American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Nanda Devi The Tragic Expedition

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  • Publication Year: 1988

Nanda Devi The Tragic Expedition. John Roskelley. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1987. 239 pages, illustrated. $16.95.

A full accounting of the events on the 1976 Indo-American expedition described in John Roskelley’s new book Nanda Devi The Tragic Expedition, if it is understood anywhere, is inscribed deep in the hearts of the climbers who survived that troubled ascent.

What then is Roskelley’s book about, if not a review of the climb? He was, after all, a member of the expedition. And not just on it. Notably, he and two others reached the summit, but not merely by his efforts as he suggests. At first glance, this seems to be the full story of the events. The background data, if a bit lurid, sounds authentic. Roskelley recounts what he sensed to be controversy and conflicting goals in the climbing party. We feel privy to a rising drama. We get numerous snatches of dialogue, retained either by a remarkable memory or constructed by a vivid imagination. And it’s here we begin to think some of what we’re being told is approximate or biased—or both.

Still, we are drawn into a thickening plot. He considers the factors contributing to the dire evacuation of an ailing Marty Hoey. He describes the events and, though confusing in detail, the route leading to the summit success, just before the sad death of Unsoeld’s daughter, Nanda Devi, on the mountain for which she was named.

There is a lot of “I” in this book. Too much of it for me. Though if that were all—too much ego, the book could still hold its own. And there’s the rub. The same single-mindedness that served Roskelley well on the mountain and allowed him, Lou Reichardt and Jim States to push a new route up through the difficult North Buttress here gets in the way and throws the scale out of balance. This is a partial telling, partial both to Roskelley himself and to his closest allies on the climb. There are lengthy accounts of why he was right about events and others were wrong. Most notably, he implies that he alone understood the reasons for Hoey’s illness and Devi Unsoeld’s death. All too often the “I” in the book becomes, “I told you so.” That is where it suffers.

And that is where it is doubly partial. Not only do we come away feeling we are reading a story partial to Roskelley, we are reading only his part of the story. There’s no evidence he consulted other expedition members for their version of events. If an “A and B team” really existed on this climb, as he claims, one can only wonder what the B team, whose collective abilities were certainly equal, thinks of this decidedly singular point of view.

Any controversy about the expedition will hardly be laid to rest because of this book. It’s too bad, really. For there is drama here. As with any good literature of adventure, the potential is present not so much for a book about mountaineering as a book about human frailty juxtaposed with feats of endurance. And surely those elements form the basis of Roskelley’s narrative.

There is intrigue and mis-communication. There is stealth. Subterfuge. Romance. There is the love of the mountains, and expecially the love of this particular mountain.

Yet the book fails to translate the great power of events into great literature. It fails through lack of perspective. The description of other points of view are needed as a counterweight to the ever-present author. And it suffers from inattention to detail. Lots of little things add up to distracting neglect. Conflicting statistics, for example. All that verbiage about rope: 4000 feet is all that’s to be allowed. Roskelley wants 8000. But as the packs are loaded in New Delhi, there’s 10,000 feet, and some is left behind. Confusing.

Not that one asks for an encyclopedic account of the climb. Or for Shakespeare. But more attention to detail would have helped here, along with some editing of the hyperbole and sophomoric writing. All those “awestruck” reactions at the first sight of Nanda Devi. And the melodramatic summations: “This is what we had come so far to attempt.”

Only detail is the flaw here. It is insufficient art. The book has the flavor of drama without poetry. It has the feel of history without all the facts. The elements of a powerful human documentary do not hold together for lack of these things.

Even so, there is pathos in the events. Despite Roskelley’s self-righteous reminders of his many successes, we are inevitably drawn into his version of this now wellknown expedition. How painful this process of recall can be is evidenced by the fact that he felt compelled to have the account published at all. With well over a decade to work through the emotions and polish the document, there is precious little peace about the whole affair.

Erik S. Hansen

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