Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Robert Mads Anderson's 'Nine Lives'....reviewed


Nine Lives’: Robert Mads Anderson. 208 pages black and white plus 32 pages of colour photographs. Perfect Bound Paperback. £14.95. Vertebrate Publishing.

You have done a very hard thing, but you were lucky’ Reinhold Messner commenting on the Anderson led expedition, which climbed Everest’s Kanshung Face in 1988.

This book recounts nine ‘trips’ to Mount Everest by the author over a period of eighteen years, resulting in a gripping read, full of both triumph and tragedy. Imagine the world’s most massive pyramid, with three faces, replete with rock, ice, snow, altitude problems and avalanches then thinking along the most simple of lines, you would have Chomolungma. Which to climb successfully by any route requires the necessary technical knowledge, almost inhuman perseverance and as Messner observes above, lots of luck, with clement weather and on occasion grim determination.

Everest is a mountain which when discussed by today’s mountaineers, receives either derision by some when considering the South Col, original 1953 route and its many thousands of commercial guided ascents, or keen admiration for such as the ascent of the Super Couloir on the mountain’s north face by the Swiss, Loretan and Troillet in a single push without oxygen in 1986. And though some climbers claim immunity from Everest’s siren call, the list of those whom Anderson met on the mountain or actually climbed with reads like a who’s who of high altitude climbing in the last four or five decades.

The mountain now owns a hundred years plus of history, and so many books, films and videos have appeared bolstering this that it would be possible I am sure to make a good living, following on from Elizabeth Hawley, who based in Kathmandu was a keeper of the Everest record, but now deceased leaves the way open for a new Everest archivist/story teller to take over. If you think on the early attempts of the mountain by the many British pre-war expeditions, attempting the North Ridge route and compare how Anderson approached the climb in 1992, declaring it a magnificent and natural line, a fun snow climb lower down leading to the North Col followed by some even better scrambling up high, except for that rather tricky Second Step on summit day. A great off-season or winter route (this has not yet been achieved!) which is heavily populated in the spring season.

Mallory must be turning in his grave, but as Mummery observed it is the fate of all such climbs to go from the hardest to an easy day over time. And this book does chart the change from the large, extremely expensive expeditions of the early decades post the war to two and four climbers, making ascents in Alpine fashion. Acclimatising on lesser peaks or frequent swift trips to altitude, with even swifter descents, and a wait for a window opportunity and then GO. Many equipment innovations, coupled with the ever increasing knowledge of how best to acclimatise, to avoid Hape and Ace the two oedemas, with a comfortable Base to retreat to in the case of bad weather. And with improved forecasting,; this a crucial element whilst such inevitable waiting occurs.

Anderson admits that he is obsessed with Mount Everest. I think he is the only living mountaineer to have climbed routes on the mountains three faces. Starting out in 1985 with an attempt on the mountains west ridge direct, one of the most convoluted and longest ascents on the mountain, which can be reached either from Tibet via the Central Rongbuk glacier or from the Khumbu(Nepal)side with a 400 metre climb up to and over the Lho La into Tibet. In Nine Lives, Anderson makes two attempts on this ridge climb, reaching 8300m on his first with Pete Athans and 8600m with Jay Smith on a second. This expedition was made up of a large party including some of the big names of American climbing of that era, climbers who had made major ascents in Yosemite, and other USA destinations but who had little or no Himalayan experience and Anderson concluded they really were a rag tag bunch including himself. There was so much to learn because high altitude Himalayan climbing required a different Mind Set. He wanted to try out his own theories of how to approach such ascents, with a small party of climbers, not making use of oxygen to climb which had been the case on this first trip.

Reading Nine Lives I had to think why I never had heard of Anderson and his mates before, for some of them, based in Colorado are cutting edge with new routes in Patagonia and Alaska. Somehow he manages to hold down a business career as an advertising executive, for some time he was based in New Zealand, followed by a sojourn in Norway with some new routing there, then back to the Big Apple (New York). And so his next Everest venture the Kanshung Face in 1988 was to be really something, with just four climbers; three Americans, Paul Teare, Ed Webster, Anderson and one Brit.... Stephen Venables. How the latter came to be involved is surprising, in typical USA fashion Anderson took on a Public Relations expert to help with fund raising and she contacted John Hunt for it would be the 35th anniversary of the ascent by the 1953 team, and he informed that they who would be very supportive if they took with them a British climber, and he then went on to suggest, Stephen Venables! It must have been a shock to Stephen to suddenly find himself so centre stage, but he played his part and fitted in and justified our faith in him. The climb up the Kanshung Face from the Tibetan side, finished at the South Col and the lower sections Venables compared to the Eiger North Face. Unfortunately Paul Teare had to retreat with altitude problems, but Webster and Anderson arrived with Stephen at the Col and then set off up the classic Hilary and Tensing route to the summit. But only the Brit made it and he became the first from our country to do this without oxygen. I guess they thought that they were home and dry, but the descent became a nightmare. With forced bivouacs out in the open, frostbite, storms and spindrift avalanches, it adds up to one of the great escape stories, and I went especially to London to hear about it first hand, with Ed Webster (an outstanding photographer) telling the story at an Alpine Club evening, supported by Stephen Venables. One did not like to pry but Ed’s damage to his hands told their own story.

