"Severity always, justice when possible"
April 19, 2016 7:32 AM   Subscribe

The Lure of Everest
With their empire in tatters, postwar Britons were desperate for a source of renewal to pierce their collective mourning; they needed grand projects to restore national pride. They looked eastward, and up. Starting in 1920 the lexicon and tactics of war were applied to the attempts to scout and conquer Everest. Vast expeditions — the first in 1903-4 had taken a load so hefty that 88 porters died of exhaustion — made their way across the Tibetan plateau.
- writes Holly Morris in the NYT review of Into The Silence, a book by Wade Davis of the National Geographic Society covering the British Everest expeditions of 1921, '22, and '24.

Also reviewed in The Guardian
It seems likely that, having given a vivid account of the war, Davis will move rapidly on to the planning and execution of the Everest assaults. He does, but whenever new characters are introduced – there is a constant change of personnel over the course of the three expeditions – Davis details their individual experiences in battle so that the war exists not as backdrop but as a recurring series of flashbacks. Its legacy dogs the climbers along every step of their "mimic campaign", through overlapping vocabulary (in the laconic idiom of the age, expeditions and battles are both "shows"), equipment used (altitude necessitates the use of oxygen to prevent the climbers – some of whom had survived gas attacks on the western front – being "suffocated as if by some subtle, invisible, odourless gas") and, of course, by the constant threat of death.
The LA TImes:
Davis' approach is dense, encyclopedic, his writerly method perhaps mirroring the obsession that the climbers came to feel. He gives vivid accounts of both the war and the earlier survey of India that led to the naming of Everest, an almost hidden peak, and established that it was indeed the highest point on Earth. He shows the patriotic ache that sent these men to the top of the world, as if trying to fill a void they knew in their hearts could never again be filled. Why do you want to climb Everest? Mallory was asked. "Because it's there," was his famously laconic reply. So engines of diplomacy were engaged, sponsorships sought, the wildly ambitious yet almost quixotic expeditions launched.
Also in The Telegraph & The Wall Street Journal.

An excerpt from NPR:
Norton knew the cruel face of the mountain. From the North Col, the route to the summit follows the North Ridge, which rises dramatically in several thousand feet to fuse with the Northeast Ridge, which, in turn, leads to the peak. Just the day before, he and Howard Somervell had set out from an advanced camp on the North Ridge at 26,800 feet. Staying away from the bitter winds that sweep the Northeast Ridge, they had made an ascending traverse to reach the great couloir that clefts the North Face and falls away from the base of the summit pyramid to the Rongbuk Glacier, ten thousand feet below. Somervell gave out at 28,000 feet. Norton pushed on, shaking with cold, shivering so drastically he thought he had succumbed to malaria. Earlier that morning, climbing on black rock, he had foolishly removed his goggles. By the time he reached the couloir, he was seeing double, and it was all he could do to remain standing. Forced to turn back at 28,126 feet, less than 900 feet below the summit, he was saved by Somervell, who led him across the ice-covered slabs. On the retreat to the North Col, Somervell himself suddenly collapsed, unable to breathe. He pounded his own chest, dislodged the obstruction, and coughed up the entire lining of his throat.
The events surrounding Mallory and Irvine's deaths on Everest and when and where they perished has fascinated amateur and professional climbers and historians ever since.
posted by the man of twists and turns (25 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I would also recommend Robert MacFarlane's Mountains of the Mind as well, though he focuses more on why people are driven to scale mountains. He does touch on these expeditions quite a bit too, though.
posted by Kitteh at 7:38 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

And don't forget what Everest has become since then.
posted by chavenet at 7:39 AM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

So much has been written about the recent fiascoes on the mountain and most of these pieces focus on the overcrowding, the inexperience, the bodies-that-have-become-landmarks, and the profit-driven push to the summit.

Those early expeditions, though, they were the shit. Grizzled British dudes smoking and drinking their way up the mountain. Thick, heavy wool clothing, boots with nails in them instead of crampons, canvas tents. Shitty oxygen bottles that often didn't work. They were hardcore.

There was a time when Everest wasn't the mess that it is today. There was a time when the climbers were national heroes, more akin to astronauts, than the anonymous doctors and mailmen of today who've managed to scrape together $100 grand just because they have a dream they're unable to give up on.

Really any of the books that focus on those old climbing expeditions, even the ones that aren't written very well, are fascinating.
posted by bondcliff at 8:01 AM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I spent a month or so wading through Into the Silence in 2013. It's such a weird, endlessly ramifying, often self-indulgent mess—yet it's also a real achievement and ultimately worth persevering with. I could make obvious analogies with climbing mountains, but I won't.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:01 AM on April 19, 2016

Wade Davis is the David Suzuki of the 21st century, I wish more people knew about him.
posted by furtive at 8:03 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've read this three or four times now - it's long, rich and dense enough to warrant more than one read, to fully understand just how nuts the national and personal obsessions were with climbing Everest at that time. I don't think you can understand the expeditions without beginning to understand the WW1 experiences that shaped the key players.
posted by dowcrag at 8:22 AM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wade Davis is also apparently (someone should probably check with him) on the Advisory Board of the Helena Group, being discussed one FPP down.
posted by nubs at 8:35 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Really any of the books that focus on those old climbing expeditions, even the ones that aren't written very well, are fascinating.

