Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 07/30/15 2:42 PM

Book review: The Mountain: My Time on Everest by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts

Not a new release but a gem I stumbled on.

The book is titled The Mountain (Touchstone Publishers). It further clarifies: My Time On Everest. And then, just in case you were still floundering, there is a tagline that reads: The Irresistible Lure of the World`s Highest Peak. It is written jointly by mountaineer Ed Viesturs and David Roberts.

And it is simply unputdownable, all 315 pages of it.

All through, it is Ed V`s voice that wins the day in this book, mostly matter of fact, once in a while
getting just that bit lyrical then quickly getting back on the restrained track. He makes eleven trips up the 29,035 feet to the peak of Everest, he summits seven times and through this book, takes you up the mountain with him. Each and every time.

Viesturs was all set to become a vet who climbed mountains on his times off work, except for the fact that the hobby quickly became an overweening passion. Soon, what he wanted to do was clear in his mind: to climb all mountains over 8,000 metres, the highest peaks in the world. Which he does over a period of 22 years, with frequent assaults on the world`s highest peak, most times without bottled oxygen, becoming the first American to summit all fourteen 8000ers.

I use the word `assault` advisedly. Because unwittingly, that is how the attempts to summit on Everest is described in this book: assault, attack, conquering the mountain. That it is an ordeal, pretty much each time, with complex logistics, weather and high altitude management, becomes all too clear to the reader but Viestur`s undimmed fascination for the mountain is infectious and quickly transfers to the reader, too.

Viesturs climbed back when mountaineering was a task cut out for the mountaineer. Today, he says it`s become like a milk run, with a truck road leading through Tibet from Nepal and a spur leading straight to base camp on the north side of the peak. While he rues the fact that now there are bottlenecks and interminable queues of climbers heading up, (a standing room theatre, he calls it) as also many paying clients, utter novices included, who are shepherded there by expert guides and sherpas, what is now called the corruption of Everest, he does not buy wholly into the cynical view.

What he does is celebrate the achievements of many a skilled climber, the attempts to scale the summit of the world in all sort of unimaginably tough ways; attempting dangerous ridges sans bottled oxygen, attempting to climb in winter (-45 degrees and winds at 100 kmph), attempting the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and the Kangshung Face. Viesturs tells readers not to think that because large numbers of climbers and quasi-climbers are attempting Everest today, the mountain has become more accessible. Not a bit of it. Everest was, is and will always be a formidable adversary, casting an insidious, sometimes fatal, lure.

Viesturs explains to us the Everest baggage, the dangers the mountain frequently and consistently shows those who would climb it. He talks of constantly falling rocks and devastating avalanches, gales that batter bodies and sear faces.

He talks of the psychological strain, the hallucinations many climbers suffer from, most of them seeing some shadowy figure climbing beside them. He describes how climbing friends of his develop dry hacking coughs, so severe that some break their ribs from coughing hard; of pulmonary and cerebral edemas, of the huge toll of toes that Everest takes from its mountaineers each season, of winds that can knock a person off his feet and into a deep crevasse.

He talks of how men and women`s egos come into play near the peak, of leaders who don’t let the most able scale the summit first, of those who ignore their fellow climbers` plight in their determined trek up to the peak.

He talks of those who reach the summit, then dally on in euphoria a tad too long up there; the weather changes treacherously and their descent becomes dangerous and at times, fatal. He tells us about people dying on the mountain, people vanishing without a trace suddenly, their bodies found many years later miraculously well preserved in the cold and the thin air. He gives us a dismaying look at a new phenomenon up there: the theft of climbing equipment.

Viesturs did not climb Everest just for the heck of it. He never takes the mountain for granted. Nor did he climb with the blind ambition to summit each and every time. If conditions looked bad, he immediately turned back, hard though it must have been to bid goodbye to the summit having reached so near it. But this is why he is around to tell the tale.

Listen to the mountain, he says. You can always come back. It will still be there.

Oh, and late in the day I realised what I am. I devour books on hills and mountains. I, apparently, am an armchair climber. Ah well. Now let me go scout a stunning pic of the world`s highest snowfield for my laptop background pic.

david RobertsEd ViestursMount Everestmountaineering

Sheila Kumar • July 30, 2015

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