The Ethics of Mountaineering, Brought Low
By MAURICE ISSERMAN
Ten years ago this month, several dozen expeditions clustered in a sprawling tent city at base camp on Mount Everest, each hoping to get its own members to the 29,035-foot summit. They included at least seven commercial ventures — at the time a recent innovation in Himalayan climbing — that, for hefty sums, guided clients up the mountain. Jon Krakauer, a writer for Outside magazine, signed on with the expedition led by the New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced climber who had "summited" Everest on four previous attempts. Into Thin Air, Krakauer's firsthand account of the events of May 10-11, 1996, when he and dozens of others were caught in a blizzard that wound up taking the lives of eight climbers, including Hall, was published the following year.
The book would sell more than three million copies in just a few years. Its success spawned competing books, a made-for-television movie, and an acrimonious debate over who was to blame for the worst climbing disaster in Everest's history.
What has made the story so popular? Himalayan mountaineering is an esoteric pursuit that nonetheless seems to speak to the aspirations and concerns of a vast reading public that will never set foot on a glacier. And Into Thin Air is a particularly compelling narrative of a tragedy propelled by faulty leadership, blind ambition, and, in some instances, reckless indifference to human suffering. The similarities to the world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as it exists closer to sea level are not entirely coincidental, for the book works on two levels — as survival tale and as jeremiad. It is a Culture of Narcissism at high altitude. Krakauer captures the moment in which a mountaineering ethic that stressed the values of fellowship and mutual support was replaced by an ethic subordinate to the egoistic and consumerist pursuit of individual gain and glory.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee once famously denounced the view that history is just "one damn thing after another." I'll add that the history of mountaineering is more than just "one damn peak after another." Mountaineers are products of their own eras; the way they climb, and the way they feel about climbing, can help map a larger cultural, political, and social terrain. Academic historians are just beginning to explore that territory.
Krakauer is only the latest in a long string of writers who have written about mountaineering, both out of love for the endeavor and as a means to explore a set of broader ethical concerns. The most popular mountaineering writer of a generation ago, the Jon Krakauer of his own day, was the now largely forgotten author James Ramsey Ullman. To appreciate the magnitude of the changes in mountaineering on the 10th anniversary of the 1996 disaster — and the attendant changes in the world beyond — let us turn back to his works.
Born in New York in 1907 to a well-to-do family, Ullman was a newspaperman, Broadway producer, and literary jack-of-all-trades who wrote plays, travel and adventure books, short stories, and novels. He was also an enthusiastic amateur mountaineer, climbing the Matterhorn while an undergraduate at Princeton University. His 1941 book, High Conquest: The Story of Mountaineering, established his reputation as the nation's leading authority on the subject.
In addition to an overview of mountaineering history, High Conquest was a transparent effort to produce a political morality tale for a nation on the verge of going to war. In Ullman's telling, the gallant attempts of British climbers to reach the summit of Everest in the 1920s and 30s were contrasted with the "all-or-nothing assaults" that he believed characterized German attempts to climb another Himalayan peak, Nanga Parbat, in the 1930s. (The Nanga Parbat expeditions of 1932, 1934, and 1937 left 26 German and Sherpa climbers dead on the mountainside.) Ullman saw a link between the Nazi ethos and the flaws of German mountaineering: "Blind, mindless force is no more the key to the conquest of a great mountain than to the conquest of the world," he wrote.
High Conquest was followed in 1945 by The White Tower, a best-selling novel about wartime climbing in the Swiss Alps; in 1954 by Banner in the Sky, a children's story about a boy climber in the Alps in the 19th century; in 1955 by Tiger of the Snows, an autobiography of Tenzing Norgay that Ullman wrote with the Sherpa who, with Edmund Hillary, made the first ascent of Everest; and by many other works.
For Ullman, the 1953 ascent of Everest by Norgay and Hillary, on a British expedition led by John Hunt, was the ultimate fulfillment of traditional mountaineering values — and something more. The years since World War II had seen anticolonial sentiments in Asia sweep away British rule in India and come to the verge of toppling French rule in Indochina. Like many of his countrymen, Ullman had little sympathy for European colonialism, but he also worried that anticolonialism would be hijacked by Soviet-backed Communists. To have a Sherpa and a "sahib" jointly conquer Everest provided a welcome contrast to much of the other news coming out of Asia in the early 1950s. Reviewing Hunt's expedition book, The Ascent of Everest, Ullman noted "that it was a common victory in a common cause. For a few magical minutes on that May morning of 1953, a man of the East and a man of the West stood side by side on the summit of the earth, bound together not only by a nylon rope but by the bonds of brotherhood and high enterprise."
The first successful ascents of 8,000-meter peaks (Anapurna in 1950, followed by Everest) sparked a steady rise in public interest in mountaineering. Ullman was the kind of writer whose readers felt they could contact and confide in him, and his papers, preserved at Princeton University's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, record America's growing fascination with his topic. "Dear Mr. Ullman," a reader from Grosse Pointe, Mich., wrote on the very day that the news arrived in the United States of the first ascent of Everest, "my first reaction was depression. Somewhere in your book ... there is a discussion of the usefulness of an unclimbed Mt. Everest. Now the mightiest mountain has succumbed; puny man has stood on the top of the world. What next?"
What came next was a wave of first ascents of the remaining 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet. Nanga Parbat would finally fall to a German-Austrian expedition later that summer. Two more would be climbed in 1954, another two in 1955, and so on, until, by 1964, all 14 would have their first ascents.
