Friday, 18 August 2017

Ed Douglas's The Magician's Glass...Reviewed

Ed Douglas’s collection of eight essays which have previously graced the pages of the US Alpinist and Rock and Ice magazines are brought together in 'The Magician Glass'; after being re-edited-in Ed’s words-’for a British readership’. I’m not sure how British and US mountaineering buffs, sharing a language, differ in their interpretation of a mountain essay to the extent that they require them to be re-worked, but as I have not seen the originals then I’m not in a position to speculate? That being said, for someone who at times has become a tad jaded with so much mountaineering material, I did find The Magician’s Glass something of an exception.... In fact, it's a bit of a cracker! 

The eight essays herein, are never less than absorbing and extremely well crafted. Another alternative title for the book could have been ‘The Black Mirror’-if Charlie Brooker had not got in first!- for each essay addresses the dark reality behind mountaineering at the limits of possibility. Those fatal human emotions- Pride, Egotism,Envy and Wrath fall off the pages like ripe fruit while death is never more than a few page turns away. Yes...The Magicians Glass is dark but isn’t that the point about extreme climbing and mountaineering; that those who ‘succeed’ more often than not, ultimately fail? Both at their craft and/or as grounded human beings?

After saying that, there are not many people better than the author at putting flesh on the bones of a story and Ed is such a good writer. Very much in the Orwell tradition; That is, never use a dozen words when half a dozen will do. No ornate peregrinations in the telling of the tale. Instead, the writing is clean, sharp and to the point. The book's eponymous opening essay tells the epic story of glorious failure on Annapurna III, and essentially revolves around the enigmatic Nick Colton. It was an ascent upon ‘The Adamantine Wall’ that is best summerised by Lindsay Griffin....

In 1981 Steve Bell, Nick Colton and Tim Leach became the first climbers to reach the South East Face of Annapurna III via the Seti Khola.

They first acclimatized on the East Ridge, and then cached equipment on the pillar, before setting off for an alpine-style attempt. They reached the crest via snow runnels on the right flank, continued past a difficult section of V and V+, and reached a high point of 6,500m. Although they had probably climbed the most technical section, the ridge above looked dangerous and time-consuming. Calculating that another five or six days would be needed to reach the top and get down again, they retreated.

Subsequent parties, which have included a number of outstanding alpinists, have barely been able to set foot on the route, adding to the aura surrounding this line and the now legendary status of the 1981 attempt.

The effort essentially left the team broken. With Colton effectively stepping off the gas for several years and Tim Leach giving up altogether to became an architect. An essay which sums up the psychological warfare and physical shredding which so often defines extreme mountaineering projects.

In Stealing Toni Egger the author describes ‘The murder of the Impossible’. The hugely controversial  Cesare Maestri/Tony Egger ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia and its explosive aftermath. Not least the mystery surrounding the death of Austrian guide Toni Egger in the retreat off the mountain. Much of the account has inevitably been told before in various books and journals but Ed goes further into the darkest catacombs. Visting friends and family members who throw new light on what we already know. A light from which the clown prince Cesare Maestri cannot escape.

Searching for Tomaz Humar fleshes out an obituary which Ed did for the Guardian in 2009 after the Slovenian super nova died on Langtang Lirung during a solo ascent of the mountain. To say that Humar was ‘driven’ would be an understatement. Here was a supremely talented mountaineer who had an ego the size of a London bus and who had a penchant for new age mysticism. While undertaking an epic solo ascent on Nanga Parbat in 2005, his team included an astrologer who read his aura and who could predict a favourable climbing window. The mystic was presumably sacked as Humar escaped with his life by a hair’s breadth after bad weather closed in and left him at the mercy of the elements. Such was the standard that Humar climbed at that even though he was continually pushing the envelope, his natural ability, it appeared, would always carry him through. However, Humar was indeed human after all and in his later life, he suffered both physically and mentally. Surviving a terrible fall at his home which left him with a shattered leg, and seeing his family life and business suffer. The end of course, became all too predictable.

