4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
A STORY FOR THE AGES, 20 Jun. 2013
This is so much more than just another book about the first ascent of Everest. Through extensive and meticulous research, Harriet Tuckey has uncovered a treasure trove of in-fighting, political intrigue, ego wars and cultural shift whose ultimate victim was her father, Griffith Pugh.
In the version of Everest history we've all been presented with for 60 years, this was the last great adventure of the British Empire, a heroic quest by men inspired by God and nation to conquer the unconquerable. In this narrative, science played a minor role.
In fact, the true story, as presented by Tuckey, is infinitely more complex and, I would argue, inspiring. This is a story of how scientific thinking and careful planning were rigorously applied to a seemingly intractable problem -- the so-called "last thousand feet" of Everest -- and, harnessed to disciplined athleticism and courage, led to an extraordinary accomplishment. The subsequent effort to marginalize, if not downright eradicate, the achievements of Pugh is only one of several fascinating sub-plots that weave their way through Tuckey's riveting account.
Of special interest is the history of Britain's use of diplomatic channels to block other countries' access to the mountain, and the serpentine power-plays and turf wars (mostly at Pugh's expense) that went on within the ranks of the Himalayan committee that was sponsoring the endeavor. These tactics could have derailed the expedition on a number of occasions. Tuckey's exploration of the origins and ramifications of the anti-science and anti-professional prejudices that led mountaineering (and other sports) by the nose during this period in Britain is particularly illuminating. She provides a proper political, social, and cultural context for the controversies of Eric Shipton's loss of the '53 expedition leadership, and for the manner in which his successor, John Hunt, chose to conduct himself before, during, and after the successful first ascent.
Throughout, this retelling of the first ascent is peppered with new details and insight, quotes from diaries and interviews, such that the whole endeavor and its cast of characters leap off the page. It is a thrilling story, an example of superb team-work, made all the richer for having the blanks in the canvas finally filled in.
Although many will be drawn to read this book primarily for the tale of the First Ascent, the bigger story here is Tuckey's quest to discover and understand a man who was an absent father in every way, and her very human story is what will compel any reader (even those who have absolutely no interest in Everest) to turn the page. It is through the act of researching and writing this book that Tuckey finally came to terms with a man whose acts of wanton selfishness were matched only by the brilliance of his scientific insight and intuitive research. Her journey and appraisal of her father are presented with a remarkable lucidity and equanimity of tone, in prose that is both evocative and to-the-point. Her descriptions of Pugh's sometimes complex research and scientific concepts are illuminating and engaging for the lay reader. How refreshing to read a book where both hair-raising adventures (and there are plenty of these, on and off the mountains) and laboratory experiments are equally gripping. Equally fascinating are the accounts of Pugh's work after Everest, work which continues to impact the millions of people who enjoy a range of outdoor activities every year.
There are some colorful characters passing through this book, not least Pugh himself -- a bona-fide British eccentric of the first order. There are also stunning revelations, like John Hunt's God complex run-amok, and the nefarious behaviour of Ed Hillary throughout the Silver Hut expedition. Talk about heroes with feet of clay! Given how much Pugh's reputation suffered at the whims of such men, it would have been easy for Tuckey to have condemned out-of-hand, but she is at great pains to present all sides and deal even handedly in her judgments. If only the subjects of her measured appraisals had been so willing themselves to give credit where credit was truly due.
In short, you won't read a more exciting, fascinating, or more inspiring book all year, and for those of you who thought you knew the Everest saga inside out, think again.