Friday, March 06, 2009

Tragic history of climbing’s lost boys

Book Review

By Rod Smith

In the 1970s and ‘80s Britain lost some of its best mountaineers at an alarming rate.

This was no mass death caused by the sky collapsing, or too many people getting caught out in bad weather on overcrowded routes.

To the contrary these men – and they were all men – were climbers who were pushing the boundaries of alpinism, using techniques developed in the European Alps to climb the monster peaks of the Himalayan and the Karakoram.

Rouse, Clough, Haston, Estcourt, Boardman, Tasker are the familiar names among the dead whose lives are charted by Clint Willis in his book The Boys of Everest (Portico, London).

Subtitled Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation, the book is a thick volume that attempts to draw together the disparate characters who climbed with Bonington on his many expeditions.

All of these stories have been told before, many by Sir Chris himself. Indeed much of the source material that Willis draws on is from well-known expedition books by the likes of Haston, Boardman, Tasker and Haston.

However, the strength of this volume is that it is a potted history of British climbing triumph and tragedy from Bonington and Hamish MacInnes on the Bonatti Pillar in 1958 to the deaths of Tasker and Boardman on Everest in 1982 and Bonington finally climbing Everest in 1985 at age 50.

Over 536 pages – complete with an index – the story unfolds as a type of combined formal history and adventure novel.

Willis’s ability to condense the factual side of the story and at the same time combine it with a novelist’s sense of storytelling highlights what a fine writer he is.

Like a novelist, he ascribes motivations and emotions to each of the key characters. For instance as the all-seeing narrator Willis tells us what Bonington thinks about a certain team member or why Douglal Haston and Don Whillans worked as a team despite Haston not caring much for Whillans as a human being.

Such information has been gleaned from interviews Willis conducted researching the book and it is woven into the characters of these real-life dramas, making the climbers human rather than one-dimensional heroic and tragic figures.

But if this style is Willis’ strength it could also be seen as his weakness: At times his writing moves from living history to pure fiction such as when the unknowable thoughts of dying climbers’ are described in purplish prose.

Thus when Willis tells us what Peter Boardman was thinking as he and Joe Tasker died on the Northeast Ridge of Everest the thrilling history is replaced by wild invention.

This would seem to be the domain of the pure fiction writer, not the practitioner of new journalism.

What we do know is that Boardman’s body was found 10 years after he died and that, to date, Tasker’s has never been found. The knowledge of that is poignant enough.