Dunno what it is about Everest but I can’t get enough of it. I think it’s because I’m such a gutless wonder when it comes to all things physical – I get vertigo standing on a chair to change a lightbulb and you can forget about bungy-jumping (heights again), caving (dark narrow spaces), diving (dark wide spaces plus sharks with big teeth). The only venturing forth I do is to rummage in the dark recesses of the fridge for another can of Coke Zero.
I tried to get over my fear of heights one time by learning to fly. The good bit: getting to say ‘Alpha Charlie Foxtrot’ or somesuch as I taxied at Wellington Airport, hanging onto the coattails of the big boys in the passenger jets. And flying down the narrow Hutt Valley, green hills level-pegging on each side, the river twisting below like a silver snake and tonka toy cars piling up at the lights. The bad part: the plane’s ‘bonnet’ shaking like the ancient V-dub I used to drive when I was 20, and me climbing over the instructor as he taught me to bank the plane, shrieking: ‘We’re going to plummet to the ground and die!”
So, anyway. Everest. You can see the fascination.
My appetite was whetted by John Hunt’s ‘The Ascent of Everest’, describing Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 journey to the summit. I especially loved reading the appendices, about the food they took, the testing of the oxygen masks to get the right type, the footwear, all of the logistics. And Hillary’s account of slogging up the mountain – magic! I’ve been slowly working my way through Everest books ever since. I’m fascinated by what extreme environments do to human minds, bodies, the psyche – and why people put themselves through that, knowing the risks. I understand the drive to explore (hey, remember my forays into the fridge!) but I’m trying to figure out why people will pursue adventure at the cost of their families, even when it involves frostbite, amputation, death.
The physical discomfort alone would do me in.
Chris Bonington’s ‘Everest the hard way’ is another must-read. It describes the first ascent of Everest’s formidable south-west face by a British team led by Bonington in 1975. The thing with Everest is that it’s hard to get a true sense of the height and width and dangerousness of the mountain from photos (generally speaking). The pictures that show the mountain in its entirety are taken so far away that Everest looks tame, able to be scaled with a good pair of shoes and a few sturdy ropes, while the close-up photos often show people trudging up broad snowy slopes, out for a Sunday stroll. There are startling exceptions, of course, such as the photo on p110 of Bonington’s book that shows Ronnie Richards climbing a fixed rope with the tents of camp 5 in the background clinging precariously to a snowy cliff, out of the path of the worst avalanches. Everest the Hard Way has some great photos and I spent hours poring over them, marvelling.
But for me it’s usually the writing that best captures the sense of risk and cold and danger. Bonington’s book does this superbly. He’s used journal entries from other members of his team to illustrate events, in the process shedding light on the relationships between the lead climbers and the issues that annoy and amuse them. From Martin Boysen’s journal: “Pete (Boardman) calls incessantly ‘Martin could you secure my rucksack? Martin could you bring my camera up? Martin…’ I told him to stop pissing about, expecting me to run around for him, and come down to help dig out our platform.” This level of detail helped establish the human-ness of the endeavour and highlighted Bonington’s leadership skills in somehow making it work.
And the drama of it all, and the sadness of Mick Burke’s death. Pete Boardman, recalling his arrival back at camp 6 after summiting and the loss of Mick Burke: ‘Martin was there and I burst into tears’.
As usual, the appendices are a real treat. Climbers took umbrellas (for the walk-in to Everest), plastic pee bottles for use on the south-west face (presumably to prevent frostbite from waving your dangler around in a blizzard), paper underwear (!), dice, cards, and something called a ‘housewife’ (which I suspect is a type of tool…?). Mike Thompson provides an interesting account of organising the food supplies, which is also worth reading. A typical day’s menu is: breakfast – tea, porridge with milk and brown sugar, biscuits with margarine and honey, followed by more tea. Lunch – roast almond chocolate, spangles, nuts and raisins, fruit juice and soup. Evening meal – tea, Irish stew with mashed potatoes and peas, christmas pudding and cream, followed by coffee, whisky and chocolate. Forget about falling off the mountain – I’m amazed the climbers didn’t have a coronary! But I guess when you’re working in such an extreme environment you need all the fat and sugar you can get.
Everest the Hard Way – definitely worth reading if you’re an Everestophile.