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Everest: 50 Years on Top of the World, the Official History; Everest: Summit of Achievements; Chris Bonnington's Everest

Everest: 50 Years on Top of the World, The Official History. George Band. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. (In association with the Mount Everest Foundation, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Alpine Club, London.) 256 pages. Hardcover. $19.95.

Everest: Summit of Achievement. Stephen Venables, with Joanna Wright, John Keay, Ed Douglas, and Judy and Tashi Tenzing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. (In association with the Royal Geographical Society, London.) 252 pages. Hardcover. $50.00.

Chris Bonington’s Everest. Chris Bonington. Camden, Maine/New York: Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill, 2003.256 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.

For mountaineers it was undoubtedly the crowning moment of the 20th century the day two climbers—an Asian roped to his New Zealand partner—first stood atop Earth’s highest summit. Tensing Bhutia (later Tenzing Norgay Sherpa) was the 1953 British Mt. Everest’s expedition’s sirdar, while Edmund Percival Hillary—soon to be Sir Edmund Hillary—was a beekeeper. Both of these men’s lives, and that of their expedition leader, Col. John Hunt (later Lord Hunt of Llan- fairwaterdine) were forever altered by the worldwide media attention that rightfully glorified their achievement.

“Not many adventures … ever achieve the status of allegory,” wrote British author and Everest 1953 chronicler Jan Morris in Smithsonian in 2003, the 50-year Anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s triumph. “… Perhaps only two such exploits have [in our time] been so charged with meaning that they have become in some sense transcendental. One was … that giant step for all mankind, the arrival of Apollo 11 on the moon. The other was the first ascent of Mount Everest.”

To commemorate the gala fiftieth anniversary of Everest’s first ascent, London publishers released three new books in 2003. (Each also had an American imprint, given above.) While Everest: 50 Years on Top of the World and Summit Of Achievement are weighty, sumptuously designed coffee-table extravaganzas, Chris Boningtons Everest is more compact; yet all three virtually burst at the seams with skillfully reproduced photographs. And each book is not only a good read, but tells its portion of the Everest story in its own admirable way. However it is the quantity, high quality, and never-before-published status of many of the images in these three books that will make Everest aficionados salivate.

George Band, at the tender age of 23, was the youngest member of the successful 1953 British Everest expedition. After then making the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third tallest peak, two years later with Joe Brown, Band is eminently qualified to tell the story of Everest’s conquest—and he does so with gusto. In Everest: 50 Years on Top of the World, The Official History, he tells the story of those golden days in intimate, fresh-scrubbed detail, in an unpretentious, engaging style that is informative, sometimes humorous, and rather like a fireside chat. As such Band’s book stands apart from (and higher on the readability scale) than many Everest volumes. You become swept up in the drama and friendly English teamwork of the enterprise. You feel the tension of doggedly breaching the Khumbu Icefall and the unrelenting Lhotse Face as the excitement mounts to the historic quests of the two summit teams: first Bourdillon and Evans, then Tenzing and Hillary, pressing ever higher into altitudes and terrain unknown.

But is Band’s book “The Official History” as the subtitle purports? Well, perhaps not. Although the mountain’s discovery and early British attempts on Everest are all zestfully described (along with follow-up chapters on modern routes), Everest: 50 Years on Top of the World, The Official History is primarily an insider’s view of the successful 1953 Everest ascent. But on that mark it scores high, and absolutely brims with amusing vignettes and never-before- seen photos (Hunt and Hillary sharing a pint at their 40th Everest reunion comes to mind, as does a candid snap of an older and wiser Noel Odell.) But look to Walt Unsworth’s Everest for the definitive written history of the mountain, and to Peter Gillman’s Triumph & Tragedy, 80 Years on Everest (1993) as the authoritative photographic and written chronicle of Earth’s tallest peak.

Everest: Summit of Achievement, by volume and weight, is the most massive of the three books. Nothing less than a lavish feast of stunning imagery, the book is—and I say this unreservedly—a photographic masterpiece. Joanna Wright, Curator of Photography at the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library in London, assembled this magnificent visual opus from the society’s 20,000-image collection, taken on nine Everest expeditions from 1921 to 1953. Clearly foremost in photographic criteria was that a picture had not been published. For jaded Everest admirers, this makes Summit of Achievement a true joy, even though the mountaineering action photos, while present, run almost secondary to the book’s mission. The bulk of the image content shows us, in large format black and white, and hand-painted color, the culture of old Tibet. Through it we see the faces, daily life, and religious celebrations of the Tibetan people encountered during the first British forays to Everest in the 1920s and ‘30s; and the monasteries of Khampa Dzong, Shekar Dzong, and Rongbuk prior to their destruction during China’s Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.

To savor these photographs is to be transported back in time to the simpler days of the Dzatrul Rinpoche, the Head Lama of Rongbuk Monastery beneath Everest’s north face, and the era of Tenzing Norgay’s youth in the decades preceding China’s military invasion and ruination of Tibet. Excellent, scholarly-penned chapters on the discovery and mapping of Everest by John Keay, and the religious traditions and sensibilities of the Tibetans residing near Everest by Ed Douglas add importance to the book. Likewise, a thoughtful contribution by Judy and Tashi Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay’s grandson and two-time Everest summiter) on the multi-faceted contributions of Sherpa mountaineers to Everest’s history. Himalayan climber Stephen Venables has the unenviable task—which he performs with his usual literary zeal, along with opinionated commentary from Reinhold Messner—of succinctly describing all the notable Everest expeditions from 1921 to 2003! All in all, this is an essential Everest book—to own, to read, to admire.

Of the three books, Chris Bonington’s Everest hit the bookstore shelves first in 2003. Obviously this volume, a collected “best of” of Bonington’s Everest writings and photographs, would sell a few extra copies during the Everest Anniversary Year, as Chris (now Sir Christian) is the most famous living British mountaineer. This even though the book has absolutely nothing to do with the anniversary of Everest’s 1953 first ascent, since it chronicles Bonington’s forays to the peak in 1972, 1975, 1982, and 1985. Book promotion aside, readers should not confuse his earlier autobiography, The Everest Years: A Climber’s Life with Chris Bonington’s Everest. The former covers Bonington’s major Himalayan expeditions during a 15-year-period bracketed around (and including) his four Everest expeditions. Chris Bonington’s Everest completes the Bonington oeuvre, being an excellent and highly enjoyable compendium of only his Everest experiences. Unpublished photographs (including numerous double page color spreads), diary entries, and postscriptal musings add depth, while a newly-minted introduction describes how he first heard Everest had been climbed. Lastly, an up-to-the-year-2003 conclusion yields a philosophical wrap-up of recent Everest trends: guided expeditions, offbeat firsts, and pointers to the few remaining potential new routes.

Chris Bonington has suffered as much as any mountaineer on Mt. Everest. From defeat and eventual triumph pioneering a new route up the massive southwest face; to the tragic and inexplicable disappearance of his partners Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker on the northeast ridge; to his own emotionally-charged ascent at age 50 via the South Col Route. In this year of the 50th Anniversary of Everest’s first ascent, Chris Bonington’s Everest is a valuable and beautiful testament to Chris’s desire to push the boundaries of the possible while attaining the much sought-after summit of the world’s highest mountain.

Ed Webster