Only one of those, Hidden Peak in the Karakoram, would fall to an American team. Another letter in Ullman's papers suggests why: "Dear Mr. Ullman," a 15-year-old fan from Willimansett, Mass., wrote in the winter of 1957, "my friends and I wish to start a climbing club. But our problem is we have no equipment."
A few decades later, an aspiring mountaineer in Massachusetts would have his choice of 17 Eastern Mountain Sports stores and four REI outlets in which to browse, not to mention independent retailers, catalogs, and Web sites. But in the 1950s, outside of a few communities in the shadow of great mountains, and a few mountaineering clubs at universities like Dartmouth, Harvard, and Stanford, the infrastructure simply did not exist in the United States to attract, train, and equip new generations of climbers. REI, a Seattle-based retail cooperative managed by a local climber named Big Jim Whittaker, was operated out of a 20-by-30-foot second-floor office above a restaurant on Pike Street. Most of the climbing gear it offered for sale had to be imported from Europe.
Like his young admirer, Ullman's greatest dream was to someday get to the Himalayas. He was turned down for a slot on the 1953 American expedition to K2, the world's second-highest mountain, but in 1963, at the age of 56, he was invited to join the first American expedition to tackle Everest — not as a climber, but as the expedition's historian.
The Americans would attempt two routes — Hillary and Tenzing's, up the Southeast Ridge, and a never-before-attempted path up the West Ridge. Ullman had hoped to accompany the expedition as far as its base camp, below the Khumbu Icefall at the mountain's foot. But an attack of thrombophlebitis prevented him from doing so; instead he returned to Kathmandu, Nepal, to serve as news officer for the expedition. His account of the ascent of Everest by five Americans (three by the Southeast Ridge, two by the West Ridge) appeared first in Life magazine in the fall of 1963, and in book form as Americans on Everest the following year.
Rereading Americans on Everest more than 40 years later is akin to watching a World War II movie from the same era. In both genres, the stakes are high, the cause is just, and, notwithstanding the dangers involved (which would take the life of one of the American climbers in the Khumbu Icefall), eventual victory cheerfully assumed. Americans on Everest is populated with larger-than-life heroes. Ullman describes Whittaker, one of the expedition's leading members, as "six feet five inches of long bone and lean muscle, with shoulders that looked capable of nudging aside a small house and legs that ate up terrain like Paul Bunyan's." Whittaker, who reached the summit on May 1 with the Sherpa Nawang Gumbu, erected an American flag there on a four-foot stake. It would still be there on May 22, when Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, following Whittaker on the Southeast Ridge, and Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, climbing the West Ridge, reached the top. "For Big Jim Whittaker had done his work well," Ullman writes, pulling out the rhetorical stops for this climactic moment. "After three weeks his aluminum Maypole still stood firm and tall. And from it — wrapped once or twice around the pole, but not ripped or shredded, only slightly tattered along its edges — Old Glory streamed out above the summit of the world."
President John F. Kennedy would personally welcome the climbers home in a White House ceremony, praising them in characteristic New Frontier terms for "demonstrating that the vigorous life still attracts Americans." Ullman was on hand for the ceremony, and Kennedy told him how much he admired his books. It turned out to be one of the last days of triumphant good feelings, unalloyed by bad news at home or abroad, that the 1960s had to offer Americans.
A culture of blame and recrimination took root in the mountaineering community in the 1970s (as it did in the surrounding society in those years of Vietnam and Watergate), graphically reflected in the expeditionary literature. It had not been unusual in earlier years for multiple accounts of a single expedition to be published; the American Everest expedition, in 1963, saw the publication within two years of three accounts — the official Ullman book and personal accounts by Lute Jerstad and Tom Hornbein. But those were intended to highlight different aspects of the expedition and were respectful of the other participants (the differences in climbing philosophy and strategy sometimes visible, but understated). By the end of the 1970s there was an edgier, setting-the-record-straight-goddamnit tone. The American Everest expedition had not been without conflict, but it would take a very careful or knowledgeable reader of Ullman's book to see anything but hail-fellow-well-met sentiments at work among the expedition members.
No one reading the following apparently verbatim exchange between two climbers in The Boldest Dream, Rick Ridgeway's account of the next American expedition to Everest, in 1976, would be left with any illusions that sweetness and light characterized that enterprise:
"You haven't done a damn thing that I can see. ... "
"Fuck you, I've done the hardest part of this mountain. ... "
"I have a problem climbing with a guy whose ambitions are about 10 times as big as his abilities. ... "
It didn't matter whether expeditions failed or succeeded — although two Americans reached Everest's summit in 1976, their success in Ridgeway's book seemed secondary to the conflicts that accompanied the ascent. Both Galen Rowell's In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, about the failed 1975 expedition to K2, and Ridgeway's The Last Step, about the 1978 expedition that placed four climbers on the summit of that mountain, were warts-and-all accounts.
By the time Into Thin Air was published, in 1997, very little of the spirit of the "bonds of brotherhood and high enterprise" that Ullman had celebrated in the first Everest ascent remained in evidence on the slopes of the Himalayan mountains. Ullman, who died in 1971, would not live to witness the descent of mountaineering, nor that of the broader culture of which mountaineering is a part.
Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College, is writing a history of Himalayan mountaineering with Stewart Weaver, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, to be published next year by Yale University Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 35, Page B15
Autor: Maurice Isserman, firstname.lastname@example.org
Further information at: http://chronicle.com