong sense of fellowship and responsibility to others in the pursuit of common goals in the face of danger,” which has, alas, been supplanted by “hypertrophied commercial individualism.”
The first half of the book reflects the authors’ enthrallment with the founding patriarchs. Here the research is first rate, the narrative pacing good, the character studies nuanced. True, for many readers the pioneering and eventual conquest of K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest, Kanch, Nanda Devi, etc. are more than thrice-told tales. Ditto the legend of Shipton and Tilman. But Isserman and Weaver often update the old yarns with a fresh eye and data: for example, the recent Lachenal material on the French ascent of Annapurna in 1950 and Mallory’s relationship with Bloomsbury and his homosexuality.
Their disenchantment begins with the advent of the let-it-all-hang-out confessional expeditionary narrative—specimen expletives and candor from Rowell, Ridgeway, and Roskelley are offered—which they contrast with the old l’amitié de la corde and the gentlemanly code of bottling up of expeditionary rage, envy, and loathing—except as it leaked out in the rooms of the London- and New York–based alpine clubs, of course. More than once they have Charles Houston declare, “We entered the mountain as strangers, but we left as brothers.” The alleged loss of brotherhood continues in slow-motion through the 1980s and ‘90s, and the book concludes with the commercialization of the 8,000-meter giants and the 1996 Everest fiasco documented by Jon Krakauer.
Valid or not (there are historiographies of a lot of things “fallen” in the 20th century), this thesis does not give good value in the book’s closing chapters. The authors consume all of 350 pages to advance their prelapsarian story to 1960. Then, with only 100 to go, their pace strangely slackens, and the digressions range far from the business of climbing. The account of the Americans on Everest in 1963 dwells heavily on the climbers’ prestige-mongering with President Kennedy. The action of the 1978 Annapurna Women’s Expedition is freighted with a long reprise of the attacks back home on its feminism, faux or authentic. There is a divagation on the invention of the trekking industry, another on the CIA-sponsored nuclear-powered listening station on Nanda Devi.
Then it dawned on me. These guys are running out the clock. At the historical moment when there is a spawn of expeditions coming from all corners of the earth, at the inflection point where there is a major leap forward in technical standards, just where there is a crying need for a comprehensive history of the Himalaya, they unaccountably give up the chase. Who knows, maybe the newer people and their projects weren’t sufficiently interesting to them. On their telling, one could never imagine that since the mid-70s the Himalayan expeditions pages of this journal have tripled, nor that high-altitude technical rock or mixed climbing has been the scene of fantastic endeavors for the last 30 years. (Not a mention of firsts on Latok, Uli Biaho, Shivling, ….)
Another failure in the historians’ responsibility is their disregard of non-Anglophone achievements. The Japanese first all-women’s ascent of Everest in 1975 is kissed off with a paragraph, compared to five pages for the American women on Annapurna three years later. A paragraph is all they can spare for the path-breaking Polish first winter ascent of Everest in 1973, but they have four for the ascent of Changabang by Brits in 1974. French, Italian, and German climbers of the edenic period (K2, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna) are well covered, but after 1960 they disappear. As to the Himalayan triumphs of Slavs, Czechs, Russians, etc., these vanish into thin air.
Henry Holt, 2008. Pp. 271. $26.00.
High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. Michael Kodas.
Hyperion, 2008. Pp. 357. $24.95.
The 2006 season thrust Everest back into the public spotlight, in a way that was eerily reminiscent of a decade earlier. During spring 1996, so ably chronicled by Jon Krakauer, 12 climbers died; in 2006, 11 died, with the miraculous survival of Lincoln Hall preventing the equaling of a grisly record. In 2006 the drama took place on Everest’s north side and swirled around the ethics of mountaineering. Journalists labeled Everest a “circus,” populated by rich, spoiled pseudo-mountaineers obsessed with glory and unconcerned with its costs, financial or moral. Sir Edmund Hillary famously weighed in to castigate the state of climbing on the mountain.
Nick Heil, a freelance journalist, first covered the 2006 season in a piece for Men’s Journal. He uses his article as a springboard to writing Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season. Michael Kodas, also a journalist, explores the 2006 season in his book High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed; yet for Kodas, 2006 was the postscript to an established pattern of poor behavior of climbers on the world’s highest peaks.
