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Upon that Mountain

Upon That Mountain, by Eric Shipton, 222 pages, 30 illustrations and 4 maps, with a Foreword by Geoffrey Winthrop Young. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1943. Price 12/6.

The distinguished contributor of the Foreword places Mr. Shipton in the forefront of present day explorers and regards his Nanda Devi, containing an account of his penetration into the “Sanctuary” of that mountain as among the best books of adventure that he knows. The present, the third book by Mr. Shipton, containing the history of his very remarkable climbing achievement, adds further to his reputation as a mountaineer and writer. The title, which appears to us not to be a happy one, because inadequate, is taken from lines of Shelley on “Mount Blanc”:

“In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, In the lone glare of day, the snows descend Upon that mountain; none beholds them there, Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun Or the star beams dust through them.”

Mr. Shipton is one of the many British climbers who were awakened to the attractions of the mountains by the writings of Edward Whymper. It was his magnum opus, The Great Andes of the Equator, that supplied the stimulus to exploration and adventure. The physical approach to the mountains took at first the form of walking tours in Norway and ascents of some of the lower peaks of the Dauphiné. Then there were a few seasons at Zermatt and Chamonix where bigger and more difficult things were accomplished. And although the author found Chamonix to be a horrible place, yet he declares, “it is doubtful that there is any place in the world that can rival it as a climbing centre.” The Alps represented his first real contact with great mountains, and he left them with regret—being without any inkling of the important things the next dozen years would bring—for, notwithstanding their limitations, and spoiling, they presented superb fare and possessed qualities which he has not found among other mountain ranges; partly, perhaps, because it is difficult to recapture the feelings of early youth : pp. 41, 42.

Mr. Shipton had hoped to find in the profession of geology a suitable occupation in the open air. Disappointed in this, he left Cambridge University for East Africa, where he settled on a farm from which Mt. Kenya, 20 miles distant, was plainly visible and challenging. Here he met Mr. Wyn Harris. Together they made the first ascent of Nelion, the lower of the twin peaks, and the second ascent of the higher peak Batian, from the summit of which, owing to the wonderful clearness of the atmosphere, they could see the highest peak in Africa, Kilimanjaro, though 250 miles distant. The author climbed it with W. H. Tilman, in whom he found a congenial companion; although “he never slept like an ordinary person,” but would get up early to make a “filthy brew” of porridge. A traverse which they made of both peaks of Kenya is vividly and enthusiastically described, and of this mountain the author says: “I know of no mountain in the Alps, with the possible exception of Mont Blanc that presents such a superb complexity of ridges and faces, a complexity that would delight the heart of any mountaineer.” Shortly after this exploit disaster nearby befell the climbers on Midget Peak, of which a striking picture and sensational account are given in Chapter IV. Later the author added Ruwenzori to his bag of big African peaks.

In 1931 he was brought into contact with the Himalayas by joining Mr. F. S. Smythe’s successful expedition to Kamet, the second highest peak that has been climbed to the summit; but he was unable to form one of the party on the ascent of the highest mountain that has been climbed, and the route to which he opened up, namely, Nanda Devi, the conquest of which was effected by W. H. Tilman and N. E. Odell, and is referred to as “the finest mountaineering achievement ever performed in the Himalayas although admittedly more daring attempts and greater skill have been displayed in the Bavarian attempts on Kangchenjunga. The author’s Himalayan experiences were greatly enlarged and deepened by his participation in the Everest expeditions of 1933, 1935, 1936 and 1938, an illuminating summary of which is presented in three chapters, VI, VII, and XI.

On both the 1924 and 1933 expeditions, an altitude of approximately 28,100 ft. was reached, on the former by Colonel Norton, on the.latter by F. S. Smythe when the author accompanied to the highest camp VI at 27,400 ft. It was to this camp that Wyn Harris and Wager brought back the ice-axe that belonged either to Mallory or Irvine, rustless owing to the dryness of the air. Mr. Shipton was unable to go more than a very short distance beyond this camp, and Mr. Smythe, who reached the great couloir, but found masses of fresh snow on the rocks, decided that it was fool- hardly for a solitary climber to advance further. The strain of climbing alone had been so intense that he required to rest that night at Camp VI. In order to give him more room in the small tent and at the same time relieve the anxiety of those lower down, with whom communication could not be established, his companion undertook to descend. A sudden storm “characteristic of Everest” almost prevented him reaching Camp V, p. 128; and so exhausted was he on reaching Camp III on the following day that he experienced a mild form of aphasia.

