I was thrilled that Emily Canders at Penguin Books’ Dutton asked me to review another book by Mark Synnott. I enjoyed reading The Impossible Climb (2018.) But when I saw that Synnott wrote about an expedition to Mount Everest, I worried that he sold out; Everest is for wanna-be mountaineers, not genuine off-grid climbers like Mark, right?
Synnott’s new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest (2021) was released by Dutton on April 14, 2021. It’s title has the feeling of having been used before and bordering on cliche, the subject of Everest is overdone, and yet, having read it, does add something valuable to the conversation about climbing today.
Until The Third Pole, Synnott had embraced mountain adventures that are not in the mainstream and tourist destinations. They were off the beaten path and sometimes truly exploratory in nature. Synnott explored the remote wilds of Baffin Island and wrote a beautiful guidebook about it in 2008. He lead expeditions for The North Face Global Team and National Geographic to remote island peaks and big walls climbers never considered before because they were barricaded by thick jungle. If it had been done, and there wasn’t a compelling new challenge, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. I would not expect Synnott to go to well-trafficked Denali, Mont Blanc, or Everest.
Yet, Everest has a magnetic draw. When Jon Krakauer went to Everest in 1996, that was not his first choice either. Krakauer had climbed off-grid climbs in Alaska. He did big routes and went alone. Everest was on-grid and crowded. Yet, he had an assignment from Outside Magazine and got caught up in the modern endeavor and fervor of climbing Everest and got swept up in history. That year, a major storm struck when many commercial expedition climbers were on the mountain, and many were left unable to return safely if at all. Eight climbers died on May 10, 1996 while trying to summit. Krakauer, as a good journalist, investigated what happened and told the story in his 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air. Synnott went looking for something historic, and he got it, similarly to Krakauer.
I am restraining my criticism about the topic of Synnott’s book, however. This is because what piqued Synnott’s interest in committing to an Everest expedition would have tempted me too: The mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, long before the commercial “expeditions” that have dominated since the 1990s, going back to 100 years ago when Mount Everest was off the grid. For most informed about this episode in Everest history, it’s not much of a mystery in a way; I don’t believe that Mallory or Irvine made it to the top in 1924 as some still like to speculate. Mallory’s body was found on May 1, 1999 on the north face of Mount Everest, but on that visit were actually looking for Irvine. Why were they looking for Irvine? Because Irvine was most likely carrying the Kodak camera and it may hold clues as to what happened to the duo on the first real attempt at the top. It even has the potential of holding a summit photo.
Solving a 100-year old mystery in 2019 involves historical investigation because there is no one to interview, gear to acquire for detective work, comfort, and survival, and physical training and preparations for the hard climbing at altitude just shy of how high jetliners fly. Synnott goes to England to conduct his investigation and gives us a charming lens on Irvine’s 1920s and the 1924 expedition, as well as a contrast to his own in 2019. Many of Irvine’s records are at Merton, where he attended school. Among other things, the Merton Library holds Irvine’s receipts from his preparations, which includes gear and clothing of natural fibers, mostly mailed away, or which he traveled to procure. Synnott comments on the receipts, explaining how they alone are works of art with their hand writing and letterhead. Irvine’s receipts were personal and intimate compared to Synnott’s e-receipts for his equipment mostly ordered impersonally via the Internet.
Synnott traveled to Everest with Renan Ozturk (one of my favorite artists for his multi-media art on canvas and giant rolls of paper done in the mountains,) who was also the team’s photographer and drone specialist. Drones were one of the modern and special gear used for the detective work. Everest’s North Face, where Irvine’s body was believed to rest, was fairly steep. At high altitude, and without arousing suspicion by other climbing parties or the Chinese officials, conducting a thorough search by a small group of mountaineers was impossible; a drone was partly what made this 2019 search for Irvine possible. Synnott shares an amusing, and hold-your-breath encounter with the Chinese authorities with the team while the drone was illegally flying, and it suddenly ran out of power and started to return to them.
The support of Sherpas on the mountain, which are so often misunderstood, was discussed at length. They are increasingly less overlooked in climbing stories and are competent and skilled mountaineers in their own right. Many of them came to the work at Everest and other mountains in the Himalaya and Karakorum because the work is lucrative. And the pay is better for more experienced Sherpa, including how many summits they’ve achieved. This presented a challenge for an expedition focused on finding Irvine’s remains below the summit. The Sherpa wanted to reach the top, and climbing without intending to reach the summit was out of the question. Synnott’s telling of his conflict explains how Everest isn’t just the destination of passion for climbers like Mallory and Irvine, but the source of mountaineering Sherpas’ livelihoods and the conditions their family lives.
The book shifts its attention significantly as a major storm strikes. Like Krakauer, Synnott was at Everest during a major catastrophe on the mountain. You may recall the infamous Instagram photograph by Nims Purja showing the long, line of climbers heading up Everest’s south route, which was taken before the weather went foul. Later that day, the jetstream shifted and a blizzard stranded climbers stranded high on the mountain. Eleven people died. Synnott was still in basecamp, watching the other line on the northern route, similar to the one Purja photographed. Synnott followed the event’s aftermath and covered the human stories, including the story of Kamaldeep Kaur, or Kam, whom everyone assumed was lost and dead.
Synnott takes a rumor and makes it a full-blown conspiracy theory about why Irvine’s body wasn’t discovered by his teammates and himself. The story is worth an acknowledgement but I think it may be given too much credence. If some evidence arises that proves it to be true, then that’s what this book will be most remembered for and should be. In the meantime, it should not.
The Third Pole feels like two stories in one. It’s not Synnott’s fault; he went to participate and retell the story of Sandy Irvine and witnessed another Everest tragedy firsthand. In this way, it is a valuable report on the state of the mountain, including the work underway to preserve its history and the commercialization of the challenge to climb a great peak.
I am torn on how I feel about this book; I am as conflicted as the intent of the book as with it’s outcome. It is as if I turned on ESPN for baseball highlights and only got legal analysis about the star football player charged with battery in a domestic dispute. I wanted Sandy Irvine climbing Everest’s Second Step and what I got was a conga line. And yet, everything Synnott said was true. And I have to remind myself that even Everest is what it is. And it is today what it is and has always been: The highest mountain in the world and a great challenge. Although I am deeply interested in human adventure in the mountains, I generally steer clear of Everest to avoid its pettiness and sensational news, but Synnott got me caught up without feeling like I needed a shower.
I was also tempted to recommend that you skip this book and to read it’s precursor by Conrad Anker and David Roberts, The Lost Explorer (1999,) where they actually find the body. But that wouldn’t be fair to you and would leave you lacking some relevant insight on the nuances of a topic most readers don’t get below the surface. Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole is the book for anyone interested in Everest today, even if you don’t want to be interested in Everest like me. I would also say — and this is not on a limb by any extent — that this book is for every climber that despises the on-grid climbing of Everest. Read it and be better for it.
Rating: Three-and-a-half burritos out of five.
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