While Into Thin Air remains the benchmark for literature on Everest, Heil’s Dark Summit is an offering worthy of mention in the same sentence. Heil meticulously re-creates the events of 2006, piecing together his story from an extensive body of interviews with the climbers involved. Heil has a way with words, and his narrative moves smoothly and effortlessly. Dark Summit is split into two sections: Part One tells the story of David Sharp, a British climber attempting Everest for the third time. Sharp, climbing on an extremely low budget, ran into trouble on his descent from close to the summit. He hunkered down in “Green Boots Cave” above the Exit Cracks on the northeast ridge, where, close to death, he was passed by approximately 40 climbers the following morning. Heil weaves together Sharp’s story with that of Russell Brice’s Himalayan Experience guide service, whose two summit teams encountered Sharp at differing stages of his debilitation on 14-15 May. Part Two tells the stories of Lincoln Hall and Thomas Weber. Hall—given up for dead by his Sherpa companion—survived a night at 8,500 meters before miraculously walking down the following day [see the following review, Dead Lucky]. Weber—a semi-blind climber guided by Dutchman Harry Kikstra—died at the Second Step. The circumstances surrounding Weber’s death—and whether he should even have been climbing Everest in the first place—are somewhat unclear, and Heil tries to untangle differing recollections of the incident.
As Heil notes, “My intent … was not to try to render any final judgment…. If anything, I set out to try to illustrate, explain and clarify a series of incidents about which so much judgment has already been issued.” For the most part, he achieves his goal, yet, while it would be wrong to regard Dark Summit as a defense of the ever-controversial Brice, Heil does end up sympathizing with the position in which Brice finds himself as the “main man” on the north side. That said, while gathering information for the book, Heil spent six weeks at Brice’s base camp on Everest in 2007 as part of a North Col trekking expedition; he also visited Brice at his homes in Kathmandu and Chamonix, a position from which it would have been difficult to be objective. But due to Heil’s carefully reasoned prose, the average reader ends up generally convinced by his conclusion that little could have been done to help Sharp: “The more I learned about the particulars surrounding Sharp’s death, the less controversial it seemed to be.”
Michael Kodas attempted Everest in 2004 (and again in 2006), and covered his 2004 expedition as a journalist for the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut newspaper. In High Crimes, he weaves together two stories: that of his own expedition in 2004, led by George Dijmarescu, and that of Nils Antezana, an American doctor of Bolivian origin whose death Kodas lays at the feet of his—according to Kodas—dishonest guide, Gustavo Lisi. Kodas’ argument for this charge is convincing. Describing scenes of corruption, theft, violence, and possible murder, Kodas lambastes the Everest “scene” and the way the mountain is climbed and guided today. Though his focus is Everest, he also seems to extend his attack to the wider community of high-altitude mountaineers; they appear as little more than a cadre of thieves and criminals, as Kodas provides a laundry list of every piece of dirt he could dredge up on the subject. Kodas’ qualifications to make these assertions, however—with his two abject failures on Everest, in 2004 and 2006, the only Himalayan peak he has attempted—is certainly open to debate.
Kodas has something of a “bee in his bonnet” about Everest, and indeed high-altitude mountaineering. He makes no attempt to produce a balanced work, preferring to repeatedly hammer home his single point, aiming for maximum shock value: “Prostitutes and pimps propositioned climbers walking through base camp” and “There is a growing tendency to use drugs to reach the summit of Everest.” These are examples of Kodas’ favored “method” of analysis: taking individual instances and conveying the impression that they are endemic. The problem with Kodas’ approach, as every good historian or lawyer knows, is that providing a thoroughly one-sided story, and failing to suggest that actuality could be even slightly different, leads to a weak argument. One is left with the impression that Kodas was poorly equipped to be on Everest in the first place, had difficulty fitting in with his teammates, and has taken this opportunity to fire off his vitriol in print, where they can offer no defense. Describing the problems he faced on his own expedition, he is often petty and childish; this undercuts the gravitas of certain incidents which clearly were extremely serious.
Kodas’ writing style is somewhat graceless, and his prose lacks fluidity. At certain points, his sentences are downright cringe-inducing (“David [Sharp] knew that there was one disease that he could not provide medication for: summit fever”). High Crimes also feels disjointed; Kodas jumps from South America to the Himalaya to the United States and back, in different years. This is in striking contrast to Dark Summit, in which Heil moves seamlessly through his tale, elegantly interweaving his stories. Dark Summit is a carefully written, reasoned, skillfully told tale; I found myself savoring each chapter. Kodas’ High Crimes is an awkward, angry polemic; I rushed to get through it.
Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. 309 pages. $24.95.
Dead Lucky enters into the already very crowded field of Everest disaster stories. In many ways the book follows the typical narrative arc so familiar to readers of these works: the invitation to climb, the training, the preparations, the walk in, the questioning, and then the climb itself with the ensuing success or disaster. Hall, however, is an experienced writer—this is his eighth book—and Dead Lucky exerts a narrative pull on the reader that makes it a valuable contribution to the genre.
Hall’s troubles on his 2006 Everest climb began when he suffered a cerebral edema about an hour after leaving the summit. Hall noticed his own erratic behavior: He wanted “to climb up the mountain, not down it.” He wanted to jump off the Kangshung Face. He “continually rejected” his oxygen mask. Eventually, after losing consciousness and having been pronounced dead, he was left by his Sherpas at Mushroom Rock, 8,600 meters up the northeast ridge.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Dead Lucky is the way in which Hall describes his hallucinations of that night. At one point he believed that “three women were camped in a little space amongst the rocks.” He could hear them “chattering and laughing” but “couldn’t be bothered visiting them.” Later, a climber appeared to Hall from the direction of the Second Step, and Hall “gestured for him to follow me down the narrow path, which now ran alongside a wall built from rough-cut but well-fitted stones.” The women, the climber, the path, and the wall are all the products of Hall’s oxygen-starved imagination. Hall incorporates these moments into the narrative without introduction or explanation, which is disorientating for the reader until we realize that we are in his hypoxia. It is a deft and disturbing way to convey his mental state.
Miraculously, Hall survived the night. The following morning, as the news of his supposed death filtered to the media and his family in Sydney, he was found by climbers and a Sherpa. His first words to them—“I imagine you are surprised to see me here”—are strikingly straightforward and indicative of the understated tone of the whole book. Hall then recounts his rescue, including shocking verbal and physical abuse from two Sherpas who were unwilling participants.
Hall places his story within the wider controversies of Everest in 2006, especially the death of David Sharp, the British climber who was also thought to be dead, then seen alive, but was not rescued and did not survive. Instead, as Hall writes, “forty people had walked past David Sharp … as he lay alive but unmoving on the trail,” and the circumstances of his death prompted a media outcry. Sharp’s story becomes an affecting background to Hall’s, and Hall explores the two very different outcomes, the “simplistic” attitude of the media to these events, and the bigger question of why some live, but others die. Another touchstone here is the death of Sue Fear, another well-known Australian alpinist and a good friend of Hall’s, who died on Manaslu while Hall was on his way down to base camp. The first thing Hall does after arriving home in Australia is to attend her memorial service.
Dead Lucky is in many ways as much a story of tragedy as it is of survival. Indeed, “It is the tragedies more than the triumphs that maintain Everest’s aura,” writes Hall. This is certainly true of Everest publishing, but it is a credit to Hall’s talents as a writer that Dead Lucky contributes to that aura of Everest in such a singular and arresting way.
Hutchinson, 2008. 230 pages. Hardcover. $48.50.
In 1997, during his descent from the north face of Changabang, in the Garwhal Himalaya, Andy Cave heard a quiet sound. High above, a series of snow slides merged into a single flood, surging toward him and his climbing partners. Initially “the whiteness,” he wrote in his first, award-winning memoir, Learning to Breathe, seemed to take “an eternity.” Then time began again, and with it, “so quietly and softly [the avalanche] took Brendan away.”
That same sense of a muted blast, stilled time, and erased presence suffuses Cave’s second book, Thin White Line. Near the opening Cave arrives at the Piolet d’Or award ceremony in Chamonix; their Changabang ascent has just been nominated for the prize. Still in shock, months after the avalanche and Brendan Murphy’s death, Cave depicts the town with words that fall like eerie, muffled echoes: “All day snow fell like feathers, until the only colour left… was white, milk white, over pavements, cars, trees, hats and hair. In the evening it continued, a slow descent, graceful and noiseless, so that with closed eyes the only sensation was a gentle trickle and burn as the flakes slid from your cheeks. It was as if the snow normally reserved for high summits had become lost and decided to rest here on the street.”