So true. The pain and amazement I feel when reading about people like Shackleton, for example, who didn't have any radio communication after his boat was crushed by ice, is exactly why I read.
posted by Melismata at 8:41 AM on April 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

I love the old stories of these expeditions. Annapurna, K2 and others as well. I also follow the climbing season every year online, and yes, it's disturbing and sad to read that the only real "challenges" seem to be who can be the youngest and who can be the oldest to have a team of local sherpas, who risk their lives to set up and maintain the route just to keep their families in food and shelter for the year, haul them to the top.
The impact of the climbing season on the Nepalise economy is so great that I can only see change coming from within the hardcore expedition guide community (I know the Chinese government has more control over the north side).
Hopefully this year will be safe, and all of the sherpas will return to their families.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:05 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

for anyone interested Alan Arnette provides excellent coverage of the season each year.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:08 AM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

can't wait to read this when i get off work

in the meantime please see one of my favorite things ever, the cover illustration for "the cinematograph record of the Mount Everest Expedition of 1922"

I would pay a pretty penny for a high quality version of that image. if I were a better artist I'd just make one

thanks for the links :)
posted by suddenly, and without warning, at 9:18 AM on April 19, 2016

The Tibetans, it’s worth noting, have no word for the summit of a mountain.

It is never worth nothing these kinds of things as a journalistic trick to make your point unless you're willing to explain and give the linguistic context. You're either going to be proven wrong, or just appropriate the Tibetan language to your own ends. The lama's words were enough, I think.
posted by Emma May Smith at 9:33 AM on April 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

There was a time when the climbers were national heroes

All due respect to the lure of the impossible, but causing the death of eighty-eight porters, presumably local and under pressure of a vast power disparity, sounds a little less than heroic to me. I guess that's why I've always preferred the Arctic/Antarctic expeditions--still issues, but no sherpa-equivalents to massacre through your incompetence or vaingloriousness. This book sounds fascinating, though.
posted by praemunire at 9:36 AM on April 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

but causing the death of eighty-eight porters, presumably local and under pressure of a vast power disparity, sounds a little less than heroic to me.

Oh, yeah, totally true. But plenty of "heroes" got their status at the expense of others.
posted by bondcliff at 9:48 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

So true. The pain and amazement I feel when reading about people like Shackleton, for example, who didn't have any radio communication after his boat was crushed by ice, is exactly why I read.

I love the arctic exploration genre. Appsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey In the World is the masterpiece of the subgenre that is memoirs written by explorers. Extremely evocative of what they suffered sledging in Antarctica. Of all the books I've read on the subject, the imagery of this one stays with me most strongly. He describes, for instance, emerging from their tents in the morning and immediately crouching into the sledging position, because their clothes, damp from the warm night in the tent, would freeze into one position, which they would be trapped in all day. And the penguin eggs! The useless god-damned penguin eggs that they crossed the continent in the dark winter to retrieve, nearly all of which were lost, and none of which were useful to the study of evolution, as they had hoped.

Elizabeth Bradfield is a naturalist who has worked in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. She is also a poet, and has written a complete book of poetry about polar exploration, Approaching Ice. Her poem "Polar Explorer Frank Hurley, Photographer on Shackleton's Endurance Expedition (1915)" captures the heartbreaking moment when most of his work had to be abandoned with the ice-bound ship. Shackleton, IIRC, insisted he smash the negatives to prevent him trying to come back for them:
One by one he lay the glass negatives on ice
and squinted through their reversals. This one,
saved aside to be soldered into its tin box.
This one, smashed on the hard, white ground,
misgivings and reconsiderations
scattered and winking.

Yesterday, he'd broken into the cracking hull,
plunged shirtless into the slushy hold and fished out
what he could, heaved it up
onto the ice as Shackleton
tossed a gold watch, gold lighter, gold coins
onto the fissured surface before the makeshift camp,
telling the men they could take only two pounds
of unnecessary attachment from here. All of them

left something behind. But there, on the ground
that clenched and crushed their ship, they declared
what mattered most: silver nitrate
lyrics, spoken light.
He made shards
of some 400 plates then packed a few reels of motion
film, prints already made, and the 120 negatives left unbroken.

His to trudge and huddle with nearly half a year
on the ice shelf, to stuff into the dory's bow
that pitched him for a week, to wait with
for rescue five months on Elephant Island.

He filmed the ship breaking, left the Prestwich No. 5
in its stand, slipped a small Kodak into his pocket
with thirty-eight more chances to curate what history
would be made in the unmapped time before him.

