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The Loneliest Mountain

The Loneliest Mountain. Lincoln Hall. Photographs by Jonathan Chester. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1989. 232 pages. $35.00

Scarcely 4000 meters high and technically not very demanding, Mount Minto is not the conventional idea of a difficult mountain. Yet because of its location in a rugged comer of Antarctica, at the beginning of 1988 it remained unclimbed despite several attempts. Its ascent was a formidable challenge to an underfinanced group of Australians. As one of them writes:

All we needed was a ship and enough fuel, food and equipment for eleven people to sail 4000 nautical miles, survive for up to eighteen months in the most inhospitable climate in the world, as well as for six of the team to travel 300 kilometers overland across unknown glaciers and through passes, in order to scale a massive unclimbed peak. In three months they did it all and returned to Australia without serious injury or unreasonable stress.

One result of this triumph is a book (there is also a video with the same title) that is likable and informative. The mountaineering experience of the six climbers ranged from Himalayan to virtually none, and the variation adds texture to their enterprise.

Though close to Australia, Antarctica is cut off from it by a lot of cold, turbulent sea. The group got there on a 21-meter sailing vessel, with intermittently functioning motor, “endearingly named” (to quote the foreward by the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally) the Allan and Vi Thistlethwayte. (The Thistlethwaytes were the most important of the expedition’s many patrons.) The little ship pitched constantly, relegating the most seasick climber to his bunk for the entire voyage, and was afflicted with many mechanical problems. On arrival, it had to be maneuvered carefully through the pack ice to a mooring at Cape Hallett, from which the circuitous approach to the mountain could begin. Several weeks of arduous hauling, trekking and climbing culminated in the successful ascent, all the happier because all six aspirants made the top.

The narrative is a pleasure to read. I found it interesting and at times pleasingly humorous, however, rather than compelling. One reason is that so little went wrong: the most trying moment was the loss of the skidoo, their only means of motorized hauling, along with a crucial pair of skis. Another is that despite extensive use of dialogue, the author does not effectively differentiate among his six characters. Although their speech is convincing, they sound much alike.

In the inevitable comparisons with earlier explorers like Amundsen and Scott, one can’t help thinking how significantly modem technology protects our contemporaries. Hall addresses this point in his introduction: “Our aim was to climb a mountain, but the size and style of the expedition was actually more important than the goal itself. … The challenge is to meet the world on its own ground, because then one has no choice but to understand it.” The six made the climb in good style, but they were dependent on radio communication, and the genuine risk of having to winter over—because the ship would have left to escape being trapped in the ice—was finally eliminated by a helicopter evacuation to a large, friendly ship.

The greatest virtue of the book is its production. If $35.00 sounds like a lot, then believe me, the value is excellent. The large glossy pages are studded with marvellous color photographs, thoughtfully laid out and worth the price of admission by themselves. There are also some clear, helpful maps. The Mountaineers and the printers in Hong Kong are to be applauded. Moreover, various members of the expedition contribute valuable appendices on food, photography, equipment and other matters essential for anyone contemplating a similar enterprise.

The book is animated by a strong environmental concern. A prologue describes a nighttime ascent of the Centre point Tower in Sydney, to display a bannner protesting nuclear warships. The note left on the summit reads in part: We intend the ascent be used to place Mount Minto as the cornerstone in an Antarctic World Park for the physical and spiritual benefit of all humankind.” Amen to that.

Steven Jervis