Throughout the book, his descriptive passages possess a ghostly, poignant beauty—alluding to loss, separation, disconnection—as if the invisible and the unspoken are what matter most, as if the author is searching to express an idea that lies just beyond the edges of his vision. Indeed, like many introspective climbing writers, Cave attempts to resolve that familiar existential question in its risk-heightened form: How do we accept a world that includes suffering and violent death?
At times that quest appears almost contrived, as though Cave is trying to force form and resolution onto subject matter most defined by its elusiveness and inexpressibility. Now and then his more explicit statements—explaining to readers the value of committing to the unknown—lack the emotional conviction of his oblique, poetic evocations of that same lifestyle.
Ultimately the book becomes most powerful in its hints and glimpses, rather than in its moments of willed clarity. For his first expedition after Murphy’s death, Cave goes with Dave Hesleden to attempt the West Face of Fitzroy. They bring Andy Parkin’s hand-drawn, deliberately incomplete map: “He [Parkin] openly questioned authorities or organizations that made access to the mountains too easy, arguing that individuals should use imagination to travel in wild places and take responsibility for their actions. I glanced at his treasure map again, wondering what he had left out.”
Gradually that blank space transforms from a memento of absence into a field of endless imaginative possibilities. Cave wanders from Patagonia to Norway to Scotland to Alaska, encountering again and again that “the thin line between here and darkness,” those threshold states from which the most intense creativity arises. Such as on Fitzroy, where, about to fall from precarious axe placements, he stabs his crampon points against the rock and makes a rapid knee jam in a blank corner, delighting in a desperation-induced inventiveness, “I had never done it before, but the manoeuvre worked…. [S]kill, luck, madness.”
By the end of the book, the reader begins to feel that, for Cave, the activity is, on its deepest level, about its peripheries. During the approach with Hesleden to pioneer a wildly tenuous Scottish winter climb, Genesis on Beinn Bhàn, they pause below the 800-foot Der Riesenwand: “Alone beneath one of the most dramatically steep winter walls in Scotland, I thought: These are the moments that make a climber’s life…. I felt it inside: timeless, enduring beauty. A light so special and tender that it stunned you and you almost forgot why you were here, that you had vertical things to perform.”
Along his journey Cave encounters other aesthetic wanderers, from the injured climbing artist Parkin, who crafts his sculptures from glacier detritus; to the 19-year-old prodigy Leo Houlding, who yells at Cave during a delicate traverse on their first free ascent of Norway’s Shield to stop and smell a white buddleia flower; to the relentless humorist Mick Fowler, who declaims after a strenuous mixed pitch on the first alpine-style ascent of Mt. Kennedy’s North Buttress, Alaska, “Excellent challenging exercise, Andrew. Nothing better.” It’s such rich portraits of unexpected characters and experiences that turn what could have been cliché—the search for the meaning of climbing—into something profoundly personal and original.
For above all else, Cave’s prose generates the reader’s delighted sympathy toward a protagonist who actually stops, mid-pitch and mid-narrative, to remember “the poetry from the control of crampons” or to compare “fragile slivers of ice” to “half promises.” Or who, facing the potential of a death fall on Genesis, stares “at the green of the moss and the clear veneers of water” and calls them “miniature works of art.”
In such instances Thin White Line conjures up the essential numinousness of climbing as few other books have: portraying those successive revelations of inscapes, beneath our hands and feet, that seem at times to glow with reflected, metaphysical longings. Our vertical pursuits, as Cave explains them, ignite “fire” within us because they convey “the flicker of romance and the visual suggestion of a world unknown.”
And in response to the avalanche that sets off the writer’s travels, in the gaps and in half-spoken silences of the text, the reader hears another, far quieter sound: within this wild and uncertain life, beauty is the only answer we can know.
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Hardcover 288 pages. $26.95.
One of the tragic aspects of being human is that our most vital experiences often happen long before our conscious mind takes notice. A premonition, a hunch, a prophetic dream, a curious “coincidence”—how easily such wayward occurrences are dismissed as mere figments or superstitions, only later to be recognized as genuine omens—and thus we suffer from the familiar lament: “Oh, if only I had listened….” That extreme athletes—mountaineers, kayakers, surfers, BASE jumpers, and others—should exhibit no immunity to this all-too-human foible comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that it took this long for a book to come along that investigates the matter.
