Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I have been reading a lot of books lately about climbing and mountaineering. This has been a pleasure of mine for decades. I first started reading these books when we were at LSU and I would check them out of the library.

The first book I ever bought was a used copy of Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, about the first ascent of Annapurna in the Himalayas. It was the first 8,000 meter peak to be climbed. I can see the battered book in my bookcase as I sit here.

I have several books by and about Sir Edmund Hillary. He came to LSU to give a lecture once when we were there. I carried a copy of one of his wife's books and he signed it. Later she and one of their daughters were killed in the crash of a small plane near Mount Everest. Of course it is unknown to him, but Sir Edmund and I later parted over political differences. He is a big Labour supporter and I am National.

One of the hazards of high profile mountaineering is that it is high risk. They lose a lot of friends on mountains. It is also a hazard of reading these books. You get to know someone and then they get caught in an avalanche, their rope breaks, they get hit by a rock, or they do something stupid and they die.

I read a book by Goran Kropp Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey. He is one of the few climbers that I actually liked. He survived the disastrous 1996 season on Everest where five climbers died in one day. He made it to the top although he was climbing by himself.

Then he fell and died climbing in Washington state.

It is a puzzle even to me why I read these books. I have never tried climbing and I don't personally like these people.

They are selfish. They leave their wives, girl friend, and children, to go off on an expedition lasting months. (And they often have simultaneously a wife and a girl friend.)

On the mountain it is a hard life. Most often cold, a cold so intense we can't really imagine it. It is wet. They run out of food. They get hurt. All these things, yet they keep climbing.

At home they live a debauched life. They go to parties with blankets in the backs of their cars because they know they will be so drunk that all they can do later is crawl in the car and go to sleep. The smoke of marijuana is thick in their hotel rooms.

Maria Coffey, who lived with Joe Tasker, tells how, after he dies on Everest, she is sent his personal things and finds he has had a girl friend in London all along.

On the English expedition to Annapurna the climbers, including Dougal Haston, wonders whether they want Tom Frost along. He is such a strange man, an alien to them, because as a Mormon he doesn't drink or run around on his wife.

When someone dies, it doesn't seem to affect them the way it would an ordinary person. The climb continues. After all, they tell themselves, he would want it that way. Perhaps they never truly let anyone in their heart just so it won't hurt so much when they are killed.

They don't have much understanding of other people lives. Lou Whittaker, director of the Mt. Rainier Climbing School, and twin brother of Jim Whittaker, first American to climb Mt. Everest, recounts a story in his autobiography. He has a hot tub in his back yard. He and his wife are in it when his teenage son and his girl friend come by. He persuades her with the son to join them. I have forgotten to say that they are all naked. He seems proud as if he has liberated her.

If I were her mother, I would be so mad. Can this be considered contributing to the delinquency of a minor?

Despite my puzzlement, I continue to buy these books and enjoy them. It is another world, one very different from mine. One I would not want to be in. I don't like their lifestyle and I hate to be cold.

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