A death-haunted saga of the scalers of heaven.
Mountaineering was, for many decades, a particularly British enterprise. To judge by the young men whom alpinist Chris Bonington recruited to climb with him in the 1950s and beyond, it was a British enterprise because its practitioners did all they could to escape “the villages, slums, and middle-class suburbs of post-war Great Britain.” Free spirits all, these climbers proved themselves on the Alps, scaling pitches of the Eiger and Mont Blanc that no one had scaled before, fearlessly riding the “Wall of Death.” Such testing done, “Bonington’s Boys” were ready for the Himalayas, when that wall became a most real thing; on their 1970 ascent of Annapurna, looking for all the world more “like a traveling rock band—the Beatles on their way to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—than a traditional British mountaineering expedition,” Bonington and company lost one of their best mates. Death would become a constant companion, and the roll of those whom outdoor sportswriter and anthologist Willis (Adrenaline 2000, 2001, etc.) rightly considers to be the greatest climbing generation in history was severely thinned by weather, accident and misjudgment. Bonington himself was a capable leader, though it was not until he was 50 that he himself made the summit of Everest, guided along by ghosts. Willis gives in at times to the temptation to throw a few Monday-morning passes, but for the most part, he offers a faithful version of events as they are known to have occurred. A notable exception is the haunting close, when climber Peter Boardman, high atop Everest, awaits death, worrying that his friends would find him there, “skin dried and drawn up on his bones, hair gone white.” As indeed they did.
This lacks some of the thrills and spills of Into Thin Air but is of the same class and caliber—and will make many readers wonder why anyone would ever dare climb into the clouds.