New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003; ISBN: 0-7607-4213-8; Pp. 256, photos
Review © 2004 Branislav L. SlantchevThis is a gorgeously produced book written by one of the still living members of the original British expedition that conquered Everest in 1953. It is illustrated throughout with excellent rare photographs going back to the days of the first European explorers, the days of Mallory and Irvine, the days before trekking existed, before Nepal was the tourist trap it has become, and before anyone had ever climbed to the cruising altitude of a jet liner.
The book is a story of the early exploration of Everest, the many unsuccessful (some disastrous) attempts to climb the summit. The drama has a strong gentlemanly British feel to it, which is impossible to describe but is unmistakably present throughout. The narrative is sparse and rather oblique, with scant references to some truly tragic events, and spiced throughout with the occasional well-placed sarcastic comment. It is a pleasure to read but much of the drama is lost.
This is not to say that the book is uninteresting, far from it. Nothing beats reading about crazy Brits who would probably be considered not fit for a half-marathon today go out and indulge their lust for adventure. From what I have read here, Hillary's famous retort to the question why climb Everest---"Because it's there"---sounds about right when it comes to these guys. There are also some hilarious passages, like the one where the author describes an experiment to test reactions to high altitude, and some genuinely puzzling photos, like the one with an expedition member pole-vaulting in the desert!
The photographs are breath-taking. I always tend to imagine anything before the 1960s in black and white (courtesy of having grown up with old movies), so it is startling to see full-color pictures from the 1950s (and before) that bring these days to life like no B&W photograph, no matter how well done, ever can. The book is worth purchasing just for those. Still, those wanting dramatic narratives of near-death experiences (with which Everest seems plenty cursed) should probably look elsewhere.
September 30, 2004