Here are some adjectives that come to mind when I think of Mount Everest: expensive, frustrating, problematic, full of problems. The state of the climbing industry on the highest mountain on the planet disgusts me at times: the crowd and the shabby lineups; the money (who spends it, who receives it, who needs it most); the accounts of climbers stepping over their panting, dying peers on their way to the summit. Viewed from a distance, Everest today may seem like everything that is ugly in outdoor activities is breeding.
And yet, like so many of us, I can’t look away. I looked through a few new books on two very different expeditions. Both fueled my mixed feelings about the mountain.
Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain tells the story of Maurice Wilson, a British war veteran who, in the early 1930s, came up with the brave idea of flying a small plane from England to Everest, landing on the lower slope and landing alone. Climb the rest of the trail and be the first to reach the top. There was one major flaw in Wilson’s plan, however – he was neither a pilot nor a climber.
The resulting journey was remarkable. Wilson, undaunted by his own ignorance, took flying lessons and managed to steer his plane as far as India before British Imperial officials, trying to avoid diplomatic disaster because of restricted access to the mountain, overthrew him. (Neither Tibet nor Nepal were interested in foreign climbers at the time.) When his plane was confiscated, Wilson disguises himself as a local priest and goes overland, illegally sneaking into Tibet, and walking 300 miles to the north side of the mountain to begin his ascent. He has come much further in his mission than you might expect, although Everest would not be climbed successfully for almost two decades after attempting it.
(Photo: Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)
Caesar, a contributing writer on The New Yorker, tells the story in impressive detail, drawing on years of archival research. He brings to life a historical character that is both fascinating and crazy. The narrative follows Wilson as he survived the trenches of World War I and then travels the globe for years, mostly breaking hearts and spending other people’s money before fixing himself on Everest. It’s gripping at every turn, but reading about him tore me apart: I was put off by his arrogance, but drawn to the sheer chutzpah of exertion. There weren’t any crowds on the mountain in 1934 when Wilson took his shot, but his hubris and dangerous obsession with the summit would make it home today. Despite Wilson’s misguided stubbornness, it is impossible not to take root for him.
Jennifer Hull’s Shook tells of another unfortunate Everest expedition. In April 2015, just one year after the death of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, experienced mountain guide Dave Hahn and a group of customers took a rest in Camp I. Suddenly, a massive earthquake struck, triggering an avalanche that destroyed much of the base camp among them, burying Everest in tragedy for the second year in a row. Hull, a New Mexico-based writer (where Hahn also lives in the off-season), interweaves Hahn’s background and life in the mountains, his group’s journey to base camp, and ultimately the quake and avalanches it sparked.
The book wades into terrain that some climbing stories prefer to avoid. Hull is open about the financial incentives and lack of other perspectives that drive many Sherpa leaders up the mountain and risk their lives to support the ambitions of wealthy foreign climbers. She doesn’t shy away from Everest’s injustices and the painful ways they are exposed, especially when people die. But it also shows how Hahn and his fellow climbers show the best that mountaineering demands of its practitioners: a powerful drive, paired with skills and abilities that have been improved over the years. And you also captures the rewards: laughter shared with a team, the satisfaction of sheer exhaustion, and a glimpse of something so much bigger than us. Hahn, so experienced and respected, so committed to his group, is the perfect vehicle for the story.
Carefully researched and sensitively written, Shook vividly recalls that these infamous Everest climbers’ conga lines are made up of individuals, each with their own dreams and goals. Hull’s work shows the care and pride that great mountain guides – Sherpa and others – have in their profession, and provides a window into a community that outsiders can quickly judge.
One could argue that the 1930s were a purer time in Everest climbing compared to today’s circus, but I found Hahn was a more compelling, if quieter, figure than Wilson. His story shows that ego and money are not the only things left on Everest.
Buy ‘The Moth and the Mountain’ Buy ‘Shook’
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Main Photo: Courtesy Dave Hahn / University of New Mexico Press
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