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Expeditions to Nowhere

Expeditions to Nowhere. Paddy Sherman. The Mountaineers. Seattle, 1981. 226 pages, black-and-white photographs, maps. $14.95.

Care to travel far and fast? Then read Expeditions to Nowhere, a summary account of expeditions undertaken during two decades of climbing on three continents. In just a few hundred pages, Paddy Sherman manages to take the reader on climbs of Alpamayo, Illimani, Huascarán and Aconcagua in South America; Kilimanjaro and Kenya in Africa; and Alaska’s Mount McKinley, among others. Far from being monotonous, these expeditions come in all shapes and sizes: one is an assault on the Saint Elias Range with sixty other climbers in celebration of Canada’s Centennial and another is a jet-set tour of South America and Africa condensed into one.

Seasoned climbers will be disappointed by the lack of actual climbing described in the book. Sherman has stuck to the trade routes and does not concern himself with the technical difficulties that usually catch our fancy. However, I can’t fault him for these omissions, as his intent is not to dazzle us with technical expertise but to reveal the full range of the climbing adventure:

One should never dash frivolously off to the far corners of the world where great mountains grow simply because that is where they are. Decency demands that there should be more important reasons that relegate the climbing to more or less secondary importance, (page 111)

It is the people Sherman meets along the way who are of primary importance. In his clear journalistic prose, he captures them as if on film and offers freeze frames of people in distant places. For example:

Half a dozen Masai women and children came racing through them [the huts] to seek small gifts. They were striking creatures, with almost-shaven heads, wide grins, and earring loops almost a foot long. Around their necks were ring after ring of necklaces, resting on a multi-coloured base plate that stretched from shoulder to shoulder and down the breast, (page 128)

Similarly, while Sherman is on Kilimanjaro, we learn as much about the holiday climbers stricken with altitude sickness at Kibo Hut as we do about the ascent itself.

The following description, in particular, struck me as a fine example of Sherman’s talent for seeing the climbing experience in a different light:

An hour down [Mt. McKinley], the three Japanese were enacting strange rites of passage up the accursed powder of the hill. The choreography began with all bent motionless over ice-axes. At the head of the rope the leader began a rhythmic chant and the heads came up.… It was a strange McKinley blend of dance and demon’s drive, of kabuki mixed, perhaps, with kamikaze, (page 160)

Sherman draws our attention to details that most climbers would never notice—what is lost of the climb itself is gained in his attention to such unique moments.

Hubert Allen, Jr.