One Damn Peak after Another

On May 8, 2008, a Tibetan woman carried the Olympic torch to the top of Mount Everest. Sixteen days later, two Australians became the first mother-daughter team to reach its summit. On August 2, eleven climbers from seven nations died in accidents near the top of K2, the world’s second highest peak.

What were these people doing on the difficult and dangerous roof of the world? Though these events happened just last year, they reflect, as Fallen Giants makes clear, aspects of the long history of Him­alayan climbing. If, as the authors say, history too often seems like “one damn thing after another,” mountaineering histories can seem like “one damn peak after another”: who scaled what, when, and by which route? Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver chronicle the great climbs, and do it superbly. But they are historians, not chroniclers, and they situate the climbs and the climbers within their particular historical and cultural contexts—social, intellectual, economic, political, and so forth. Thus, for example, the British who attempted Everest in the 1920s and ’30s brought with them the rhetoric of the Great War, as they “laid siege” to the mountain, “attacking” it as they “advanced” and “retreated” on its rock and ice, hoping for “victory” or “conquest.” “Natives” did much of the heavy lifting, carrying supplies up to the high camps (the white man’s burden indeed!), but “sahibs” carried out the final summit “assaults.”

If Everest became a British preserve in these years, Nanga Parbat took on a strongly German cast, inspiring a nationalism sometimes tainted by Nazi ideology. On the other hand, K2 was first seriously attempted by an Italian party in 1909 and later by the Americans in 1938, and both expeditions were mercifully free of nationalist chest-pounding. And, of course, the news of the successful ascent of Everest by a British-led team broke in London on May 2, 1953, as crowds gathered for the coronation of Elizabeth II. Never mind that neither of the two men on the summit were British—Edmund Hillary came from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay was a Tibetan living in Nepal. (In the British press, this great mountaineer, a veteran of expeditions dating back to 1935, was usually referred to simply as a “native guide.”)

Not surprisingly, the authors pay much attention to the “eight-thousanders,” the fourteen great peaks rising to over 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). None was climbed before World War II; the highest summit reached (by an Anglo-American team in 1936) was India’s Nanda Devi (7,434 meters). In 1950 the French climbed Annapurna, making them the first to reach the summit of an eight-thousander. Three years later Everest was scaled. The other eight-thousanders were climbed in the years that followed.

By and large, these and other climbs were great team efforts, all members working to put a few of the strongest climbers on a summit. Mountaineering has long been a collective endeavor. The cordée—two or three climbers bound together by a rope in the face of difficulty and danger-imposes a mutual dependence that leaves little room for individual heroics at the expense of others. In 1953 an American attempt on K2 failed when one climber became mortally ill at a high camp, and the others abandoned their summit ambitions to try (unsuccessfully) to bring him down alive, greatly increasing their own danger. Their behavior exemplified the highest tradition of mountaineering; as Charles Houston, the leader of the group, later said, “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.”

By the late twentieth century, however, things were changing. As first ascents became fewer, there came efforts to put up new and more demanding routes. Mountaineering culture was evolving, reflecting generational changes among the climbers themselves. The old ethic of the cordée, with its sense of mutual obligation, occasionally gave way to a new sense that nothing, not even a climbing partner, must stand in the way of my reaching the summit. Of course factionalism and disagreement had plagued earlier expeditions, but usually they were kept under control, even covered over. Now, however, enmity sometimes broke into the open. Even successful expeditions became theaters for blame and recrimination when climbers met the press after their return. If some mountaineers, like Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who perished at the age of twenty-two on the peak for which she was named, represented the gentle idealism of the 1960s generation, others represented the generation’s less attractive characteristics: an in-your-face individualism; a dogmatic certainty of one’s own rightness and of the wrongness, not to say wickedness, of others; and a willingness to publicize one’s case in television interviews and books.

By the 1980s and ’90s, a new kind of commercialization was evident, in the form of guided expeditions for those who could afford them. An ascent of Everest in 2009 will cost you $65,000—not counting transportation to Kathmandu and other incidental expenses. With no new first ascents waiting, other records had to be found: the first climber to reach Everest without oxygen; the first member of a particular nationality to climb an eight-thousander; the first woman to reach a particular peak; or, in the case cited above, the first mother-and-daughter team to conquer Everest. As the Chinese Olympic climb shows, nationalism also remains important.

There is no question where the authors’ moral sympathies lie. While admiring the enormous skill and strength of many of the climbers about whom they write, they also point to the cases where climbers have failed to help others in order not to jeopardize their own summit chances. Eight people died on Everest on a single day in 1996, some seemingly ignored by others. “Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” remarked one member of a party that passed others in distress.

The book’s title, then, is purposely ambiguous. The fallen giants are not just the great peaks themselves, nor are they just the great climbers who met death on the heights (starting with the British alpinist A. F. Mummery, who vanished on Nanga Parbat in 1895). Another fallen giant has been the old ethic of the cordée, too often replaced by the desire of the individual to make it to the top, no matter what.

Published in the 2009-07-17 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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