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Frank Smythe: The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books (Climbs and Ski Runs; The Kangchenjunga Adventure; Kamet Conquered; Camp Six; The Valley of Flowers; Mountaineering Holiday)

Frank Smythe: The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books (Climbs and Ski Runs; The Kangchenjunga Adventure; Kamet Conquered; Camp Six; The Valley of Flowers; Mountaineering Holiday). Frank Smythe. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books; London: Bâton Wicks, 2000.944 pages. Hardcover. $38.00

For anyone impassioned about bygone adventure in the distant ranges, The Mountaineers Books’ Omnibus series may be the finest way to make contact. The photograph-and map-rich volumes include one by the Austrian Kurt Diemberger, two by the American John Muir, and fittingly, four by the prewar British climbers Eric Shipton, H.W. Tilman, and Frank Smythe. Many readers will agree that the early Brits, in their nailed boots and fedoras, largely shaped both the history and literature of modern mountaineering. England’s postwar hardmen may have dispensed with step chopping and Sherpas on their own initiative, but they were hugely influenced by the rigid sportsmanship of their forebears. The world of contemporary climbing, with its stiff-upper-lip vernacular and alpine-style ethics, owes as large a debt to the early British pioneers as rock-and-roll pays to The Beatles.

As for knighted artists, Sir Christian Bonington had been particularly inspired by Frank Smythe’s luminous career. Amazingly, Bonington’s prodigious output is still eclipsed by the work of Frank Smythe, who published 26 popular books in two decades. Smythe may have been only slightly less active on the crags, but he died at a young 49*.

As a wispy youth, Smythe had been inspired by Edward Whymper’s successes. So Smythe, too, began with the requisite alpine apprenticeship, picking Mont Blanc’s Route Major and Sentinelle Rouge plums. Early on, a reader can discern one of the many shimmers to Smythe’s aesthetic armor: unlike most British alpinists of the day, he climbed without guides.

At high altitude, Smythe often slipped the leash and outdistanced even his partner Shipton. In 1931, Smythe made the first ascent of India’s Kamet (25,447 feet), the highest peak yet climbed—until five years later, when Tilman bagged Nanda Devi, repeatedly called by the colonialconscious Smythe the highest peak in the British empire. In the 1930s, Smythe kept up a dizzying agenda of climbing trips and his chronicles thereof: once to Kanchenjunga, twice to the Garwhal, three separate attempts on Everest, and a half dozen forays to the Alps.

The literal and figurative high point in these six books is Smythe’s first attempt on Everest in 1933, Camp Six. (Early editions of it are still available for $20: proof positive that Smythe’s books experienced numerous reprints.) This touchstone mountaineering tale has little of the disaster yet all of the durability of such later classics as Annapurna, The Mountain of My Fear, Minus 148, Touching the Void, and Into Thin Air—no doubt candidates for a future Omnibus of Accident-Prone Expeditions. The expedition’s isolated fatality, sadly announced by Smythe: the mysterious crevasse disappearance of Policey, the Tibetan dog.

Caveat emptor: the politically correct modernist, while pining for a body count, might cringe at the imperialism of these British Grandfathers of Mountaineering. Readers will find unabashed whippings of thieving porters; the criticizing of uncovered sewage in monastery streets; vaunting about their telephone cable strung from basecamp up into high altitude; and, by story’s end, the proudly announced telegram from the King of England, along with a wireless message ordering the Everest army back home.

“Nevertheless”—as they would say, poised over their basecamp teacups while debating the English plantations in Kenya—Smythe’s pen builds suspense through the poky approach and camp buildup as he and Shipton climbed higher, looking for signs of Mallory. Even without the editor’s subtle footnoting, even without the discovery of a naked body, Smythe’s sleuthing was incredibly close to the mark.

As he climbed higher, cut off from all the approach-march colonialism, Smythe’s description of the terrain and his lurking doubts ratchet up the narrative. The pacing of Camp 6 is clearly the work of a gifted writer; but then, even more unexpected, after Shipton turned back, Smythe’s voice breaks through the time barrier. For a dozen stellar pages, Smythe becomes an ageless narrator, his observations oddly of a piece with those famed alpinists (but not so talented writers) who climbed a half century later. Other readers might also wonder if these latter-day authors were so inspired by Smythe that they couldn’t help borrowing some of his prose.

As he boldly soloed into the Death Zone, he details an unseen companion—decades before these high-altitude doppelgangers became stock partners in mountaineering narratives. In two other passages, he lucidly describes overflying UFOs—spiking Camp 6 book sales among the paranormal crowd. If not for unstable snow, forcing him back down, Smythe could have made history. During the descent to basecamp, he frostbit his feet badly enough to raise pus-filled blisters on his toes. He experimentally took his first whiff from an oxygen bottle and thought it unnecessary. Starved from high-altitude deprivations, his legs shrunken to sticks, he climbed back up without complaint, as if the mountain shrouded in white monsoon might actually give him another chance. Everest, he wrote, had beaten them.

Smythe used the whipping as empowerment. Like Shipton and Tilman, his lightweight expeditionary climbing and writing career surged. He let go of imperialism. In subsequent writings, he denounced bottled oxygen, pitons, and guides. One can’t help but think, given the evolution of this visionary climbing purist, that if Smythe had been given the opportunity to grow old, he too would have cringed in 1953 as two oxygen-masked men, amid a plodding army of Brits, caused the anticlimactic subjugation of the world’s highest mountain.

*On page 941, the editor successfully baited this reviewer [who grabbed a magnifying glass] to read the tiny, unasterisked footnote: “Smythe continued to climb during the war postwar years until his death in 1949 (to be summarized in a later volume).”

Jonathan Waterman