The best reason ever offered for climbing mountains remains the one given by George Leigh Mallory, who said he wanted to climb Everest because it was there. But it isn't as good a reason as it used to be.
It was 56 years ago that Mallory and Andrew Irvine, roped together, were spotted moving slowly upward on Everest, within a few hundred feet of the 29,028-foot summit, just as clouds covered the mountain. They were never seen again. Years later an ice-axe believed to be Mallory's was found about a thousand feet lower.
In those days, high-altitude mountaineering was also exploration. No one had ever climbed Everest, or any of the world's 8,000-meter (26,250 feet, approximately) peaks. There are only 14 of those, all in Asia, and even approaching most of them was an ordeal.
Beginning 30 years ago, when the French climbed Annapurna, the whole business began to change rapidly. The British did Everest in 1953, the Italians K2 a year later. Today all the giant peaks have been done, most of them several times. The high campsites are now littered with the droppings, organic and inorganic, of climbers. Scaling Everest and the others is exploration no longer, but only athleticism -- albeit of a high order.
The challenge now is no longer solely to reach the top. Expeditions seeking a place in the record books must attain one by being different: by using new routes, or dispensing with oxygen, or having only female members. One awaits an assault on K2 by gays or grandparents or members of the Libertarian Party. Though climbing remains difficult and dangerous, it is not what it was in Mallory's day.
The literature of mountain-climbing hasn't changed as much as the practice itself. Climbers who persist in writing about their adventures don't, as a rule, do so especially well, but if the adventures are dramatic enough that they can usually carry the story along by themselves.
These books tend to follow a predictable pattern. The expedition is planned, the climbers are profiled, the mountain is approached after various encounters with quaint but sometimes irritating foreigners, terrible hardships are endured (frequently involving loss of life), the summit is reached, and the climbers return at peace with themselves and emitting philosophical banalities.
Most of us who scrabble around the Appalachians climb our little hills for the pleasure of the walk. If we do technical climbing on local rock faces of a Sunday morning we do it as an intellectual and gymnastic exercise, and perhaps for the company. Few of us will ever see an 8,000-meter peak, let alone climb one. When we read about people who do climb them, though, we will find them to be quite ordinary folks whose motivation is different from our own only in degree. We may find this comforting or, if we would prefer to think of the super-mountains as being climbable only by superpersons, we may not.
Three of the four books reviewed here are accounts of expeditions to large Asian mountains. The fourth, "The Games Climbers Play," is a collection of short pieces (mostly British) about various aspects of mountaineering.
"Annapurna A Woman's Place" (the lack of punctuation bothers me, too, but that's the title), by Arlene Blum, is about a successful climb of Annapurna in 1978 by a team of women climbers. Two members of the team were killed in a fall.
"The Last Step: The American Ascent of K2," by Rick Ridgeway, is a well-written and reported tale of a 1978 expedition in which no one died, the mountain was climbed, but the level of bickering and general nastiness among the climbers to some extent soured the triumph.
"Storm & Sorrow in the High Pamirs," by Robert w. Craig, is an account of a Soviet-sanctioned expedition by teams from a number of nations to climb 23,406-foot Mt. Lenin near the Russian-Chinese border in the summer of 1974. The Soviets tried to turn it into an international festival of climbing, but it turned instead to tragedy: one American killed in one avalanche, five Estonians in another, and an eight-member team of Russian women frozen to death in a storm near the summit of Mt. Lenin.
If there is any theme that binds these books together, besides a love of mountains and the achievement of climbing them, it is the way politics insistently and insidiously intrudes. Modern climbers of these high peaks want to prove something not just about themselves, but about their country, or their ideology, or their sex.
"The Games Climbers Play" contains a Chinese news account of the 1975 ascent of Everest (or Qomolangma) by the followers of Chairman Mao. The deputy leader was a woman, Phanthog; "Her feat clearly demonstrated the new outlook of Chinese women steeled in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the movement to critici ze Lin Piao and Confucius, and showed that with their revolutionary courage they can scale the greatest heights and storm the most formidable fortresses."
Ho hum. The trouble is, people die proving these things. In Robert Craig's book, there is a stark account of how the climbers in the Pamirs, both foreign guests and Soviet hosts, listened on the radio as the stormbound Russian women high above them gradually weakened, broadcast their faint goodbyes, and then died.