February 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis and Forever on the Mountain by James M. Tabor

In our reality TV culture that thrives on manufactured situations of struggle and pseudo-survival, it is almost shocking to read about men who actually put themselves in genuinely dangerous situations. Reading about mountain climbing is as close as many of us will ever get to the sport, especially on the level of peaks like Everest, McKinley and K2, but even books on the subject are infinitely more real than anything cable has to offer. As a foray into what drives some of us to extremes, reading about mountain climbing can be both fascinating and disturbing; it offers little to explain just why men (the overwhelming number are men) risk their lives in the most devastating of circumstances to reach a peak -- and then later do the same thing all over again.

In his book, The Boys of Everest, author Clint Willis looks at decades in the life of British climber Chris Bonington and his contemporaries, men the author coins “climbing’s greatest generation.” Willis endeavors to explain why these young men, most of whom had little money and returned to climbing between regular jobs, felt so strongly compelled to climb. They did not do it for money, although any cash they earned from newspapers, lectures or books was welcomed. It was the sheer need for the euphoria found in such accomplishments that drove them to climb, and even after their friends died (again and again and again) Bonington and his contemporaries kept climbing. Willis asks whether it worth it in his book, but in the end he doesn’t know, and it seems as if the survivors do not either. After one horrible death on Everest, Willis writes that one of the climber’s wives was not afraid of the mountain her husband climbed, rather “she feared people who didn’t know an easier way to be happy.”

It is this concept of happiness and the struggle to find joy in other aspects of life that can compare that Willis diligently explores. He relies heavily on the published accounts of Bonington and others, as well as many interviews to explore what was going on in the heads of these young men as they traveled around the world. The book becomes almost difficult to read at some points, as yet another accident occurs and yet another man is left on a mountain, forever lost in a blizzard or crevasse. Bonington comes close to death more than once but between skill and luck he survives to climb another day. It is his personal pictures that fill the opening pages, pages that the reader realizes at the end are mostly of men who Bonington climbed with and later mourned.

Boys of Everest is a primer on the world of elite climbing; it reveals a staggering amount of information about the logistics of planning difficult climbs and also the surprising number of things, like who will be included on a climb, that are often left to chance. More than once Willis gets a bit too close to his subjects; it is disconcerting to read his imaginings of final thoughts of several of the men, but he insists on those final conclusions based on everything he knows about the men, and what he himself has learned from decades of being in their footsteps. It seems that Willis is seeking closure for the dead in his interviews with the living and one wonders how even now some of them can bear the burden of all they lost in their attempts to reach yet one more peak.

In sharp contrast to Willis’s more sprawling study, James Tabor focuses tightly on a single climb, the 1967 disaster on Alaska’s Mount McKinley (now commonly known as Denali) in his book, Forever on the Mountain. There were many reasons why seven climbers did not come back down from the summit in ’67, not the least of which was a devastating storm that blew in as they tried to descend. Tabor deconstructs the expedition, explaining how it came together (the last minute combination of two expeditions, neither of whom knew each other prior to the climb) and relating several missteps along the way as the twelve men ascended the mountain. To say they did not all get along would be a vast understatement, but that unto itself is not the reason why the expedition failed so spectacularly. Tabor exposes that not only were the climbers part of the problem, so was the National Park Service at Denali. The fact that seven men reached the summit, sent one last message on the radio and were then never heard from again is bad enough, but the fact is that no rescue operation was ever launched to recover them. The bodies have never been recovered, nor will they ever likely be.

Reading Tabor’s book brings its own discomfort as readers know from the very beginning which young men will survive and which won’t. It is hard not to identify with some of the doomed climbers, especially as the survivors’ journals share so many fond stories of their exploits. Some of the climbers were indeed incautious and perhaps even foolhardy, but none of them were stupid, and while it would be easy to claim they were arrogant I don’t honestly think you can choose to climb a mountain like Denali without being arrogant. The book fails when Tabor chooses to delve into speculation about what went wrong, going so far as to make up a wide ranging scenario about the last days of the dead. He also struggles more than once with speculation about the motivations of others, from Bradford Washburn, who was unimpressed with the expedition from the beginning via Wilcox's correspondence and pilot Don Sheldon who addressed his actions that day in his own book. Where the title succeeds is in Tabor’s understanding that mindset alone is not the reason why the ’67 expedition turned into a tragedy. The author knows there had to be more than just infighting as a contributing cause and he spends an enormous amount of time trying to understand what those other factors might have been; if only he had stayed with the facts then this would be a truly exemplary read.       

Mostly, Forever on the Mountain is an accident investigation and while the final answer of what happened on the summit will likely never be known, Tabor’s work does show how consecutive little errors can accumulate in the worst way and lead to bad decisions. After the men became trapped by the storm the book takes a different turn, and Tabor looks at what was and was not done to save them, and the ramifications of their deaths on all future expeditions on the mountain.

Ultimately, from Clint Willis readers will obtain some understanding of just what leads men to climb mountains while Tabor goes beyond the obvious dangers of storms and avalanches to show that even in such an elemental sport, professionalism on the part of the climbers is necessary from start to finish. The combination of the two books provides a unique bridge to understanding mountain climbing and those who pursue it. And while many readers will likely never share the passions of those that Willis and Tabor explore, they will have a clearer picture of what that life is like and why to some, it is so desperately appealing.

The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis
Carroll & Graf
ISBN 0786715790
529 pages

Forever on the Mountain by James M. Tabor
WW Norton 
ISBN 0393061741
370 pages