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Review: Incredible Ascents to Everest

books Updated: Oct 21, 2013 10:43 IST
Anusha Subramanian
Anusha Subramanian
Hindustan Times
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Incredible Ascents to Everest

By Sumati Nagrath

Roli Books

Rs. 1295, Pgs 224

It is every mountaineer’s dream to conquer Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. An obsession that cannot be explained, it is what led George Leigh Mallory to attempt to climb the mountain thrice before vanishing on the icy slopes in 1924.

Today, Everest is one of the most commercially climbed mountains in the world. 60 years ago when proper clothing, climbing shoes and gear did not exist, things were very different and the stories of how it was scaled remain as fascinating as ever. These interesting stories accompanied by stunning photographs are chronicled in Incredible Ascents to Everest. Author Sumati Nagrath celebrates the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit attempt by highlighting stories of firsts of every kind to do with scaling this massive mountain.

Ask any mountaineer why he wants to climb Everest and he will have no concrete answer. Mallory’s famous reply to a reporter was “Because it’s there”. In his foreword, Tom Whittaker, the first person with a disability to have climbed Everest, says, “The driving force behind mountaineering is humankind’s need to sustain the soul through adventure. Keep climbing to your dreams.” Nagrath does not delve into the technical aspects of mountaineering but instead creates an encyclopedia of sorts on Everest and its climbs. The book starts with a historical introduction that includes a photo of Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, and goes on to describe various expeditions beginning with the first in 1921 by the British. The author contends that Everest became an obsession with these climbers who were “reeling from the after-effects of the First World War and fast losing their imperial grandeur”.

Apart from the chapter on Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s 1924 expedition — ‘Were They the First?’ that’s accompanied by some great photographs — and the chapter on the Hillary-Tenzing partnership on their 1953 expedition, other inspirational stories include one about Yuichiro Miura, the first Japanese man to ski down Everest’s slopes in 1970, and another about Junk Tabei, the first Japanese woman to reach the top in 1975. Then, there’s Reynold Messner who climbed alone in 1978 and again without oxygen two years later. The reader learns too about blind Erik Weihenmayer, who ascended in 2001, and Min Bahadur Sherchan who was almost 77 when he conquered the peak in 2005.

There is much interesting trivia too: Alexander Wollaston’s Dallmeier camera was instrumental in recording the first Everest expedition in 1921, the first-ever expedition film on Everest was made by Captain JB Noel in 1924, and 75-year-old Miura tried to better his age record by climbing in May 2008, but was beaten to it by just 24 hours by 76-year-old Nepalese Min Bahadur Sherchan. The author also touches on ecological issues, the role of the Sherpas, their lives and their extra ordinary feats. Indeed, Apa Sherpa holds the incredible record of summiting 21 times (the 21st was in 2011). It is undoubtedly the Sherpa people on whose backs the world’s tallest mountain was conquered. Only a mountaineer can describe how it feels to be atop a mountain. These stories are inspirational and highlight our continuing obsession with mountains in general and with Everest in particular.

Anusha Subramanian is an independent journalist and a mountaineer.