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The Last Blue Mountain

The Last Blue Mountain, by Ralph Barker. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959- 212 pages, 22 ills. Price 21s. New York: Doubleday, 1960. Price $3.95.

This is not just another book of the expedition; it is different in two important respects. First it is about an accident, one of the most tragic accidents in mountaineering history. Secondly, it is in effect a ghosted account.

I am not in favor of necrological Himalayan books, for I think such things should be kept to ourselves, unless something more is present; in this case it is, and one cannot do better than quote a sentence from Sir John Hunt’s forward, "When an accident occurs, something may emerge of lasting value, for the human spirit may rise to its greatest heights. This happened on Haramosh.”

This also excuses the fact that the book is ghosted. (Actually it was written by Barker from talking to the survivors and from reading the climbers’ diaries.) Naturally climbers would have preferred the account to have come from a member of the expedition, but probably Tony Streather has not the temperament and was too emotionally involved to have written it.

The expedition was that of an Oxford party led by Tony Streather to Haramosh, a fine 24,270-foot peak in the Karakoram. It was a good party which, given luck with route and weather, could have climbed the mountain. More important, it was a responsible party which knew what it was about. The first two-thirds of the book is run-of-the-mill expedition stuff told with the touch of a professional journalist.

The party had already decided to turn back, for bad weather had left them short of time and food, but before doing so Jillot and Emery wanted to go to a bump on the ridge a few hundred feet ahead. An innocuous slope avalanched under them, and the remainder of the book is devoted to the gallant rescue which was so nearly successful. Four were involved for four days and nights without food or water at over 20,000 feet and at the end two were dead. Jillott walked over an ice-cliff, too weakened by the avalanche and exhaustion to realize, and Culbert fell back exhausted by frostbite. It is an unbelievable story of heroism and human endurance. Barker tells it well, clearly and with restraint.

This tragedy makes grim reading. But anyone who is interested in the heights to which the human qualities can rise in a tough situation should read the book.

Roger Chorley