American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

High in the Thin Cold Air

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  • Publication Year: 1963

High in the Thin Cold Air, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Desmond Doig. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1962. 254 pages, 89 illustrations mostly in color, 2 route diagrams. Price $5.95.

This is the story of the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition which was sponsored in 1960-61 by the World Book Encyclopedia and led by Sir Edmund Hillary. As readers of this Journal are well aware (AAJ 1962, 13:1, pp. 69-98) the expedition had a number of diverse objectives which included a search for the abominable snowman, or Yeti, an extensive program of research on the physiology of acclimatization to high altitudes, and an attempt on Mount Makalu which was to be made without supplementary oxygen. The description of such a complicated program poses a number of narrative problems. Certain aspects of the expedition must be emphasized and many others omitted. In the present volume, primary emphasis is placed on the search for and evaluation of Yeti evidence, a secondary spotlight is given to the attempt on Makalu, and the scientific program receives scarcely any description.

High in the Thin Cold Air is divided into two parts. The first half, entitled “In Search of Snowman” by Desmond Doig is an entertaining account of how although the expedition observed and photographed Yeti tracks, acquired Yeti skins, and borrowed Yeti scalps it nevertheless concluded that Yeti tales are primarily just bear stories embellished by the resourceful’ Sherpa imagination. Now Doig possesses rare qualifications for Yeti analysis, namely as an expert linguist and student of Himalayan peoples he could converse freely with the Sherpas, win their confidence and friendship, and interpret their tales for the Western mind. These abilities plus training as a press correspondent add considerably to the narrative as well. For example, instead of reading something like the usual “A few of the townspeople had been drinking and there was a row involving our Sherpas,” we can find instead, “Then suddenly a child materialized beside the bleeding man, and pointing at Urkien (the head Sherpa) screamed ‘This is the man who killed my father”’, etc. Doig is at his best discussing Yetis and Sherpas. There are also some descriptions of the march in—“tenderfoot in the wilderness” variety.

The second half of the book is by Sir Edmund Hillary and it gives us a description of the rest of the expedition culminating in the attempt on Makalu. Unfortunately, Sir Edmund Hillary suffered a stroke while supervising the build-up on Makalu and was forced to retire to lower altitudes. Thus the account of desperate days and heroism high on Makalu is secondhand and lacks some of the impact of a more personal involvement. Needless to say, Sir Edmund gives us only a brief description of his own tribulations as well.

The reviewer regrets that not even a brief summary of the expedition’s more conventional scientific findings is included in this book. Admittedly, the volume is slim, but reports of “primarily scientific” expeditions which include not even a popular summary of the principal scientific conclusions nourish a skepticism concerning the substance of scientific research on mountaineering cum science expeditions. The reviewer would expect that this expedition would have much of general interest to report concerning acclimatization ceilings, mechanisms of deterioration, and the like.

The book includes 88 photographs, mostly in color. The quality of the photographic reproduction is perhaps somewhat better than one would expect from an American book of moderate price with so many pictures. In summary, High in the Thin Cold Air is an interesting account of much of the Hillary Expedition. It is presumably a must for students of the Yeti.

George I. Bell

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