Big Guts revolves around the legendary German climber, Kurt Albert and continues the ‘doomed romantic’ theme. Albert was a larger than life figure who gave the climbing world the concept-and name- ‘Redpoint'. Albert was the passionate explorer of new horizons. Both physically and mentally. Never a mere climbing machine, the man the author describes in Big Guts, is at all times, warm and generous towards his peers, irreverent and self-deprecating yet totally focused on his passion. Albert’s big hearted approach towards his fellow climbers and his pioneering zeal gained him world wide respect. Not least from our own Jerry Moffat who provides a swathe of anecdotal material which brings his late friend to life.

Crazy Wisdom
Brings the author’s deep interest in the Sherpa culture into focus. A community which has come under the international spotlight in recent years. Particularly after the unsavoury incidents on Everest in 2013, when angry Sherpas and western climbers-including Ulli Steck-were involved in a simmering dispute which spilt over into violence. What perhaps is not commonly known to the everyday climber back at home, and which the author brings out in this essay, is the fact that although in the West we use the word ‘Sherpa’ as a generic term to describe someone from the region who is usually employed to ferry supplies and to fix ropes etc, for usually western expeditions. In fact, these roles are carried out by several different ethnic cultures.

The true Sherpa is someone of Nepalese extraction from the northern region of high Himalayas and who is Tibetan speaking. This group could be said to be basically at the top of the tree with regard to status and earning potential. In reality, other ethnic groups including The Gurungs, the Tamangs and in particular the Rai who overwhelming these days, take on the hard donkey work. And donkey work it is for the poor Rai in particular who often find themselves carrying incredible loads to boost their meagre earnings. The historic exploitation of these indigenous people and the fight to improve their lot by both the 'Sherpas’ themselves and enlightened, sympathetic westerners, is at the heart of Crazy wisdom.

What’s Eating Ueli Steck, written well before the ‘Swiss Machine’s’ untimely death, visits the scene of someone quite rightly hailed as one of our greatest ever mountaineers, greatest ever controversies. The Piolet d’Or nominated ascent of the Annapurna's South Face. There and back in an incredible 28 hours. Problem is that Steck has no concrete proof to support his claim. He told reporters that he had been caught in an avalanche and lost one of his gloves and his camera in slough which meant that he could not provide any summit photos to back up his claims. He also claimed that his altimeter wasn’t working so a GPS tracking on his ascent became impossible.Despite these problems, Steck took the award despite many mountaineers throwing doubt on the ascent. For Steck, that was their problem.It's fair to say that the aftermath of the affair still reverberates around the mountaineering community.

Lone Wolf describes that fallen giant of French rock climbing, Patrick Edlinger. A household name amongst rock athletes, not only in his native France but around the world. During the 80‘s and 90‘s, Edlinger’s rock star image became almost iconic. Gracing the front covers of the climbing glossies and defining an era in all its wild haired, day-glo, ripped lycra glory! However, the showman the author describes, whilst being an outstanding talent and rock pioneer, was prone to self-doubt and ultimately, deep depression. His end when it came, falling down a flight of bathroom stairs at home, was cruel in its mundanity and almost darkly ironic given the extreme places Edlinger had visited during his all too short life.

Lines of Beauty: The art of Climbing uses the climbing artist Andy Parkin as the hook to hang an essay of the visual aesthetics of climbing. Although Parkin takes centre stage, figures from Jim Curren and Julian Heaton Cooper share the pages with Brown Whillans and Dawes.  That shared space between climbing and painting-the line of flight-which has always informed the activity and which can be observed both on canvas or through the sinewy lines drawn by the climber on stone. An essay which in its appreciation of nature and beauty is rather an exception to the air of tragedy which pervades the majority of essays herein.

So...there you have it. A journey through the glass darkly, which deserves to be widely read. Not just by mountaineering anoraks who will will appreciate the depth of insight and detail surrounding these iconic figures, but also those who just enjoy a good yarn. For the latter constituency, there are gripping moments aplenty to sate their appetite. As for the book’s title. It comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

There’s something ever egotistical in mountain tops and towers, and all the other grand and lofty things...which like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back to his own mysterious self

Captain Ahab

Available from Vertebrate Publishing

John Appleby:2017