Thursday, 8 December 2016

Book Review: Everest: Free to Decide by Ian Woodall, Cathy O'Dowd


May 1996 was one of the most eventful months in Everest's history - for all the wrong reasons. Fourteen expeditions were trying to climb the mountain from the southern side, among them the first South African team ever to attempt the summit. Sponsored initially by the "Johannesburg Sunday Times" and with the personal blessing of Nelson Mandela, the expedition was led by Ian Woodhall, and ex-British Army officer who had relatively limited high-altitude experience. The South Africans were dogged by early problems, which started when the three most experienced climbers in the team quit before even reaching base camp due to personality clashes with Woodhall, who also banished a reporter and photographer from the main sponsor, who then withdrew their support. 

At the South Col (26,000 feet) they sat out the huge storm of May 10-11 that led to the death of 11 climbers, but finally achieved their goal on Saturday 25 May when Ian Woodhill and Cathy O'Dowd reached the summit of Everest. Bruce Herrod, the deputy leader and a renowned photographer, reached the top later that day, unfortunately he did return - his body was found not far below the summit a year later.

My Review: 
When I read this book I was well aware of the allegations laid against the South African team on not doing their share to help in the rescue attempt in the 1996 Everest disaster. From everything I've read, I don't believe they did enough to help and there is no doubt that team leader Ian Woodall was disliked for being abrasive and uncooperative with other expedition leaders. However I decided to judge this book instead on the quality of the writing and not personality.

In the interests of fairness, there are a few points that need to be made. All of the teams on Everest that year paid a lot of money to be there and everyone had the same ambition to reach the top. Everyone wants to make a summit attempt during a good weather window so I don't think Rob Hall or anyone else had the right to order any team to sacrifice their best chance of summit glory to let Rob's or Scott's team get it instead. I understand the fears Rob and Scott had about a bottleneck and why they wanted to stagger the summit attempts but you can't ask others to climb in worse weather for their attempt to suit you. I understood why Ian wasn't happy about that idea. As it happens, the South Africans did not attempt to summit on that day, a decision that had them safe in camp when the storm hit.

This book defends the actions of Ian, which you would expect. He disputes that he ranted to Rob about being ordered to summit on a different day and that he said he was unsure which day he would climb, based on weather and not what Rob said. Ian says when he was asked to help with the rescue, he said they would if someone showed him the route up. As first timers on Everest none of his team knew the way to go and needed guidance to find their way in poor weather, but that no one came to guide them due to lack of radios at camp four. Ian claims to have tried to get around camp to find someone to guide them but could barely find the tents in the storm and had to give up. Ian and Bruce want to bring the bodies of Beck and Yasuko back to camp and say nobody showed them where the bodies were. If that is true could she have been saved? In Mike Trueman's book he indicates that Ian did offer help but Base Camp did not trust the information he was providing on the radio because they didn't get on with him. This would suggest that some of what Ian says about help being turned down was true.Perhaps the full truth is somewhere in the middle, confused by the chaos of the storm.

Cathy's book 'For the love of it' talks in detail about the in-fighting and civil war in the camp before the climb. This book starts with the team left behind after the others quit, and preperation for the climb. The description of their first trip through the Icefall was vivid and well written and I really got a sense of what it was like to be there. It felt more real than when described in other books...bone chilling cold yet a hot sun ready to blind you without eye protection, high snow walls, nervous climbers, shaky ladders...very well written.

There is a lot of detail about the camp that you don't normally get in expedition books. I enjoyed reading about all the tasks that the cook takes on and just how difficult his job is. Ian talks about the constant stress of leadership which might explain his temper and his decisions at time, with Bruce being the camp peacemaker. Other books are critical of the competitions he runs to select team members but it gave him the chance to evaluate their actions in an actual stressed climbing environment and their ability to get on with him. Is it any different from taking on rich clients with little high altitude experience as the other teams do for profit? I don't think so. We also hear more about how much work goes into packing the bags for the Sherpas to carry...what a logistical nightmare! It was good to get detail on things that are usually glossed over in other books.

There was good detail in the actual climb before the disaster and also when the team went for the summit in the aftermath of the disaster. Ironically, they had perfect weather for the climb which allowed the three to summit. Had the other teams waited for a certain longer weather window, nobody would have died. It seems a real tragedy that Bruce, described by everyone as such a nice man, died in a fall on the way down.

If you can either accept that this account of the disaster goes against most other accounts, or can just ignore it, or believe that the real story will never be proved, there is plenty to like in this book. It is well written with a lot of interesting detail about the expedition, the climbs and the people behind the scenes that make it all happen. I liked that it chose to talk about different things from other similar books and overall, I actually like it. I might not be convinced by everything I read in the book but it entertained me which is why I marked it higher.

Read June 2016
star rating photo: Four Star Rating 4stars.png

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