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Four Against Everest

Four Against Everest by Woodrow Wilson Sayre. Englewood Cliff, N. J.;

Prentice-Hall, 1964. 259 pages. Illustrations. Price $5.95. Who in his boyhood has not dreamed of attempting some great exploit? And if the exploit also involves a great prank, why, so much the better. What could be a greater exploit than climbing Everest? What could be a greater prank than doing it without permission, by a forbidden route and with a party whose experience and competence is minimal at best? Then what matter that the host country, Nepal, was embarrassed because of the illicit entry into Tibet? Indeed what matter if our own country was embarrassed or even jeopardized by the prank? It should be noted parenthetically that after his return Mr. Sayre actually debated whether to publicize the trip in Life Magazine. The urge to publicize won after Mr. Sayre’s unnamed advisers told him that the Department of State greatly exaggerated the potential harm. It is understood that the Department of State took a less sanguine view of the affair.

One must suppose that the fact that this trip placed the American Mount Everest Expedition in danger of being denied permission at the last minute was the best joke of all. Well organized, with many dedicated and experienced members and, worst of all, having legitimately sought and obtained permission, it is easy to understand why Mr. Sayre should have had so little concern for a group whose undertaking was so antithetically opposed to his own.

Mr. Sayre certainly recounts his attempt to carry out his prankish exploit in a very engaging manner. In the time-honored way he takes us through his preparation, approach, attempt and finally retreat. The general public will undoubtedly find the climbing details properly chilling. Knowledgeable climbers should find them even more so.

Some of the things that Mr. Sayre neglects to tell are almost as interesting as the things he does tell. For example Mr. Sayre gives several reasons why he did not attempt to obtain official permission to climb Everest. Various other groups had previously obtained permission for several years in advance and permission would have been doubtful for such a small, inexperienced party. So he sought and obtained permission from the Nepalese to climb Gyachung Kang, a smaller peak near Everest. What Mr. Sayre neglects to add is that by means of this ploy he not only neatly avoided queuing up with other groups seeking to climb Everest, but also managed a saving of several hundred dollars. The Nepalese charge a fee for climbing in their country and the size of the fee depends on the size of the mountain. The sum saved by the deception was small, but on a limited budget every cent counts, as Mr. Sayre points out more than once.

Another point that Mr. Sayre is quite vague about is the helicopter ride out from Namche Bazar. One gets the distinct impression that Sayre’s party merely hired a commercial helicopter to save themselves a rather long, uncomfortable walk in the rain. After reading a letter addressed to the Editor of the Boston Herald by the American Ambassador to Nepal, printed on July 15, 1964, one begins to wonder about the condition of the party on its return to Namche Bazar and about several other facets of the narrative. Ambassador Stebbins points out that the message for the helicopter was sent on a military wireless unit available only in an emergency. In addition the only helicopter available was one under exclusive contract to the U. S. Government and that in this case its use was authorized because an emergency evacuation had been requested by Sayre.

Sayre expends a good deal of effort in attempting to justify his trip. However the gravamen of his argument seems to be that grown up people should have a right to risk their own lives. Any sensible climber knows that the second part of this argument will almost never be true. When a dangerous climb is undertaken one must always remember that other climbers have never, and probably will never, stand idly by when there is the faintest chance of rescue, no matter how dangerous. As to the first part of argument each reader will have to form his own opinion as to whether Sayre and his party fit into the category stated.

James P. McCarthy