Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Review--The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest

Coburn, Broughton. The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest. Crown Publishing, New York, 2013. B/W photos, index, notes, further readings, map, 300 pages, 254 pages of text. ISBN 9780307887146, $26.

It has now been 60 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay first climbed Mt. Everest via the South Col. It has now been 50 years since the first American set foot on the summit. In the ensuing years a near mountain of books have been written about Mt. Everest and it begs the question as to whether we really need another one. I would answer that with this being the 50 year anniversary of an American reaching the summit, the 50 year anniversary of the first ascent by the North Face and with the overall quality of the writing here the answer is YES.

For Everest aficionados there may not be a lot new here. For someone new to the literature of climbing or just picking this book up because it looks interesting there is plenty of meat on the bone. We are introduced to the main players of the 1963 American expedition in their own habitat. Many are college drop outs and most have moved west in order to feed their passion, but maybe not their stomachs as jobs were scarce, for climbing. The Tetons were home to many of the young men who ultimately would go half way around the world to attempt a climb less than a dozen men had been successful at.

We are introduced to and come to know men such as Barry Bishop, Jake Breitenbach, Barry Corbet, Norman Dyhrenfurth, Tom Hornbein, Lute Jerstad, Dick Pownall, Barry Prather, Will Siri, James Ullman, Willi Unsoeld, and Jim Whitaker amongst many others including Sherpas. Don't worry about keeping all the names straight there is a very useful "cast of characters" listing at the front of the book.

We follow along with the difficulties of raising funds, gathering supplies, planning the climb, dealing with Sherpas and other logistical nightmares. While this is a team effort, and that is repeated many times, there was infighting regarding who would go where and when and most of all there was dissension regarding the North Face route and if it should even be attempted.

The book has essentially three parts: introductions, pre-climb and preparation, the climb, and life after the climb. All three parts have value and are worth reading. They may interest different readers in different ways however. Those familiar with the story may be most interested in the later portion of the book dealing with the climbers lives after the climb. Many readers may just be interested in the climb itself however and that is more than adequately covered.

Jim Whitaker atop Mt. Everest
May 1, 1963.
Photo: Nawang Gombu/National
The political situation of the time is always a running backdrop though out the book. The Russians were working to arm the Cubans and the Kennedy administration was having to deal with ramifications of that. Russia had also beaten the United States into space and we were playing catch up. China and India were in a tense period with the possibility of war a reality. While China had made claims to have summited the mountain in 1960 there were doubts about the truth of these claims. The Chinese were of course leery of Americans being on Everest and were concerned about spying missions or spy cameras being put in place in this pre satellite era. All of these issues helped lead to a situation that had the eyes of the world on these men. The United States did not want to shoulder another perceived failure and ultimately this group of men delivered!

And while the outcome is a positive and uplifting one there is a loneliness and sadness in the story as well. While it is true that climbers share a special bond, "the brotherhood of the rope" as Coburn says, they can be solitary men as well. Even when part of a team it is man against the mountain. It is something those of us on the outside do not completely comprehend. Also, to climb mountains is to court death. Do it for any length of time and you will look death in the eye; yours or someone close to you. Climbers know and accept that risk.

Well written and fast moving this is a book that anybody with an interest in climbing should read. If you are looking for a good adventure story or are interested in man vs. nature this is a book you should consider. Recommended!

Thanks go out to Crown for providing a complimentary review copy.

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