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Fallen Giants

Author Maurice Isserman & Stewart Weaver
Publisher Yale University Press
Reviewed by Ed Douglas
DateTuesday, 17 November 2009
Rating 3 out of 5

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Halfway through Fallen Giants, a determined assault on the imposing summit of a one-volume history of Himalayan mountaineering, two climbers face a similar conundrum. Charles Evans, high on Everest, decides against his partner Tom Bourdillon’s suggestion of pushing on to the summit, preferring to retreat from the South Summit.

Hermann Buhl, meanwhile, at the other end of the Himalaya, watches his partner return back down Nanga Parbat before pressing on alone towards the summit. Despite being born in the same year, Evans and Buhl, authors Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver conclude, choose contrasting options because they are climbing in different eras. Buhl is heralding the determined individualism of the modern age, while Evans comes form a more patrician and courtly age, albeit one tainted with colonialism, where discretion and team-work are placed ahead of a desperate gamble.

There’s certainly some truth in this view. The British Everest expedition of 1953 was in many ways a continuation of the pre-war efforts. How much truth is debatable. The answer depends on your outlook on the causes of history. The subtitle of Fallen Giants ‘A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes’ is a nod to the Marxist historian and cosmopolitan communist Eric Hobsbawm.

Isserman himself is a historian of radical movements in the United States; Stuart Weaver is a historian specialising in British colonial history at Rochester University. Both are enthusiastic hikers and climbers. Their stated aim in Fallen Giants is to locate the story of Himalayan climbing within a broader socio-political framework as a way of understanding what motivated the men and, very occasionally, women who were at the forefront of Himalayan exploration. Were these extraordinary individuals simply that –extraordinary and individual – or simply agents of the cultures they emerged from.

‘Though [George Mallory] famously disavowed any motive in climbing Mount Everest beyond the fact it was there,’ the authors say in their Preface, ‘the expeditions he joined in the 1920s followed the high colonial imperative of exploring, surveying, and ultimately subduing the Himalayan frontier. Throughout this book, these are the sorts of associations we have drawn in order to situate the arcane activity of Himalayan mountaineering fully in the context of its times.’

All historians, certainly since Marx and his ideas of historical materialism, have to wrestle with finding a balance between competing strands: the impact our cultures have on our actions and ideas, our material needs and the demands of our own personalities. Mountain climbing, inevitably, contains all these imperatives to a lesser or greater extent. Which of these you emphasise usually coincides with your own political standpoint. As the authors themselves explain:

‘The expeditionary culture of the age of empire, perhaps best exemplified by the Everest expeditions of Mallory’s day and some years thereafter, was a paradoxical thing. It was bound up with visions of imperial destiny that assumed the rule of white Europeans over darker-skinned Asians and drew many of its conventions from the hierarchical order of the English public school and the British Army. At the same time, it harboured individual climbers who were often misfits in their own societies, romantic rebels who found a spiritual purpose and freedom in the mountains…’

The other big idea the authors want to advance and implicit in the title is that Himalayan climbing follows the classic parabola of rise and fall. Expeditions, particularly a certain kind of American expedition, used to be full of fellowship and mutual support, whereas these days, in the age of extremes, Camelot has been overrun by barbarians more interested in making a few quid and getting their picture in the papers while destroying the mountain environment. ‘Hypertrophied commercial individualism’ is their phrase for this. (The book is far more readable than this phrase might suggest.)

Fair play. When trying to corral a subject as vast and sprawling as the history of Himalayan mountaineering, it’s useful to have a big lasso and historical materialism provides one. And until the end of the book, when the authors’ thesis and storytelling begins to go awry, it proves highly effective. The book is very much a romp across rugged terrain, the first of its scale since Kenneth Mason’s Abode of Snow from the 1950s and in most ways far superior. Packed full of incident, flashes of humour and the succulent fruits of a great deal of reading, it really is indispensable to anyone with an interest in the history of mountaineering.

It opens with a tour de force, a magisterial geographical overview of this prodigious region. From there we spin through the first faltering steps of Himalayan exploration and the curious interface between Empire and sport. Familiar stories and faces loom out from the haze of memory refreshed and successfully reinterpreted. There are, for example, pithy and good-humoured takes on figures like Martin Conway and Douglas Freshfield, although they’re too hard on A. F. Mummery, whose instincts were correct, just hopelessly anachronistic.

I found the sustainted assault on institutions, particularly English ones, a little flat-footed. Like Hollywood movies, where an English actor is cast as the villain, the authors don’t much care the English establishment. Fair enough. Kick the Alpine Club, by all means; I’m a big fan of that myself. But Isserman and Weaver are sometimes not astute enough in their cultural judgements. The Alpine Club has never been a subversive organisation, but study the intellectual positions of its most famous Victorian members, and it starts to look much less like just another extension of the establishment.

