Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Book Review - Everest : the West Ridge by Thomas F. Hornbein

Everest : the West Ridge by Thomas F. Hornbein, forward by Doug Scott

Seattle WA : The Mountaineers Books, 1998 (2011 printing)    ISBN  9780898866162

Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld are written into the history of Mt. Everest, being the first team to ascend via the West Ridge (in 1963), the first to traverse the mountain, and bivouac overnight above 8000 metres. The Hornbein Couloir on the North Face of Everest was named for Tom during the 1963 expedition. Everest : the West Ridge is Hornbein's recollection of that expedition, drawn from his diary notes and transcripts of meetings and radio conversations that took place during the expedition.

The book begins on the trek to Base Camp, with meditations on Hornbein's friend Unsoeld, on why people attempt to summit mountains, and Everest in particular, and on the beginnings of the idea to try the West Ridge. Norman Dyhrenfurth, the leader of the expedition, had gathered sponsors on the basis that the expedition's aims were to climb Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse, and do some scientific work. Some of the climbers, led by Hornbein and Unsoeld, felt that retracing the steps of others up the South Col route was not pure mountaineering, and formed a view that it would be better to try and forge a new route up the mountain.

It was agreed, on the march in to Base Camp, that while the South Col route would be the main focus of the climbers, men and equipment would be sent across to those who wished to try the West Ridge. The politics of this division of attention take up a decent portion of the book as events unfold, and the pressure to put aside enough materiel for the West Ridge attempt told on tempers and friendships. Hornbein in particular was a big advocate for attempting the Ridge, and this put him offside with many members of the expedition at times.

When the West Ridge team finally got the go-ahead to try their route - after the South Col team were successful - they had a small window of opportunity to get the job done. They had to weather a terrible storm at Camp 4, where the team was very nearly blown off the mountain, before Hornbein and Unsoeld could head to the summit.

They realised, as the summit day unfolded, that it would be impossible for them to return by the route they climbed, and so the traverse became a reality. Summiting at a very late hour, near sunset, they descended on unfamiliar terrain towards the South Summit. Night fell, and they were left without light as their headtorches died. Hornbein and Unsoeld knew that Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad had summited the same day via the South Col route as they were following their footsteps, and they found them huddled exhausted in the snow near the South Summit. Hornbein and Unsoeld got the other two up on their feet and attempted to reach Camp Six on the South side of Everest. They failed, and spent the rest of that night huddled in the snow.

When the sun rose they found their way to Camp Six and safety. The final moving chapter of the story is when Unsoeld departs for Kathmandu via helicopter, wrenched away from Hornbein before they could really comprehend what they had achieved together.

Hornbein, in the coda to the work, meditates on the meaning of the whole venture. He has never returned to the Himalaya.

This is not the best mountaineering book that I have read - I somehow feel strangely short-changed by the lack of focus on the mountaineering. But, given the historic nature of the events chronicled, I'd have to say this is a must-read for any armchair Everesters out there.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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