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Everest the Cruel Way

Everest the Cruel Way. Joe Tasker. Eyre Methuen, London, 1981. 166 pages, black and white photographs. £6.95.

This book by Joe Tasker describes the British 1981-82 winter attempt on the west ridge of Mount Everest. It is a grim story of eight comrades, with slender resources—crack mountaineers all—undertaking a cruel task with high resolve, but who are worn down by the unremitting, bitter cold, by their decision not to use oxygen equipment and, finally, by their formless organization which the group labels “democracy.”

Reaching Everest Base Camp on the Khumbu Glacier on December 6, 1981, the British group contrasted their spartan digs with the lavish tent-city laid out by the Japanese who were also attempting a winter ascent of the mountain, via the South Col. They lacked for nothing material. “I have a contract to go to 200 metres from the summit,” one member of the Japanese expedition confides to Tasker. “After that, only Mr. (Naomi) Uemura goes alone.”

Tasker’s group climbed up the 3000-foot steep, exposed rock face to the left of the Lho La that partially breaches the ridge connecting Mount Everest to Khumbutse. This pass is subject to constant avalanches, one of which wiped out six members of the Chamonix Guides’ West Ridge Expedition of 1974.

The true west ridge of Mount Everest has been climbed only once, by the Yugoslavs in the spring of 1979. And the mountain has been climbed only once in winter, by the Poles along the South Col route. Both of these large expeditions used oxygen equipment which climbers, such as Haston and Messner, experienced in oxygenless ascents, believe the paralyzing cold of a winter ascent of Everest requires. So this attempt by Tasker’s group was more than a little ambitious.

After shuttling equipment up to higher camps, they left the selection of what to shuttle up to democractic principles. The reader comes to realize that this form of democracy—the climbers’ misnomer for a complete lack of formal leadership—while certainly the preferred way to run an alpine-sized assault, turns out to be woefully inadequate to accomplish a difficult climb with a larger group. Every five pages of Everest the Cruel Way contains a bitter reproach against the inefficiency of their anarchic organization, or recriminations against the selfishness of others who were perceived to be working less hard, or hogging the lead, etc. It all sounds like ten-year old kids playing unsupervised baseball: two minutes of play, ten minutes of argument.

The end of the game for this group came while Tasker and Ade Burgess lay holed up in a wretched snow cave at their highest camp—Camp III at 23,200 feet. Exhausted by their efforts to place a higher camp on the West Buttress, short on supplies, numb with cold, they were cut off from below by comrades who, also desperately weakened, would no longer come to their aid but, being democratic, would not say they would not come. A final, fruitless argument ensued on their walkie-talkies. Without hope of further reinforcements, the stranded climbers retreated.

There are no maps or route diagrams in the book, so following the climbers’ progress becomes confusing. The twelve pages of photographs suffer in two respects: they are all murky, contrast-flat conversions of color slides—a cost reduction strategem that this publisher has not yet mastered. One picture required 15 minutes of intense scrutiny to discover the climber, so expertly does this conversion process camouflage his bright uniform against the gray rocks. And secondly, one has become so spoiled by the visual artistry of Rowell, Messner, et al, that the lackluster point-and-shoot photographs of this book are disappointing.

Yet it would be a disservice to the reader to end this review on the same sour note as did the British expedition. Joe Tasker disappeared in 1982 with Peter Boardman while the two were boldly attempting another first route on Mount Everest without oxygen, in an even smaller—this time truly democratic—expedition. Joe Tasker deserves a better epitaph.

In his splendid book, The Shining Mountain, which describes a brilliant two-man ascent of Changabang with Tasker, Boardman paints a far more sympathetic picture of Tasker than comes through in the cool, distant writing of The Cruel Way. Tasker himself wrote a second book Savage Arena. Printed in an edition of only 5000 copies, it was impossible to obtain in time for this review. Scheduled for reissue, this book, I have heard, is probably one of the finer mountaineering works to have come out in a long time. It, not Everest the Cruel Way, is what we should remember Joe Tasker by.

Tom Holzel