The verdict on what are classic climbing books is still out, for me, which is a reason I keep this blog, but this book is significant for its subject and its approach. Annapurna South Face: The Classic Account of Survival by expedition leader Sir Chris Bonington, published in 1971, broke the mold of what everyone thought an expedition book was supposed to be. And if this isn’t a classic climbing book, it is at least the record of a historic climb.
Although some have found the book tedious with logistical details about climbing expedition management, that is typical of an expedition book. That is, after all, what this book is fundamentally. And Expedition books played an important role; they were the standard way to record explorations into new realms, particularly to guide future explorers and adventurers about what is already known, and, of course, establish a record of one’s accomplishments. Bonington, however, stands out as a writer of an expedition book and a climbing leader, and his book could be a top ten classic climbing book.
First, Bonington is not actually the sole author. As was the case with all expeditions, the leader wrote the chronicle and his (yes, they were all men with few exceptions) team members would attempt the summit. And the underlying idea, from the ethical approach common among big expedition efforts, was that if one person from the team made the summit, the whole expedition was successful. In this case, Bonington included the chapter about the last leg of reaching the summit from the first-person perspective of Dougal Haston who reached the summit with Don Whillians.
These books include a treasure trove of data and stories that is sometimes like going through a box from my grandfather’s business; I found things called paperweights, old photos, hand-written receipts, and correspondence (old fashioned letters hammered out from a typewriter.) For Annapurna South Face, Bonington opened his filing box and spoke about the process of getting official approval from Nepal and traveling, with his team and all of their gear, by boat. Bonington lead a team of team 21 climbers, including Haston, Whillians, Mick Fowler, Tom Frost (the sole American, in case that matters to you,) and several other alpine luminaries. After organizing food and porters to carry their loads, they often slept under the stars.
I don’t know whether to excuse Bonington or call him out for his insensitivity over Nepal’s poverty. During the expedition party’s approach to Annapurna he witnessed the Nepalese children, and observed the fifth and low-quality of living, the poor quality of food, and how their simple, delightful smiles were something noble yet naive to their poverty. The observation was honest, but in fact, he was naive to his party’s own entrance on the scene, which was a juxtaposition of health, fitness and the pursuit of a luxurious challenge.
One of my favorite segments involved Don Whillians during a lonesome wandering on the approach. He returned from reconnoiter as if he had seen a ghost. In fact, he believed he saw an abominable snow monster, the Himalayan Yeti. Whether he had or not, Bonington suspected that Whillians had merely became disoriented, spooked himself, and walked in circles. Whillians long disputed this; it’s worth the your own wandering down a search-engine rabbit hole about this.
Whillians was also handy, and, in order to provide better sleeping accomodations on the wall, Bonington documents the Whillians Box. It was essentially a cube-shaped tent with lumber for support. It could also be described as a port-a-ledge and tent combo. Arguably, it was more protection from falling debris too.
Bonington invited one American on this British expedition. It was good for some added publicity with a news audience across the pond. (Notice I said “news” not media; it was 1970, after all.) But Tom Frost, the American stood out among the team for reasons other than his nationality. The British members drank and smoke regularly. Frost was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke either. It came to blows on the steep flanks, during a multi-day hold up in a tent. The smoke would get to me too; I’ll let you read the book to see how that panned out and affected the rest of the climb with his partners.
Bonington tracked his climbers up their chosen route, starting with a long ice ridge, then an equally long rock face. All combined it took longer than planned: Five weeks followed by three more, respectively. To tell the story of the summit leg, as was the approach in other expedition books like Annapurna, Dougal Haston contributed a chapter with his firsthand account. Haston dropped his personal gear but recovered and persevered. I don’t like to spoil the whole thing, but will say that the story gets better, and there is a tragedy. (Perhaps both are common knowledge among climbers, but reading it first hand yourself is important; it is the primary source, so dive in!)
Bonington was indeed detailed. That is an criticism or a compliment, depending on your opinion. I admit that I appreciated the detail and it wasn’t a dry list, but a rich commentary, with personality, colorful opinions from experience, that was laying evidence for not only what Bonington’s men did but the style, way, and judgments of how they did it. Their gear, the conditions, and the ice ridge and rock face were all subjective to interpretations of strategy. I like to think I was able to see things as the author.
NEXT POST, LIFE’S EVOLVING CHALLENGES
As for life here in Peaklessburg, my Habitat affiliate has embarked on a five-year building plan. Since it’s a nonprofit and requires fundraising, pledges, visits, and such, it could easily be likened to the five-year voyage of the starship Enterprise visiting new worlds. The most complicated part, though not necessarily the hardest, is finding suitable sites for new homes, which takes a lot of due diligence for feasibility and, at times, negotiating.
Suburban life has sucked me in a little more. With two cars compared to our one in DC, I have shuttled our kids around more often than I ever considered I would have. Thank goodness for wireless devices and Bluetooth connections.
In TSM news, I’m stopped and will finish soon Rick Ridgeway’s autobiography, Life Lived Wild (2021) from Patagonia Books. I Ridgeway’s books never seemed that compelling to me, but I now see why he has been so important, at least to the Patagonia company and brand over the years. I’ll explain that later.