Friday, March 12, 2010

The Boys of Everest


The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation
By Clint Willis


I knew before I was a third of the way through this book that I would have a hard time writing a review of it for my blog. First of all, it is hard to pick a word or phrase to describe this book other than haunting. The book roughly follows the career of Chris Bonington who ascended the throne of leading well-known British expeditions into the mountains and then bridging over to equally well-known though much smaller alpine style climbs. Bonington was the end of one era and the beginning of the next. He was also the rock on which many other climbers crashed upon and died or fell out of favor. By the end of the book, most of the characters were dead and the remaining few had fallen out of favor, grown old and gone different ways. This book roughly follows this group led by Chris, not really trying to add insight into what they did or for what reasons but merely as if we were just a floating observer watching these people climb and die. For me, it was a haunting feeling.

The book lacked purpose other than to chronicle about a succession of climbs undertaken by these climbers. The book was well written, easy to stay entertained, but I just kept expecting that it would end with some moral to the story. Instead, it ends just as it began, another detailing of another climb. None of these things bothered me in my enjoyment of the book other than they were unexpected going into it.

There was one aspect of the book that did annoy me. Willis seemed to take liberties with internal monologues of the characters on their fatal climbs when there were no witnesses or documents to record what really happened. The first couple deaths were really surprising because I subconsciously knew that because there was a dialogue and no witnesses that the climber must have survived. After I realized that Willis was creating these dialogues from imagination, I then learned not to be surprised when the climber would suddenly die. However, this made me ponder how many other liberties were taken when writing this book. Another aspect that I felt took away from this book was a lack of maps. Much time and many pages were spent describing routes up various mountains and not one map existed in the book so you were often left confused and wondering which ridge was where.

Overall, it wasn't a waste of time to read the book, I did learn some things especially about the British climbing circles in the 50's, 60's & 70's. It was also neat to hear described in detail how mountain faces are climbed, especially on multi-day situations. The lack of focus and the liberties taken by Willis in the accounts of various deaths among the climbing circle keep this from getting my must-read recommendation... For what that is worth.

5 comments:

R. Sherman said...

The book lacked purpose other than to chronicle about a succession of climbs undertaken by these climbers. The book was well written, easy to stay entertained, but I just kept expecting that it would end with some moral to the story.

Many times, I think people look for answers from climbers about the "why," as in, "why do it?" The reasons are unique to each climber, methinks. For a more satisfying take in that regard, I recommend Jon Krakauer's Eiger Dreams, a better look at the big questions underlying all these climbs.

Cheers.

sage said...

Even if he didn't come up with a moral, he could have talked about them paving the way for the next generation or something like that to give it a more appropriate ending. The book sounds intriguing, but right now I don't think I'll pick it up. I read "Into Thin Air" five or six years ago and this past year read "Dark Summitt" (about the 2006 deaths on Everest). I'd recommend both.

Ed said...

R. Sherman & Sage - When it comes to reading about mountain expeditions, I don't think anyone can compare to Krakauer.

Beau said...

Krakauer just seems more, well earnest or clear to me. Didn't read this one, but thanks for the review. Your points would bother me as well.

Ed said...

Beau - I like detailed accounts of climbs, particularly ones that are significant among the climbing community but reading a whole book full of just that gets a little mind numbing even if written well as was the case with this book.