The subtitle of Explorers of the Infinite aptly describes its subject matter, though I’m not sure how secret the spiritual lives of these people actually are. Maria Coffey begins with an interesting question: What drives these extreme athletes to risk their lives in order to push past human limits, and what do they discover when they do so? Well, they discover the same thing that ordinary people discover when they have a profound spiritual experience: mystery and wonder.
In ascending the spiritual heights, Coffey leads her reader along a well-established route. More than a century ago the venerable American philosopher and psychologist William James—himself somewhat of a mountaineer—took up the same question regarding the nature of these extraordinary moments. In fact, the inspiration for his greatest work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, came to him one night while camping high on Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks. Like James, Coffey approaches her numinous subject by taking a look at an assortment of curious episodes drawn from various lives.
One of the more fascinating cases reported in Explorers of the Infinite is that of Diane Perry, an English woman born in 1943 who changed her name to Tenzin Palmo and spent 13 years living by herself in a cave at 13,200 feet in the Himalayas. “Tenzin Palmo believes we’re not on this earth to be comfortable,” Coffey writes. “We’re here to learn and grow, she says, and facing problems and challenges is an essential part of growth and knowledge.” As Coffey deftly concludes, this “is essentially what every extreme athlete would say about their sport.” The other stories in this book certainly support this claim. Consider the case of John Porter, whose dreams of falling rocks at Annapurna Base Camp in 1982 seemed to have presaged the death of Alex Macintyre. When asked what he made of such spookiness, Porter replied: “I think the starting point for any sort of weirdness is life itself…. If we’re here, then it seems to me that anything is possible.” No philosopher has stated it more clearly or more accurately. And perhaps the most compelling account in the book is the author’s own story of a harrowing kayak journey of six weeks on the River Ganges, with all its pollution, rotting corpses, and hordes of bandits lying in wait, a voyage that “turned me inside out, challenged and exhausted me on every level.”
Explorers of the Infinite is most engaging when its author is simply recounting the peculiar tales of the extreme athletes she interviewed. The book is far less successful when Coffey starts grasping for explanations of the mystery by pilfering ideas from the social sciences and unconvincing New Age philosophy. Worst of all, the writing too often lapses into what might charitably be described as well-written book reports. Such explanations, ill-fitted and uninspired, simply get in the way of her ascent. They don’t belong on this particular expedition.
John P. O’Grady
The Mountaineers Books, 2009. Eight pages of black and white photos. 276 Pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
When I picked up Forget Me Not, I anticipated a mediocre book with adequate writing and a one-dimensional presentation of the legendary climber Alex Lowe. Instead, Forget Me Not is one of the most honestly written and engaging books I have read. The writing is clear and descriptive and manages to make readers feel as if they are actually present during the scenes described. Because Alex is presented comprehensively, that is, as an imperfect man, as opposed to a legendary climber, the memoir succeeds in making clear why Jennifer and so many others loved Alex so.
Forget Me Not does not merely spotlight Alex as a climber from his high school days to becoming one of the greatest; instead it offers an intimate look at the 18 years that Alex Lowe and Jennifer Lowe-Anker shared as adventurers, climbers, lovers, parents, and friends. Lowe-Anker adeptly portrays the tension that resided in Alex—an endlessly gnawing tension between his need to climb in faraway places for months at a time, and his need to be with his wife and children.
While there is much to be praised about this memoir, its greatest strength is its honesty in presenting a comprehensive and candid portrayal of Alex. This includes an Alex who is charismatic, loving, driven, and passionate. These characteristics are evident via snippets of letters written by Alex. In Alex’s own words, readers learn of his love of nature, his family, and his friends. Jennifer’s candid portrayal is comprehensive in that it also covers Alex’s darker times. The reader learns of Alex’s quick temper and his habit of becoming distracted and distant when things did not go as he wished. The memoir is not afraid to note times when Alex drank too much, when he lost patience with his children, and when he worried that people would learn he was only “really mediocre.”
The most emotionally charged example of this honesty is an account of the argument Jennifer and Alex had as he departed for the Shishapangma trip that eventually took his life. This argument still haunts her—an argument in which she raged to Alex about his lack of dedication to his family. She admits that questioning his dedication was the lowest of blows, one that brought tears to his eyes. As if the rawness of this argument is not difficult enough to endure, this episode is soon followed by news of Alex’s death in an avalanche. Only one hour before the news was broadcast internationally, she learned on the phone that she’d lost the man she loved—while her three-year-old played happily out back. This section of the memoir gave rise to such intense emotions that I was forced to put it down. I grieved deeply for Alex and all who loved him as if we were just learning of his death.