Post the Kanshung Face climb the author could rightly have rested on his Himalayan laurels, but no once into the 1990’s each year for half a decade, he went back to Everest. In 1990 the Super Couloir, in 1991 a new route, on the same North Face as the previous, but climbed solo and now known as the Anderson Couloir. In 1992 the North Ridge route, in 1993 the Great Couloir route, another climb on the North Face and in 1995 another attempt on this route. On none of these climbs did he and his partners summit, but they often finished at a point where they joined up with a traditional existing route and on one attempt on the Great Couloir, climbing solo he reached 8,400metres. Stephen Venables has noted about the authors optimistic outlook on life and this must have been tested to its limit in the winter of 1999.

His hope was to be either the last person up Everest in that century or the first in the new. For this he chose the North Ridge route, a one man expedition which in the conditions he did well to even reach the mountain. Stymied by high winds and deep snow he made it as far as The North Col! Truly a remarkable achievement in temperatures that the loss of say a pair of gloves could have spelt disaster; the coldest temperature ever recorded near the summit of Everest in winter is almost off the scale at minus 70C, which might be a good temperature to store vaccines, but not to try to climb in.

The writing in this book is of a high quality and there is a spirit of fun and chutzpah throughout. There is however some truly sad events recounted such as the death of a Catalan Doctor, swept to his death in an avalanche on a nearby peak. One that Anderson had climbed just a few days earlier whist acclimatising. He and his climbing partner set out to scour the avalanche debris near the foot of the mountain, and they did find his body. The writing about this and the burial ceremony attended by the climber’s teammates and the author plus partner did bring a lump in the throat. The list of Anderson’s friends and acquaintances met during his nine trips to Everest are listed in an addendum in the rear of his book, which besides reminding me of so many friendships but also some of those who like the Catalan died whilst climbing. One was Hans Christian Doseth, someone who Anderson met and climbed with on his sojourn in Norway; and who I also knew from him visiting the UK on a BMC organised visit. I climbed with him at Almscliff, Malham and the Roaches, seconding him up the Sloth. He died after completing a new route on the Trango Towers in the Karakoram on the descent. Anderson writes of bouldering with him in the fjords and pioneering new routes in the Romsdal Valley together. As fluid and enthusiastic as anyone he had ever climbed with. Sentiments I can only echo.

The story finishes with the author agreeing, against expectations to guide a group of clients for the British tour company, Jagged Globe up the South Col route, during its fiftieth anniversary year 2003. This with all the trappings of a large support team of Sherpas and with another British guide David Hamilton alongside him on the summit day; but even the South Col route can be serious despite all, and having reached the top in glorious still weather, with fabulous views to Shishapangma , far out in the distance, and Cho Oyu, Pumori closer by an epic was about to develop. One of their party; he had stopped a little before the summit complaining of sight problems, and on descending to him the two guides became stunned to find he had developed blindness and could not see. From there on the descent back to the South Col was a nightmare, with one guide behind him and the other in front placing his feet, hold by hold as they descended. This ended successfully back at the Col, but hours later in the dark and as near to disaster as could be. And Everest never gives up being a challenge, for on the descent first the authors party was held up in the ice fall, by a group of Indian climbers, aided by Sherpas towing a body bag through this most difficult of challenges, for they were carrying one of their party who had died in a crevasse fall, and then they watched transfixed as a large Russian made helicopter crashed below them near to their Base Camp. It rolled over and its whirling blades shot off and killed two people nearby. Thankfully the temporarily blind client partially recovered his sight as they descended, but as Anderson notes he was down to the last of his ‘Nine Lives!’

Image: Robert Mads Anderson  

The author has continued with his Everest love affair, returning again to guide the South Col route in 2010. In between times he has climbed many other mountains including the now well known challenge of the 7 Summits, the highest mountains on each continent, except that he managed to do this solo and it is the subject of another of his books. One that I am now enthusiastic to read, for Nine Lives is by a writer with a rare talent for telling it as it really is! The Foreword is by one of Anderson’s closest friends, Peter Edmund Hillary and in that we learn to our surprise that the author is a dedicated family man, and together with both of their families they have trekked to the Everest Base camp. The book is all we have come to expect from Vertebrate Publishers, and it is one to savour and I will read it again....soon. 

Dennis Gray: 2020