Tag Archives: Mount Everest

To the Greatest Heights

I love outdoor adventures, but where I’m at in life, I have to live vicariously through the biographies of others. So I downloaded an advance copy of Vanessa O’Brien’s biography.

img_1908To the Greatest Heights is truly a representative name for O’Brien’s journey, as she lays out climbing the world’s tallest mountains, as well as hitting both poles. O’Brien’s adventures began as something to fill her time after being laid off. A friend suggested climbing Mount Everest and she thought, “why not?”

In the process of training for Everest, O’Brien found she had a taste for the mountains. Though she didn’t set out to make any records or even climb the Seven Summits, nor bag the Adventurer’s Grand Slam, things just started falling into place.

O’Brien writes a very raw and honest memoir of climbing, weaving in the details of her life and childhood trauma, as well. Her story is one that highlights resilience and the search to build a family, that family is sometimes, maybe even often, more than blood. Be warned that this kind of writing usually includes a lot of swearing, and O’Brien’s memoir is no exclusion.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who reads this book and suddenly wants to climb a few mountains or make a trek to the South Pole. It’s not even that O’Brien makes it sound like a picnic— she’s very honest about the challenges and brutality of these feats. It’s simply the draw of being out in nature, pushing your personal limits and simply answering some primal call that’s felt deep in the soul.

Into Thin Air

You’d think that reading about tragedy would curb enthusiasm or interest in risky adventures. But I think Jon Krakauer sums it up perfectly in his introduction to Into Thin Air: “There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.” And it’s not just applicable to Everest.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s personal recounting of the 1996 spring season in Everest, a brutal and deadly season. Krakauer signed on to the Everest expedition to write a magazine article about the commercialization of climbing Everest and found himself part of a team of marginally qualified climbers and experienced guides. The other teams camping out hoping for a summit assault had much the same composition. So when a storm started brewing in the afternoon of several teams’ attempts, the mountain claimed the many lives, some with a lot of climbing and Everest experience.

Reading Krakauer’s account is harrowing, when you reach May 10. Krakauer lays bare the actions he and others took without attempting to justify them (though he does remind readers that at 29,000 feet, even supplemental oxygen is only enough to keep one functional, not necessarily rational). One is left wondering what it must be like to live with the choices made, along with the survivors guilt.

I’m sure many people read this book and think, “what kind of person signs up for that? Knowing the risks?” The answer is, the other kind of people who read the book and think, “I could do that.” I don’t think Krakauer’s book is meant to discourage people from climbing—too many people would see it as a challenge. Nor do I think it’s meant to serve as a guide for what to do or what not to do, though certainly there are lessons one could pull for the pages. If anything, aside from being an attempt to process the trauma he’d survived, I think it’s probably meant to serve as a reminder of the risks, to pose the question, “are you willing to die for this?” Or, more heavy, “are you willing to let others die for this?”

I can’t deny that even though it’s an intense read about worst-case scenarios, a part of me doesn’t feel even more of a draw to the danger. It’s not even really a the competition with nature. It’s more like what George Mallory is quoted saying, it’s simply because it’s there. It is there, and so I must try. (Not that I’m planning on climbing Everest anytime soon. I’ll try some smaller mountains, first.)

Paths of Glory

I’ve seen Jeffrey Archer’s books all over our store and always was interested in reading one. So I’ve been trying to keep Paths of Glory at the top of my to-read list.

Paths of Glory is a historical fiction book about George Mallory, a mountaineer in the early 1900s whose dream was to conquer Mt. Everest. This may sound like a spoiler, but it isn’t (it’s on the back of the book): Mallory died on Mt. Everest in 1924, and no one really knows if he made it to the top, though he made it within 600 feet of the top.

Archer takes creative liberty with the story and begins with a young George Mallory who climbs everything in sight, simply because it is there. Archer narrates Mallory’s life through his school and college years, through romance and climbing adventures, before focusing in on the final years when Mallory’s obsession with Everest became a reality.

Mallory made two excursions to Everest, and three times attempted to reach the summit, promising to place a photograph of his wife at the summit once there.

According to Archer’s rendition of the story, when Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest in 1999, no photograph of his wife was found in his wallet, which could suggest that he and his partner had, in fact, reached the top.

The one thing I felt was missing from this book was a historical note at the end that explained where the lines between history and fiction were crossed in Archer’s story. For example, did he really climb several national monuments in his travels abroad (and get arrested for it)?

In any case, it was a thrilling read and I’m glad I made a point to keep it at the top of my list, and I’m more interested now to explore his other work, even if it isn’t about mountaineers.