The later expedition to Everest, as is well known, did not get as high as those of 1924 and 1933. The weather in 1936 and 1938 rendered all attempts hopeless, but during the 1935 trip 26 peaks, all of them over 20,000 ft., were climbed, and of these two of the party climbed on fewer than 17. It was on this expedition that the body of the young American, Mr. Farmer, who had attempted the peak alone the year before, was found some 300 yards above Camp III, at ca. 22,000 ft. On pp. 189, 190, the author states very clearly his views regarding the tactics that will have to be followed for a successful ascent of this great peak, whose resistance to all attacks hitherto he finds as it should be.

The last expedition carefully planned, in which he was actually engaged, the exploration of the Karakoram, where there is “the greatest concentration of lofty peaks in the world,” and which had attracted him for some years, was frustrated by the outbreak of the war.

At the outset of his mountaineering career the author showed his dislike of any elaborate equipment such as an older climbing school considered indispensable. Finding on his first tours that his knapsack was too heavy he dispensed with even such articles as soap and an extra shirt. As a climbing companion, Tilman suited him well, for “he had a remarkable ability to put up with, even a liking for unpleasant conditions.” This early attitude was intensified by the huge, expensive and ill-balanced Everest expeditions, which he holds responsible for the enormously planned German and French Himalayan Expeditions, and has become an important item in his mountaineering tenets. The arguments against large expeditions are briefly set out in Chapter VIII; those for small ones are cogently presented in Chapter IX. Are the latter universally and unqualifiedly applicable ?

It is doubtful that many even among the hardiest Himalayan climbers will accept the limitations that are placed on the food supply, or would be willing to subsist for several weeks on a diet of flour, rice, chives and wild rhubarb. In the organization of the 1938 Everest expedition under Tilman Mr. Shipton was able to give effect to his austere maxims, but the weather excluded a comparison with the previous and more elaborately equipped ones. His judgment, which is contrary to the opinion of other qualified climbers, among them that great mountaineer and explorer, the late Mr. Douglas Freshfield, that a party of two is the best for the final climb on Everest, rather ignores the possibility of a mishap, and when he declares that in the many expeditions that he has taken part in, he does “not recall a single occasion in which sickness of any member of the party has prevented us from reaching our objectives” (p. 131), the question is suggested, whether had there been three climbers in the final attempts of 1924 and 1933 a higher point, perhaps even the summit, might not have been reached, and Mallory and Irvine might not have perished. The success of the Nanda Devi Expedition afforded a strong argument in favour of a small and more mobile organization; but it was reduced beyond expectations, because of the desertion of some of the porters, the lack of whom was severely felt by the climbers, while the supply of food appears to have been skimpy. And Nanda Devi is 3400 ft. lower than Everest.

“One of the most acute problems of expedition life,” says Mr. Shipton, “is the difficulty of preserving harmony among the members of the party” (p. 207). Essential to such harmony is that each man should feel he has an important part to play, must be capable of deriving a deep satisfaction from some aspect of his environment, and that all should be in agreement with the general conduct and policy of the expedition. “In my opinion far too much emphasis has been laid on leadership in connection with mountaineering and exploratory expeditions, for this has led to an exaggerated notion of the importance of the leader and the difficulty of the task” (p. 210).

The modest format of the book is hardly in keeping with the importance of its contents, and although the author’s powers of description are very considerable, yet his style is so restrained that readers, not versed in mountaineering topics, may hardly realize how great his achievements have been. Among the illustrations which are excellent, there stands out a superb view of the Makalu as a frontispiece, which the attractive wrapper shows the author looking out from a peak N!.W. of Everest. Pictures of Shaksgam peaks are very striking. It is regrettable that there is no index.

J. W. A. H.

1On p. 103 the author writes that Norton, who was alone, failed to cross this couloir; but in The Fight for Everest, p. 112, Norton writes, “the couloir was filled with powdery snow into which I sank to the knees or even to the waist.… Beyond, the going got steadily worse.…”