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The Enigma and Spirit of Mount Everest

by Reinhold Messner

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-26806-8
Publisher: St. Martin's

An unusual memoir-cum-spiritual-meditation attempts to locate (both literally and figuratively) the English mountaineer George Mallory, who disappeared on Mount Everest in 1924.

Messner (The Crystal Horizon, not reviewed) was the first individual to climb Everest without oxygen, and the first to climb all 14 of the world’s tallest (over 8,000 meters) mountains. He sees in the gentlemanly and idealistic Mallory the standard-bearer for a bygone age of “amateur” mountaineering, and he recreates the narrative of Mallory’s several Everest expeditions through an unusual merger of Mallory’s journals, writings, and imaginary reactions to the ongoing Everest drama. This tactic proves less unwieldy than it sounds, due to Messner’s clean narrative line, and it adds verisimilitude to the detailed accounts of the expeditions, which feel both historicized and hair-raising; the reader certainly absorbs the seat-of-the-pants, chipper yet dangerous spirit of these early mountaineering efforts. The author clarifies the important role Mallory and his peers played in normalizing the pursuit, despite long-thorny relations between individual cliques of climbers, and between Britain, Tibet, and China. Mallory and an associate died on the notorious 1924 expedition; both his survivors and Messner were struck by the juxtaposition of Mallory’s grace and skill and the seeming inevitability of his demise. The author also provides an arch account of the progress of Everest’s commercialization, stoked by rivalry between British and Chinese expedition teams, which led to the installation of ropes and aluminum ladders across the mountain's precarious ascents, and then to the contemporary congestion of “tour operators and professional guides, more concerned with profit than with safety, [who] turned a spiritual quest into a cold-blooded accomplishment.” He concludes with the 1999 discovery and burial of Mallory’s body, asserting that although the master likely failed to reach the summit, Mallory remains the spiritual father of high-altitude mountaineering.

Action-filled yet thoughtful, with primary appeal for serious mountaineering students, and selling potential within the “extreme sports” demographic.