I don't know how much the bulk of what he left on the ice weighed
—broken glass, lenses, bellows stand, plate still camera, tripods—
or how heavy were the things saved.

Has there ever been a better measure
of hope's precise and illogical weight?
And then, of course, there is Adrienne Rich's "Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev":
(Leader of a woman's climbing team, all of whom died in a storm on Lenin Peak, August 1974. Later, Shatayev's husband found and buried the bodies.)

The cold felt cold until our blood
grew colder     then the wind
died down and we slept

If in this sleep I speak
it’s with a voice no longer personal
(I want to say      with voices)
When the wind tore      our breath from us at last
we had no need of words
For months      for years      each one of us
had felt her own yes      growing in her
slowly forming      as she stood at windows      waited
for trains      mended her rucksack      combed her hair
What we were to learn      was simply      what we had
up here      as out of all words      that yes      gathered
to meet a No of no degrees
the black hole      sucking the world in

I feel you climbing toward me
your cleated bootsoles leaving      their geometric bite
colossally embossed      on microscopic crystals
as when I trailed you in the Caucasus
Now I am further
ahead      than either of us dreamed      anyone would be
I have become
the white snow packed like asphalt by the wind
the women I love      lightly flung      against the mountain
that blue sky
our frozen eyes unribboned      through the storm
we could have stitched that blueness      together      like a quilt

You come (I know this)      with your love      your loss
strapped to your body      with your tape-recorder      camera
ice pick      against advisement
to give us burial in the snow      and in your mind
While my body lies out here
flashing like a prism      into your eyes
how could you sleep      You climbed here for yourself
we climbed for ourselves
When you have buried us      told your story
ours does not end      we stream
into the unfinished      the unbegun
the possible
Every cell’s core of heat      pulsed out of us
into the thin air      of the universe
the armature of rock beneath these snows
this mountain      which has taken     the imprint of our minds
through changes elemental and minute
as those we underwent
to bring each other here
choosing ourselves      each other      and this life
whose every breath      and grasp      and further foothold
is somewhere      still enacted     and continuing

In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it      I have never loved
like this      I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training      the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love

In the diary as the wind      began to tear
all the tents over us      I wrote:
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together      but till now
we had not touched our strength

In the diary torn from my fingers I had written:
What does love mean
what does it mean      “to survive”
A cable blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow      We will not live
to settle for less      We have dreamed of this
all of our live
posted by not that girl at 9:50 AM on April 19, 2016 [22 favorites]

Thanks not that girl, those two poems are wonderful.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

At the blog OHenryPacey linked to, the post on the cost of an Everest expedition points out that the most dangerous mountain to climb is Annapurna, which sees two deaths for every climber who summits. Interesting!
posted by not that girl at 10:09 AM on April 19, 2016

One of the most harrowing YA reads ever is The White Darkness, about a particularly ill-fated Antarctic "expedition." It's the one YA book I've ever read where I was genuinely convinced the narrator was not going to survive the story.
posted by praemunire at 10:14 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks not that girl, those two poems are wonderful.

I'm glad someone liked them!
posted by not that girl at 10:21 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

88 porters died of exhaustion? Eighty-eight is a whole lot of people! That many deaths seems to imply that the British basically enslaved them and forcibly worked them to death. I wonder what methods were used to keep them carrying the load as they were dying -- were they chained? Beaten? Were their bodies brought back to their families, and what did that scene look like?

British imperialism has the greatest PR department in history. Whatever shit they do, it's all stiff upper lip British heroism. That little tidbit definitely changed my view of the early Everest expeditions.
posted by zipadee at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

google search on ("do it if it kills him") returns: About 25,700 results.

Mallory was not on the first page.
posted by bukvich at 1:36 PM on April 19, 2016

Wade Davis' book is one of the best I've read. Brilliant.
posted by chris88 at 9:04 PM on April 19, 2016

It does though spend an inordinate amount of time being coyly strange (& strangely coy, as well as detachedly titillated) about the mish-mash of platonic, romantic, and sexual love in the English public school system & Cambridge at the time Mallory was there.

Which is quite interesting in and of itself - but it's a bit out of place filling ~ 1/3rd of a book that's ostensibly about late colonial / 'last gasp of Empire' nationalism & mountain climbing. It reads almost like he'd pre-determined that was the angle, and the rest of the story was woven and coaxed around it…
posted by Pinback at 6:30 AM on April 20, 2016

I'm glad someone else also found Davis's grab-bag approach to the social and cultural history of early twentieth-century mountaineering ... odd. The material itself is all top-notch, but altogether too much of the book reads like Davis bullied his editors into including all of the precious notes he'd made over the years on absolutely everything. And then there are the passages where Davis himself gratuitously waxes lyrical about his deep and abiding admiration for Tibetan Buddhism and the sensitive reader doesn't quite know where to look.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:15 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

The glamour of Everest.
posted by homunculus at 5:13 PM on April 23, 2016

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