by Broughton Coburn
On May 29, 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to summit Everest. Ten years later, an American team made their own summit attempt. In the decade between Hillary's expedition and the American one, only one Swiss expedition had succeeded in reaching the top of the mountain, but the Americans decided that the South Col route they used was a “walk up” and proposed a dual summit attempt: a team from the established route and a team via a new route along Everest's West Ridge. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, as America struggled to retain its leadership on the world stage, a team of determined, passionate mountaineers strove to make history on the icy, deadly slopes of Everest.
It seems to be a year of Everest books for me. I've tackled two books about George Mallory this year: the fictional Above All Things and the non-fiction book Into the Silence. Feeling pretty well-versed in British expeditions, I was intrigued when I stumbled across Coburn's book. I knew absolutely nothing about the first American expedition on Everest. I had to pick it up.
The personality of the American team seemed so different from accounts of earlier expeditions. These men were dreamers and counter-culturists who lived close to the land. Instead of gentlemen explorers, they're a little rougher 'round the edges – several of them had dropped out of college and worked as guides in the Grand Tetons. Unlike many of the European teams, who seemed to climb in an effort to escape the ghosts of the world wars, the Americans embraced the mountain as almost a return to the frontier, when it was man against the wild, chasing freedom and spreading democracy. At least, that's how it came across in this book. Coburn was often quite determined to draw parallels between the expedition and the space race, or bring the old Cold War Communists vs. Democracy rivalry into the narrative. For example, a decent chunk of the book is dedicated to a post-expedition adventure in which the US government attempted to set up a station in the Himalayas so that they could spy on China. Some expedition members were involved in setting up the equipment, since they obviously had experience with the high altitude and the area, but the story feels rather out of place in a book that mostly focuses on Everest.
The narrative moves quite quickly through the organization and execution of the expedition. I never felt bored or bogged down with excessive words. The writing is very journalistic, and while it never quite matches the intensity of a first person account it very clearly lays out events and sketches the personalities of the various climbers. The author was able to interview some of the surviving team, and in other cases he shares excerpts from diaries, letters, and other primary sources so you really get a sense of the men who were involved in the expedition. If you're looking for a nice armchair adventure, The Vast Unknown is a fun one.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Giveaway: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
2011: The Last Days of the Incas by Kim McQuarrie
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
2008: Update on Neil Gaiman contest + author interview