Americans on Everest. The official account of the ascent led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth. By James Ramsey Ullman and Other Members of the Expedition. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1964. 429 pages, with a glossary. 67 photographs in black and white, 7 in color. Endpaper drawings. $8.95.
Americans on Everest is an important book, one that every American climber should be proud to own. It must have been an extraordinarily difficult book to write. Unlike the story of a small expedition, where the author can usually follow a basic chronological order, with a steady progression to the climax, this story is far more complex. Obviously, any expedition costing $400,000, with twenty expedition members (several engaged in scientific programs) and two basic routes being stocked at the same time on different sides of the world’s highest mountain, cannot be fully described in a simple way. Inevitably as the reader is stepping carefully across the slanting slabs of the north face, bracing against a ferocious wind, he may, in the interests of the complete story, be suddenly swept from his footholds back to the scientists at Base Camp or even to Kathmandu. One realizes that the author probably could more easily have written three or four books on individual parts of the expedition. (For instance, Norman Dyhrenfurth’s story of raising the money is worth a book in itself. He was as close to failure as Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein were later on the West Ridge.) Despite the requirements of writing the “official account,” James Ullman has produced a colorful book full of interest to both armchair traveler and expeditionary.
Americans should be very proud of this expedition. Norman Dyhrenfurth deserves special credit for his tenacity in bringing the expedition into being, organizing its finances, personnel and equipment, and leading to a brilliant success the group of strong individuals whose priorities for group action inevitably varied. The scientific direction of the expedition was ably organized and carried out by Will Siri. The whole party performed splendidly, but one must perforce single out Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein for their magnificent traverse. There were also the courageous achievements of Whittaker and Gombu, of Jerstad and Bishop and of Dingman, Corbet, Auten, Pownall and others. Of course any former expedition member has special feeling for those who worked their hearts out though they did not reach the summit, and for Jimmy Roberts, under whose generalship 30 tons — 909 porter loads — were transported from Kathmandu to Base Camp with only one load lost en route. He also was responsible for the movement of supplies on the mountain. In this regard it is a bit staggering to learn that after the ordinary porters left Base Camp, 72 climbers, high altitude porters, scientists and others were left behind as the basic expedition.
There is no question that the success of the group rested in part at least on the resources of the expedition: financial, material and human. For instance the work went on despite the death of one climber and the short but serious illnesses of two others. I have no wish to discuss here the pro’s and con’s of large and small expeditions. This one was big business. To the great credit of its leader and its team members, the whole party showed the strong love of mountains and of challenge that has so characterized smaller parties of the past. I hope that the day never comes when a climbing expedition loses this essentially amateur spirit.
James Ullman well describes the shock of Jake Breitenbach’s death, and introduces poignant excerpts from personal diaries. He often describes the climbing vividly, much better than he does the life in camp, but of course there is nothing so compelling as the story of a man who can write and who was there. Ullman is our outstanding writer on mountaineering, but I would have enjoyed first hand accounts of Big Jim Whittaker’s climb to the summit, of Dyhrenfurth’s descent to the South Col, or of Hornbein and Unsoeld’s amazing traverse of the summit. I would also prefer more full page illustrations, fewer small ones and better quality plates. But like the rest of the Everest team Jim Ullman has done a difficult job and done it well.
If you don’t own the book, go and buy it.
Robert H. Bates