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The Burgess Book of Lies

The Burgess Book of Lies. Adrian and Alan Burgess. Cloudcap, Seattle, 1994. 463 pages. $30.00.

The Burgess twins, known to all as Aid and Al, became renegades shortly after their joint entrance into the cruel world. During the mid-1960s these tall Yorkshire lads cut school to go climbing, stole books from libraries, and, a few years later in France, crowed when friends snatched expensive pastries from a “big, fat lady [who] was not very mobile and a little slow.” “Harmless” little pranks such as stealing emergency food from lifeboats, placing boulders on railroad tracks, and stealing an Alfa-Romeo for a 200-mile trip through Piemonte made the twins lust for higher goals. So they broke into a winterized Alpine hut and swilled so many bottles of stolen Bordeaux that the next morning, a perfect day for climbing, they nursed hideous hangovers. Smashing a hutkeeper’s head with a shovel seemed like a necessary evil on yet another trip, though this particular form of entertainment didn’t come off as planned.

Such “minor” shenanigans surely make for great campfire stories. But do we need to read about them? Are we amused? Do we envy the brothers their liveliness, their free spirits, their attempt to escape from self-imposed poverty? Even if greatly embellished (as the book’s title implies), the tales of derring-do don’t exactly endear the brothers to us.

Yet surely even Sir John Hunt did something wild and quasi-legal in his youth; maybe the Burgess lads are just being ruthlessly honest about their days of rage. Whatever, British climbing writing has seen a fascinating “evolution”: from the beguiling innocence of Mummery to the masterfully poetic—but annoyingly impersonal—books of Smythe and Tilman. From the matter-of-fact expedition books of Hunt and Hillary to the dry, understated adventure volumes of Scott and Bonington. And so, at last, to the Burgesses’ annoyingly personal autobiography. You just can’t win.

Luckily for the reader, the twins grow up and foist their aggressions onto objects, not people—the objects in this case being rock and ice. We move with the brothers through obligatory scares on local crags, to Alpine misadventures, and, inevitably, to the Greater Ranges. The early chapter titles—“Beginnings,” “Early Alps: The Wild Years,” and “To the Himalaya”—echo the sardonic ones that David Roberts proposed in his brilliant essay about the autobiographical climber’s “Standard Life.” The Burgess brothers fall perfectly into the formulaic trap outlined by Roberts two decades ago.

If you are able to plow through these predictable early years, forgive lifeless and confusing prose, and ignore typographical errors beyond count (almost every foreign word is misspelled), then you’re in for a treat, for the last one-third of the book improves dramatically.

As we join the brothers’ struggles on K2, Everest, and other behemoths, their prose becomes well-written and believable, as if a ghostwriter had stepped in. No more pranks, no more joking; the twerps finally evolve into human beings. The Burgesses’ thoughts on Sherpa culture, death in the mountains, and motives for climbing are presented thoughtfully and honestly; one actively begins to hate the book's title and the early chapters.

The K2 section, written by Aid (as is 75% of the book), is intriguing; we are mesmerized by the conflicts, the tragedies (this was 1986), and the sheer magnitude of the mountain. The twins left Pakistan before the final British disaster, and one wonders how they would have fared had they been high on the mountain when the savage storm rolled in. Given their strength and mountain savvy (a recurring theme throughout the book), it seems safe to guess they would have survived.

A few quibbles: this book not only needed a proofreader, but a competent copyeditor. Inconsistencies abound: a snow cave “was very comfortable for three people” but, on the same page, when three men spend the night there, “I was too crushed to be comfortable.” Redundancies annoy: twice within seventeen pages, in virtually identical language, we learn that Monday mornings were bad-hands days. These intrusions into our ultra-recent memories disturb the flow of the narrative.

Unpardonable errors will trouble those who appreciate accurate climbing history. Flippant A1 claims that “that guy”—referring to Jacques Batkin on the first winter ascent of McKinley—died when “he jumped out of the plane straight down a hole. Spoilt his day. Killed him.” Batkin had not seen an airplane in three days when he plunged into a crevasse; this Burgess lie will grate on those who know the full story. Later, A1 declares that the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan was first climbed using “siege tactics and fixed ropes; a style that allowed for a safe escape.…” This 1965 ascent is celebrated for the exact opposite reason: it was a balls-out alpine-style climb, one of the first ever done (daily fixed ropes were used but were always removed as the team advanced). Shame on the twins; someone might believe, and repeat, this ahistorical misinformation.

The numerous typos are an embarrassment for Cloudcap, the publisher. Several extra spaces and hyphens appear crazily where they shouldn’t—an obvious error. And a spell-check program would quickly have caught “refered” and “dissapeared” and “photgraphs” and “crazys” and “miniscule” if not “Eckpfieler” and “Peutery” and “Grand Jorasses” and “Himalchuili.”

Overall, this is a lightweight autobiography, full of lazy writing and fuzzy gray photographs (plus a few good color ones). It is far too long; I suspect that the brothers wished to dwell on their “bad-boy” image as long as possible—this is what they are notorious for, not their climbing. Had the twins, well-meaning fellows who obviously love the heights, omitted the relatively minor adventures of their youth, taken a few writing lessons along the way, and found a publisher who would agree to spring for a skilled copyeditor— then this could have been a real winner.

Steve Roper