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Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate; The Lonely Victory: Mount Everest '78

Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, by Reinhold Messner. Translated by Audrey Salkeld. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. 254 pages. Many photographs in black-and-white and in color. Price $16.95.

The Lonely Victory: Mount Everest ’78, by Peter Habeler. Translated by David Heald. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. 224 pages. Photographs in color and in black-and-white. Price $10.95.

Everest addicts have their choice of two descriptions of the first ascent without supplementary oxygen by each of the two mountaineering stars involved—Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner. Starting these volumes, I soon discovered that to find out what really happened one had to read both. Each is extremely egocentric, and the two have a dichotomous set of deleted incidents. Messner, for example, states that the only reason Habeler stayed with him was that no one else wanted to climb with him and goes on to describe Habeler motioning “Let’s go down” with every step to the summit on their final day. Habeler doesn’t dwell on these incidents, but describes a bizarre pact the two made: The summit was so important that either would leave the other to die of his injuries rather than miss the final step. Habeler then describes with some relish the snow-blind Messner’s fears that Habeler may hold him to his word and abandon him during the descent.

Neither really describes the larger expedition they were a part of. This is a shame since it was a marvellously heterogeneous group of men ranging in age from 24 to 54 and abilities from the world’s best to the types one would expect to meet on a Genet-guided McKinley trip. Yet these men had a good time together, put ten people on the summit spanning almost the entire range of their age and experience, and contributed to Messner’s and Habeler’s own success by putting in much of the route, the highest camp and even many of the footsteps Reinhold and Peter followed to the summit. Their leader, Wolfgang Nairz, clearly is a virtuoso to have so successfully balanced such disparate ambitions. A book by him would be required reading for any Himalayan aspirant. The most stunning advance on Everest recently, in my own opinion, has been Nairz’s and Herrligkoffer’s abilities to arrange multinational expeditions that work—French, Germans, Austrians, Italians and Poles reaching the summit.

Those who want a more historical and balanced account will prefer Messner’s. He gives full credit to the early British climbers and accepts their contention that in the right circumstances they might have gone all the way without a mask. He also treats his fellow expedition members with respect and apparent affection. Habeler, in contrast, never mentions the early British achievers or their convictions based on very solid experience. Instead he cites the medical researchers who repetitively insisted that it couldn’t be done. I found this irritating, since, in my own opinion, better stoves, modern equipment and appreciation for the importance of remaining fully hydrated have lowered the effective altitude of Everest far more than the oxygen mask. If the British in their knickers and ignorance could repeatedly reach the height of K2, could anyone really believe that a fully hydrated modern mountaineer could not climb 700 feet higher? Also Habeler is rather mean to some of his fellow climbers and describes some of their failures with almost as much pleasure as his own success. Nonetheless, I found Habeler’s book the more interesting of the two because I had never read anything by him and his description of his relationship to Messner is very revealing. Messner is clearly the best climber on the modern Himalayan scene, but his autobiographies have never had the insight that Habeler dispenses with a few crisp sentences.

In summary, both books describe a very notable climb-the first oxygenless ascent of Everest. To fully appreciate their stories you have to read between the lines in each. If too busy, you may choose to wait for next year’s book-Everest climbed without oxygen use by any expedition member at any time. Now that climbers have so easily climbed K2 and Kanchenjunga in this fine style—the real ascent of Everest without masks can not be far away.

Louis F. Reichardt