Though perhaps unintentionally, the memoir makes clear why Alex loved Jennifer as well. She is adventuresome, talented, loyal, committed, and one who is able to love deeply. Perhaps her greatest characteristic, though, is that she understands others. She understood that Alex, like Albert the great horned owl described elsewhere in the memoir, was tamed but could not be caged. Alex “Owlex” Lowe was fortunate to have a wife who understood this and loved him for it. We readers are fortunate she chose to share this beautiful and tragic story with us.
Hutchinson, 2008. Hardcover 244 pages. $45.95.
In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway describes the bullfighter Romero as a man who “never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line.” What Romero achieves in the bullfight is what the great alpinist achieves on the mountain, not thrill-seeking, but an aesthetic merger of life and death that intensifies existence. To understand, we have to put away our pedestrian notions of a pejorative death and see a quest requiring courage and driven by an uncompromising spirit. Critical to this quest, according to Hemingway, is solitude of self.
In Bernadette McDonald’s biography of Tomaž Humar we find a talented, even visionary, alpinist who is more conflicted: a Kosovo veteran who escapes harsh treatment to make his way home to Slovenia; a man who logs impressive climbs on Bobaye (1996), Ama Dablam (Piolet d’Or 1996), and Dhaulagiri (1999), among others; a man who abandons his young family to pursue climbing; a man who survives deplorable conditions on some of the most unforgiving mountains in the world but mangles himself in a fall while framing his house; a man who cloaks himself in spirituality but never seems to probe to a deeper understanding of his own psychology; a man who brings along thousands to witness, via the internet, his “pure-alpine” suicide attempt on Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face (2005), and then changes his mind, instigating one of the most dangerous rescues in Himalayan history. Humar is a little larger than life and, as his trip to Yosemite (1998) attests, walks with a swagger.
Other alpinists question the difficulties of Humar’s climbs and his need for media attention, perhaps suspicious of that drive for admiration and love, found and lost and found again through this surrogate of extreme alpinism. According to McDonald, Humar thinks “the public makes a fundamental mistake in confusing his climbing style with his public face.” Hemingway might suggest that it is Humar who is mistaken. A person cannot be bifurcated, a naturalness of line depends upon a man reconciled to himself in all things. Humar’s quiet, solo climb of Annapurna (2007) will likely do little to silence his detractors, even though it seems exactly the right move to repair the damage that the Rupal Face rescue did to his reputation.
Humar is a fascinating character because he is conflicted, and McDonald clearly has unprecedented access to a wide range of materials and notable personalities, and manages to weave together her diverse research and anecdotal material. However, as biographer, McDonald should provide the insight that Humar and the climbing community cannot. McDonald’s is the “authorized” biography, a gossipy and well-researched conglomerate that leaves more questions than it answers. McDonald shows us enough to let us know it’s there: the heart of a talented alpinist, certainly compulsive, certainly remarkable, and certainly flawed. But she never quite uncovers it
The aficionado might yearn too for more nuts and bolts: technical insight into Humar’s route-finding, his training, preparation, and execution—even logistics. The book depends too much on a structure that punctuates Humar’s life with a blow-by-blow description of the Rupal Face rescue, laboring a tension that might not be there. We do know, fundamentally, the end of that story. Still the reader will be gripped by transcript-like radio communications between Humar deep in his ice hole on the Rupal Face and his base camp and intrigued by the intricacies of Humar’s air rescue. Casual readers will certainly turn the pages, not slowed by inconsistency of detail or a style that favors melodrama over exactitude.
Addis Ababa: Shama Books, 2008.
Vertical Ethiopia chronicles the fascinating journey of a team of climbers who seek untouched lines in a region of the world rich in rock and beauty yet “off the radar” of climbers. Curiously, the book is less about climbing than Ethiopia’s cultural geography, celebrated in the well-crafted narrative as well as the images, which receive equal billing—good-looking enough to be placed on the proverbial coffee table. Accordingly, Vertical Ethiopia is a great read, less guidebook and more reflections about climbing in a land unfamiliar to climbers and most Westerners.