A more powerful line of enquiry would be to examine in closer detail the background of the Everest men of the 1920s. Mallory, of course, is there in spades, and is admired for his links to left-wing intellectuals. Likewise Charles Bruce, presented as the quintessential imperial cartoon. But there is nothing about the missionary work of Howard Somervell, who offers fresh ground for their kind of approach. The Quaker and educationalist Robin Hodgkin is mentioned only as someone lucky enough to run into Charles Houston, but the Masherbrum expedition of 1938 would have offered a useful frame for a fresher, deeper and more informed discussion of British mountaineering before the war.

Ditto, writing about Chris Bonington, the authors note approvingly that his mother was a member of the Communist Party and that growing up in a single-parent family somehow put him in the same social bracket as the proletarian heroes Don Whillans or Joe Brown. Yikes! Don’t tell Sandhurst. It’s true that Bonington is a far more complex figure in British climbing history than many of his own contemporaries allowed, but not because he was a working-class hero. Anyway, joining the communists in the 1930s was almost de rigueur for a portion of the English elite. Just ask Anthony Blunt.

Where the authors’ take on English colonialism really tripped them up, however, was in their treatment of the aftermath of the 1953 Everest expedition. It’s well known that relations between Tenzing and Sir John Hunt were strained in Kathmandu, as political concerns hijacked the celebrations for the conquest of Everest. The Foreign Office was borderline racist in its treatment of the Tibetan-born Sherpa, but that charge cannot possibly extend to the British climbers.

It is true that Hunt could have been more emollient towards a proud but essentially decent man. But the authors go much further, suggesting that while the British contingent toured the world making money for the Himalayan Committee, Tenzing was hard at work setting up institutions to benefit his people.

In fact, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling was a way for Nehru to make political capital from Everest, cementing relations with independent-spirited hill people who were ethnically Nepali on the mountainous fringes of India while leaving real control of in the hands of the Indian Army and Delhi. All of which sounds rather colonial, don’t you think?

Ultimately, however, my main concern is that Fallen Giants book doesn’t always get to grips with the most important context of all – the climbing. True, all the people who make an appearance in this book were the product of a particular time and place, but they were also riveted by the idea of climbing mountains. How you do that, what constitutes a challenge, what is perceived as an advance, all build into a culture of their own and have to be understood properly or the project abandoned. Hermann Buhl had a vision; he imagined new possibilities. Some of his inspiration came from his nature, some from his background, but much of it came from within mountaineering itself.

Isserman and Weaver largely get to grips with the driving forces in the Himalaya up until the 1950s, which they regard as a golden age, but their interpretation begins to wobble soon after. They’re not totally fixated by 8000m peaks, but they do tend to see everything through that prism. Reinhold Messner provides a useful continuing strand in the Hobsbawm theory of mountaineering history, the arch-individualist making good. Likewise the commercialism that followed Messner is covered. There’s an entertaining glance at feminism in mountaineering, with the male huffing that followed the 1978 Annapurna women’s expedition.

But it’s all a little simplistic. The last four decades are skipped over in just 50 pages and quite a lot of that is spent on disasters afflicting commercial expeditions. Guys, trust me, a lot more went on. True, after first national ascents, most countries lost interest in mountaineering as national aggrandisement, to be replaced on Everest by self-interested consumerism. That’s an important trope. But there are other strands to examine. Eastern European mountaineering, particularly by the Poles and Slovenians, offers rich material, both in pure mountaineering terms and in the social context the authors enjoy.

They mention Jerzy Kukuczka, but fail to record his incredible achievement of climbing all the 8000m peaks bar one either by a new route or a first winter ascent. Ascents that more or less define modern mountaineering, like the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, Great Trango or the Golden Pillar of Spantik simply don’t appear. The names Voytek Kurtyka, Mick Fowler, and Jenez Jeglic aren’t there. There’s a lot more about Bill House than Steve House. They could have had a field day with the impact Reagan and Thatcher had on climbing, but the project seems to have run out of steam.

I think that for all their materialist historical credentials, there’s a dreamy streak in both the authors. The history of Himalayan climbing no longer holds much appeal for Isserman and Weaver after the Golden Age. The romance has gone out of it for them. Their expedition ideal is very much the American ventures led by Charles Houston before and after the war, a man with direct links to the Kennedy administration, whose worldview perhaps matches their own. For a couple hell-bent on exposing historical materialism and the imperial narrative in mountaineering, that’s rather touching. But it does leave them more in the camp of James Ramsay Ullman than Eric Hobsbawm.

An example. The book finishes with a reflection from Houston after he returned from the first Western exploration of Khumbu, with Bill Tilman, a world he regarded as “a beautiful oasis in a troubled world”. It was hard, Houston says, to leave ‘this happy primitive land’. That’s a sentiment straight out of Rousseau. But Khumbu was no oasis. It had its own history, one that included suffering, hardship, and exile as well as beauty, a world capable of all the prejudice and intolerance of our own, masked by those friendly faces.

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