A few years ago, after reading Jon Krakauer’s horrifying account of the 1996 expeditions to Everest (Into Thin Air) in which 11 climbers died (nine on a single night) due to a combination of bad luck, bad weather and inexperience, I got a bit put off by this mountain climbing business. To “prove” themselves, people had begun paying vast sums of money to be literally pushed or carried up the great mountain, at great risk not only to themselves, but to others as well, just so that later, they could boast that they had “conquered Everest”.
Right at the beginning of this book, Bear Grylls, at 23, the youngest Briton to have made it to the summit and back (which is what this book is about), admits:
I didn’t conquer Everest – Everest allowed me to crawl up one side and stay on the peak for a few minutes.
This humility stays with the book throughout and is all the more refreshing as Grylls is at an age at which most young men swagger around being excessively macho and gung-ho. And Grylls had more reason than most to swagger. Two years before making his attempt, while serving with the British army, he broke his back in a freefall when his parachute failed to open during a jump. You might think that recovering from a broken back is adventure enough for a lifetime – but there is that dreadful demon in the human spirit, which awakens at such times and demands its pound of flesh. You have to do more – much more than merely recover and be normal. And you will find no peace until you do so.
What are my favourite books? – it is a difficult question, because generally I like all kinds of books but especially adventure books about climbing and mountains expeditions. They excite me and give me an escape from the real world. I am interested in climbing and I read books about it – in my opinion they bring you closer to nature. I have finished the book, called Into Thin ...
For Bear Grylls, always an avid climber, that meant an attempt on Everest – a mountain that has fascinated countless and drawn hundreds to its icy slopes. (The mountain claims one life for every six successful summit attempts.) This book recounts that story: from the run-around for sponsors, the hard training involved, the formation of the team, the wait at base camp and the attempt itself. What comes through clearly is how mountaineering cuts out all the bullshit from life – you are pared to bare essentials, and physically and mentally ravaged on top of it. It is about how the stubborn core in the human spirit refuses to cow down – even when you may rationally want it to do so. Anyone who has come within kissing distance of death – or had a long smooching session with it! – will recognise this. Also, at such times you are clear about what really matters to you: for Grylls – as for most people – it was family and God. You also learn to face your limitations and realise that often it takes more courage to turn back and come down the mountain than it does to go up ahead knowing full well that you can’t do it.
What did surprise me a bit was how politically correct and good- tempered Grylls remains throughout the narrative. Especially, good-tempered. I would imagine that most men under such fearsome situations would go blue in the face more through cursing than through the lack of oxygen! But then, perhaps, people who live in cities like Delhi are more prone to such temper tantrums than those attempting Everest. There is also little about the menace of garbage on the mountain even though Grylls does mention that oxygen cylinders discarded on the slopes were usually abandoned when it became a matter of life and death for the climbers concerned.
Grylls maintains the tension well, right through. When things slow down and the climbers must wait for the jet stream winds to lift, you feel the impatience and frustration. And the one-step- after-another doggedness of the climb comes through too, along with the tension and pain. Grylls writes in short simple sentences and there is no attempt (thank God) to be florid or journalistic!
Finally, for all those who may still turn up their noses and sneer, “not another Everest book!” here’s a quote Grylls has taken from a Roosevelt speech (which I admit put me on the backfoot as far as reviewing it went!):
Thoughts on the Mountain Man and the Fur Trade Critique This article was somewhat interesting; it was not a very appealing title for the author to have chosen to write about. He talks about the importance of Fur Trade in the 1800s, even though there are those who say it was not a very important export that required few men I strongly believe that this did play a very big role in history. What I ...
It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or when the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly – so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat… for those who have had to fight with it, life truly has a flavour the protected shall never know.