Burhardt, both author and protagonist, shares main billing with a few other climbers, Rogel (the photographer), and a handful of Ethiopians who make the trip logistically possible. Essentially the book is a travelogue of Burhardt’s 2007 trip to climb the sandstone cliffs of Gheralta, in far northern Ethiopia. She describes searching for possible climbs, interacting with local people, and getting to know her travel companions—though it would have been nice to learn more of her actual climbs. In fact, she spends more time discussing a day spent scrambling and admiring one of Ethiopia’s many amazing sandstone cliff-side churches than she does on any single climb. We learn about the ancient, beautiful, and still-practiced rituals of Ethiopian Christians. We do not learn as much about the quality of the rock, protection, or descents.
Significantly, the primary audience of this book does not seem to be climbers. Burhardt presents the requisite, if personalized, rationale for climbing—to be in touch with ourselves by pushing minds and bodies to their limits. Though for her it’s not just the climbing but also the adventure of travel that proves attractive. There are very basic descriptions of technical rock-climbing skills, rating systems, and even several pages, laden with pictures, that explain rockcraft and climbing protection (think Freedom of the Hills). These are quite good, though unnecessary were the intended audience climbers. Moreover, Burhardt does not describe many of the climbs, generally does not rate them (almost all of their routes are first ascents, well worth mentioning), and provides no topos. In short, a climber who wants to repeat any of the routes climbed by Burhardt needs far more beta than provided in the book.
What climbers do get out of this book is a much-needed reminder that a “climbing trip” is more than just the climbs. Burhardt spends much space describing the country’s geology and geography, Ethiopian culture, and the travails and joys of traveling in a place far different from North America. Burhardt encourages us to journey to Ethiopia not primarily because the climbing is so amazing—though the mountains are spectacular—but because we will find joy in pushing our limits where no climbing guidebook exists. Burhardt always treats the natives with respect and courtesy, even when some of her possessions are stolen (and quickly recovered).
The wonderful and plentiful photography of Rogel ranks among the book’s best features. Numerous one- and two-page photographs of the rocks, climbers, and local people adorn this gorgeous book. If you are familiar with the size, feel, and images of Alpinist, then you can imagine the photography in Vertical Ethiopia.
I commend the author for collaborating with an Ethiopian publisher to ensure that local peoples profit from foreign tourists and guidebooks. Unmentioned in the book—but noted on her website—were the strict limits placed on topics Burhardt could discuss, including kidnappings of foreigners and ongoing military conflict with neighboring Eritrea. Still, I cannot help but wonder whom the market audience is, assuming that the Ethiopian copies also are printed in English.
Part climbing story, part travelogue, part primer in Ethiopian history and culture, part introduction to technical rock-climbing, and all coffee-table book, this work does many things, most quite well. I hope that Burhardt and Rogel produce other books as interesting and awe-inspiring.
Firefly Books, 2008. Numerous color and black and white photographs. 192 pages. $45.
In this lavish coffee-table book we read about the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the tragedy on the Matterhorn, the epics on the Eiger’s north face. Sound familiar? How about the struggles up Annapurna and Everest? Yes, these legendary climbs are old hat to most members of our club, weaned as we are by the fine writers of yesteryear. But young readers, innocent of mountaineering’s engaging history, will be fascinated by this book. I hope it inspires kids to heave the earbuds and head for the hills.
Stephen Venables ably describes the scope of the book late in his introduction, telling us that he will deal with “groundbreaking” ascents, “esoteric oddities,” and “less well-trodden paths.” And, indeed, we find lots of this material in addition to the familiar stories.
Venables is honest when he admits inclusion of “an unrealistically high proportion of first ascents by British climbers.” This is certainly true, the best example being the 400-word description of the first ascent of Napes Needle, a sexy little spire in England, all of 100 feet high, climbed way back when. Yet the Cassin Ridge on Denali is not mentioned, nor is the 1965 ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan, never fully repeated and feared to this day. Talk about groundbreaking climbs! You can’t have it all. This is a problem shared by writers who purport to cover the globe but who are essentially provincial.
Venables’ chapter titles give a good indication of his subject material. Here are a few: “Pilgrims, Kings, & Prophets” deals with the first “mountaineer,” Moses on Mount Sinai, then leaps forward to French kings and the first English tourist/climbers. “Himalayan Renaissance” ably relates the beginnings of “modern” mountaineering: climbs on walls, not ridges; speedy ascents; and high adventures without using bottled oxygen. Other chapter titles need little explanation: “Mont Blanc, 1786” and “The Golden Age of Alpine Climbing.”
