Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

A Story - Short and tragic


By Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke
Hodder and Stroughton

May 9. Phu Dorjee steps onto Everest and once again, after nineteen years since the last Indian expedition, focuses the spotlight on the challenge that reigns commandingly on our doorstep.

Challenge, Everest, Chomulungma, Mother Goddess of the Earth. Through the decades it has inspired and destroyed. Drawing climbers helplessly, some to their glory and fulfillment and some to lonely deaths on its howling slopes. From Mallory, who lies lost forever in its snows to Messner, the climbing machine who strode to his triumph, the list is the stuff of great biographies.

The stores have been written and the Everest library is huge. Tales of expeditions that succeeded or failed or merely survived. Of men who dared and of nature who watched encouragingly or bucked angrily. There are books from our generation with fascinating colour spreads. And there are the books of long-ago travelers, written on paper which is now yellow and cracking. Adventure, triumph, tragedy in fading leather or in glistening paperbacks. In this saga, the name of Chris Bonington figures prominently.

Author, lecturer and above all, one of the world’s leading climbers, Bonington at 48 has gone down in mountaineering history for pioneering work in the UK and the Alps and the Himalayas. He led the first great climb of Annapurna South Face and followed it up in 1975 by leading an expedition to Everest by the South West Face. And each time he has chronicled his climbs in memorable books.

The latest book is the sad tale of an attempt to reach Everest by the unclimbed North East ridge, accessible from Lhasa. Another attempt in the scramble for ‘firsts’ on Everest. To the present generation of climbers, Everest is primarily a mountain viewed from the south, a looming peak far over the hazy plains of India. Like Tenzing and Hillary in 1953, Dorjee too has gone from the south. But others have done it in other ways. Or attempted to as Bonington and Clarke relate.

The book makes excellent reading. The credit for making it more lively and balanced than the previous books perhaps goes to Clarke. This neurosurgeon and researcher writes his chapters with the advantage of being a slight distance away from the immediate challenge of climbing. He has written warmly about the team members and their families. He has also added well researched chapters on the Himalayas and the expeditions to Everest as well as one on Lhasa, the forbidden city and the traditions and customs of Tibet.

The story of the expedition is a familiar one to any reader of true explorers’ tales. There are the all important details of equipment, terrain and the weather. The plans and conferences in contrast to the essential loneliness of each climber. The tale brings out well the mental struggle that each person goes through against tremendous odds, the individual philosophies and ambitions, the wait for the mail from home and the desire to get the warmest place in the snow cave on the massive slopes of the Everest. The narrative draws heavily on the diaries of Peter Boardman as he describes and praises and curses. In the land of snow and wind he sits up reading Gorky Park well into the night.

The small team fought and struggled to get to Everest by the sharp edged ridge with its three pinnacles. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker finally went for it. They were seen silhouetted after sunset near the black tooth of the second pinnacle along the ridge. They were never seen again. The arduous and grief stricken search followed. And then all that remained was to bring the bad news home. Charlie Clarke inscribed a simple memoriam on a large piece of slate. As for Mallory in 1924, the Tibetans built a cairn of rocks for the two who just walked away, and the others stood by in the cold wind.

The story is short and tragic. But it is beautifully documented by photographs. These show the peaks and the routes, the climbers in their tents and by their bonfires. There are also some breathtaking shots of the Potala Palace and the Lhasa valley. The palace, once thought to be the highest building in the world, rises high above the city, blending into the ranges beyond.

But what comes through most strongly is an insight into the stuff that high altitude climbers are made of. A man who lives so close to nature, challenges it and overcomes it, cannot live without a philosophy towards it. This is outlined by Charles Clarke and the reader should perhaps see it in the original words:

“They believed that high altitude climbing was a reasonable sport within mountaineering. Statistically dangerous, yes, but with care, stealth and speed, within reason. They had affirmed their faith in high altitude by repeated visits, they knew and respected the arena of avalanche, storm and stonefall. They had pushed hard and fast at the summit of Kanchenjunga, retreated in the face of avalanches from K2. They were wily and sometimes very frightened. They never showed self-indulgent elation when successful.”

Such men they were and they died. The question raised is whether it is all worth it? For those who are driven there can be no two answers.