March 01, 2011

"Last seen climbing": Reading on Himalayan Mountaineering

Maurice Wilson flew a biplane to India.

"We would lie in our sleeping bags swathed in several sets of woollen underwear, wind suits, gloves and hats," George Sheldon* recalled. "At any moment we expected to be blown into nearby Tibet. We had nothing to read except the labels on food cans [and] the eternal banging and cracking of the tent made us virtually psychopathic cases."

Since learning about Maurice Wilson while researching Mount Everest in high school, I have been fascinated by the "lone lunatic" school of climbers typified by his doomed one-man expedition on Everest in 1933

See also this BBC report on E.F. Farmer of New Rochelle, N.Y., on Kanchenjunga in 1929—a similar doomed soloist.

But as the authors note, in a way Wilson and Farmer pioneered a "go fast, go light" school of mountaineering.

Such stories so often end with "last seen climbing," but then so did George Mallory and Sandy Irvine's until Mallory's body was found in 1999.

I am working my way through Professors Isserman and Weaver's book with great pleasure. It is smoothly written, almost conversational.

The authors are historians (of radical movements, labor, industrial history) first, interpreting cultural contexts. They write in the preface, "Our climbers are historical actors on and off the slopes, shaped by the world they inhabit as much as any of the statesmen, politicians, clerics, soldiers, artists, or artisans whose stories are told in the more conventional genres of political, intellectual, cultural, and social history."

So there is plenty about the paradoxical British cult of amateurism and its attendant snoberies, or the nationalistic German climbers on Nanga Parbat in the 1930s.

American climbers could be snobs too, as Paul Petzoldt learned. "The worthies of the Alpine Club in New York frankly doubted whether 'this Wyoming packer and guide' would fit in socially with the others and comport himself as required in the company of their British and Indian hosts."

It seems that even when Americans write about the British, they must include the details of who knew whom at boarding school and who married whose cousin. In that spirit, I add that Professor Isserman was a classmate of mine at Reed College, although I do not remember him from the mountaineering class (how I filled my freshman P.E. requirement). On the other hand, my memories of that year are a little . . . cloudy.

Also of interest: Testing 1920s mountaineering clothing in the lab.

*George Sheldon was a member of  a 1939 expedition to climb K2, which ended with several deaths.


Camera Trap Codger said...

Sounds like my kind of book. And in the spirit of British one-upsmanship I can boast knowing George Mallory's grandson -- we were biology majors at SF State back in the 60s.

Chas S. Clifton said...

That comment brought up a memory of a friend in 5th or 6th grade displaying at school a photo of Sir Edmund Hillary at his family's dinner table. Whatever the connection was, I don't remember, but I was jealous.

Darrell said...

Pikes Peak Library District has a great video of Conrad Anker giving a talk about his finding Mallory's body.

Steve Bodio said...

Social snobbery and climbing is a living room elephant. Anderson Bakewell SJ, my old friend, who was with Tilman on Everest, was not just a priest and a scientist-- he kept his copy of the Social Register under his .45 Colt auto. Betsy Cowles, the woman on the same expedition, was also of "good breeding", as was Libby's dad.

Climbers ten years older than me were mostly Dartmouth WASPS. A "half Italian" like me would have been dubious before the Alvarez generation in England...

Chas S. Clifton said...

Darrell--I rented the Nova episode called "Lost on Everest" about the Mallory-Irvine recovery expedition. Not sure if that is what you meant, but it's good.