In this handsome book there’s much good writing and a plethora of outstanding photos, many, to my knowledge, published for the first time and therefore appealing. The splendid reproduction of many of the large pics is a testimonial to modern technology.
Venables is usually a professional wordsmith, but I have rarely seen a book so full of mistakes, many of which can be traced to the copy-editor and/or designer. Still, Venables should have proofread the book near completion. We have a legion of misspelled names—“Vittoria” Sella, “Emile” Comici, Fred “Beckley,” “Rattim” Cassin, Toni “Kurtz,” “John” Krakauer, Nick “Clench,” and dozens of others. We have Mount “Huntingdon” and “Venezuala.” We have Washburn’s Museum of Science located in Washington. We find that the North Cascades have migrated south into Oregon. We gaze upon a magnificent photo of an indolent George Mallory, but the caption refers only to a Welsh cliff. I wish Venables and his publisher had heeded A. E. Housman’s advice of 1930: “Accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.”
Sutton Publishing. 2008. 324 pages. $75.00.
Never heard of the Littledales? Neither had anyone else. They were apparently indifferent to whether anyone heard of them or not; they left no public writings and very little else. Elizabeth and Nick Clinch practically extrapolated the whole story from the Littledale’s fox terrier’s silver collar, which resides in the Royal Geographical Society archives. If you wonder what the collar is doing there, you’re beginning to think like the Clinches.
The Littledales, a married couple—St. George and Teresa—made three major journeys through Central Asia between 1890 and 1895. The first crossed the Pamirs over a period of about five months in 1890; the second crossed central Asia from Samarkand to Peking over about 11 months; the third, a journey across Tibet, lasted a year. The latter two would tally some 4,000 miles each—not that the Littledales were tracking their own mileage (and neither do the Clinches). It’s the character of the journeys one is drawn to: traveling in small, sparsely supported parties, traveling as a married couple, and, probably the most enthralling: doing it so far from the public eye.
St. George was a world-class hunter, true, and he supplied numerous “trophies” to museums worldwide, and yet one never gets the sense that the journeys were made for this purpose. These are true explorers, adventurers of the ilk of Younghusband and Hedin (whom they knew, of course) but for whom the idea of fame meant absolutely nothing. No wonder the Clinches admire them so. In their later years hunting for its own sake had given way to collecting zoological specimens and later still to map-making and “intelligence.” Many of the Littledales’ journeys were through sensitive or “forbidden” lands and took place during the waning years of the Great Game, the rivalry between England and Russia for control and influence in Central Asia.
As their lives wound down they developed a ritual: the winding of their grandfather clock, which ran for 13-months on a single winding. They invited guest winders, who signed a special book. The list of winders features statesmen (including, gasp, Benito Mussolini!), but also Kipling, four Prime Ministers, and King George V; also Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who wrote in the winder book: “Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper, higher and nobler.”
The introduction is a truly fascinating account of the authors’ research, which in essence starts with a conversation Nick had with, appropriately enough, Eric Shipton, who recommended to him the “unknown” Tibetan peak, Ulugh Muztagh, at 25,340 feet. It had been Littledale who had determined the height. The lengths the authors went to are a great story in itself. Let’s just say that if they had relied on Google, the book would have been shorter than this review. This was very determined, very thorough, and very patient work, and one can’t help think that if the Clinches had not done it, the Littledales would have been lost to history forever.
We live in an age wherein the details of heretofore unimaginable personal tediousness are publicly broadcast to the Twitterati. In the Littledales we have the opposite scenario: truly epic undertakings (I think the Littledales would abjure the word “heroic”), expeditions that might have filled volumes—even in their own day—but were instead done for private satisfactions. For this reason alone I’m grateful that this lacunae in the public record has been so carefully recovered. In addition, as Chris Bonington says in his foreword: the book is “particularly appropriate today when the ruthless pace of modernisation is penetrating the most distant valley of this vast, once untamed, area.” The Littledales, I think, would be flattered by the Clinches’ portrait, but may well have wondered what all the fuss was about. The closing sentence of the book is “The Littledales did it right.” And, at the risk of stating the obvious: so have the Clinches.