Cliché summitry, Nigel Roberts

To Everest via Antarctica
Robert Mads Anderson
Penguin, $29.95
ISBN 0140254005

7 Summits Solo
Robert Mads Anderson
David Bateman, $125.00
ISBN 1869532074

On 30 April 1985 Dick Bass ‑ an American entrepreneur who developed the Snowbird ski resort in Utah reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Mt Everest had been climbed 189 times before but Bass’ achievement was notable in two respects. He was, at 55, the oldest to have climbed the peak and in doing so he became the first person ever to have climbed the highest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents.

Seven Summits was the title of the book which subsequently described Bass’ five-year quest. The phrase captured the public’s imagination. For example, many New Zealanders paid close attention to Rob Hall and Gary Ball’s successful attempt in 1990 to climb the seven summits in seven months. On the other side of the world, a best seller in Norway is Fem Fjell, Fem Kontinenter, Fem Uker ‑ a lavishly illustrated book about a lavishly funded attempt to climb the highest mountains on five of the continents in just five weeks!

Interest in the seven summits is, apparently, so high that two books by one man, Robert Anderson of Auckland, were published in New Zealand late last year. Though each has a different publisher and one is a comparatively cheap paperback while the other is a large and exceptionally expensive hardback in almost square (32 x 34 cm) “coffee-table” format, both books have a great deal in common. Sir Edmund Hillary’s foreword is identical in both books.

And, while the climbs are described in a different order in the two books ‑ To Everest via Antarctica has accounts of climbing Mounts Kosciusko, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, McKinley, Elbrus and Vinson sandwiched between (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts on Mt Everest; while 7 Summits Solo has chapters on Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, McKinley, Kosciusko, Elbrus, Vinson and Everest respectively ‑ the language in 7 Summits Solo is usually a precis of ‑ indeed, it is often identical to ‑ the text of To Everest via Antarctica. For instance, in To Everest via Antarctica, Anderson writes:

I sat for nearly two hours [on the summit of North America’s highest peak, Mt McKinley ‑ or Denali as it is usually referred to nowadays] as the rising mists faded and cleared, peaks rose out of the clouds far below and the glaciers snaked off into the dark forests… Thoughts of success never surfaced, the top being only a geographical point on the climb. There would be plenty of time for euphoria and celebrations later. Crevasses would be as easy to fail into on the way down as the way up and fatigue would make the ice even more dangerous. My summit thoughts turned directly from the ascent to the challenge of the descent, without pause for congratulations.

In 7 Summits Solo, he says,

The rising mists faded and cleared, peaks emerging out of the clouds far below, the glaciers snaking off into the dark forests… Thoughts of euphoria or success never surfaced, the top being only a geographical point on the climb. There would be plenty of time for enjoyment and celebrations later. Crevasses would be as easy to fall into on the way down as the way up and fatigue would make the ice even more dangerous. My summit thoughts turned directly from the ascent to the challenge of the descent, without pause for congratulations.

Both publishers were aware that Anderson was producing two books (in fact, they worked together to promote them), but it is unusual, to say the least, to encounter two such similar books written by one person and published simultaneously by two different companies. Of course the books serve different purposes. To Everest via Antarctica is a detailed description of Anderson’s climbs and travels, while 7 Summits Solo is primarily a photographic record of his exploits. Unfortunately, however, taking each work separately on its own terms still raises criticisms.

The photographs in 7 Summits Solo are mostly good, but far from stunning. Some are poor ‑ so much so that David Bateman, in effect, apologises for them in a publisher’s note at the beginning of the book: “Due to the extreme conditions in which many of these photographs were taken, some dirt and fibres have appeared on the final image.” However, that doesn’t account for the exceptionally grainy pictures of Mt Kilimanjaro, in particular, or blurred photographs which detract from the book’s overall quality.

The seven summits are exciting and intriguing. They are loci of extreme beauty and extraordinary danger. The same can be said of Antarctica, whose essential qualities were captured brilliantly by Eliot Porter in his coffee-table book, Antarctica. In view of both the price and the size of 7 Summits Solo, as well as of the fact that photographer Joe Blackburn, who “had worked in Yosemite with Ansel Adams and [whose] photography was more art than a simple representation of the world”, accompanied Anderson on most of his expeditions, along with “bags of video gear, solar packs, cameras and a hundred rolls of film”, Robert Anderson’s 7 Summits Solo could have ‑ indeed should have ‑ aimed higher. The standards set by Eliot Porter should have been the aspiration of the author and his publisher, rather than fuzzy photos of an African nicknamed Uncle Porter.

Furthermore, the written account of Robert Anderson’s climbs in To Everest via Antarctica is badly in need of a good editor. Anderson finds it hard to resist a well-worn cliché. Norway, for example, has “the midnight sun” above and “trolls hiding in the forests below”; and in South America the author met “dark-haired, brown-eyed Spanish” beauties, and men for whom “sex was never far from [their] thoughts”.

Worse still is Anderson’s repeated use of the word “slid”. Everything slides. “Clothes were slid into”; “the hot water bottles slid down the sides”; “the sun was sliding into the horizon”; “the sleds slid around Windy Corner”; “a sea of dark, almost black, green forest flowed endlessly south and slid out of sight into the Bering Sea”; ‘the ridge above slid perceptibly closer”; “crevasses sloshed open beneath the skis as we slid over them”; “a non-stop slide from New Zealand to Los Angeles”; “Moscow sliding in under the wings”; “sliding into Antarctic time”; “I slid further left”; “avalanches slid away in swathes”…

Unfortunately, the quality of his prose almost lets readers slide over Robert Anderson’s considerable achievements. He is a superbly skilled climber with a great deal of (justifiable) faith in his own abilities. One of the attractions of the seven summits is that none of them needs to be an exceptionally difficult technical climb. There are easy routes up each of the mountains ‑ which is why people from all over the world and from all walks of life are tackling them. Robert Anderson not only decided to climb the seven summits on his own, but ‑ wherever it was possible ‑ he opted for challenging routes on the peaks. “I’d choose more difficult ascents whenever practical, climbing them as fast as possible. I’d not use ropes or fix any protection, relying only on ice axe and crampons.”

Cerro Aconcagua, for example, is in western Argentina. Its summit is just under 7000 metres (23,000 feet) above sea-level. It is the second highest of the seven summits (which means, of course, that it is the highest mountain in the world outside Asia). The south face of Aconcagua is one of the largest mountain faces in the world. Three kilometres high and seven kilometres wide (in other words, more than twice the size of the infamous north wall of the Eiger), it is a sheer cliff of precipitous rock and crumbling glaciers.

Robert Anderson had climbed the south face of Aconcagua and descended la ruta normal (the normal route) in 1989, before he began trying to climb the seven summits solo.

Returning to Argentina in early 1992, he chose yet another route up Aconcagua ‑ the Polish glacier. The advantages of soloing soon became clear. “Groups who’d been failing in droves were all looking for many days [good weather] in a row to make their summit push. I needed only one day. One perfect day.” He got it, and ‑ starting at 2:30 am ‑ climbed all the way up the Polish glacier from camp I to the summit in 15 hours.

It was a pattern Anderson was to repeat several times on his odyssey. On Mt McKinley, for example, he shunned the standard west buttress route. When Anderson asked if anyone had been up the Messner couloir recently, a local ranger laconically informed him: “Not up, but down. Four Canadians were on the summit ridge, on the way back from the top. They were all roped together … one of them slipped, pulling the others off.” If Anderson ‑ like Horner ‑ nodded, at least he would pull no-one else down with him. He didn’t. Instead, he climbed the 1800 metres from base camp to the summit via the Messner couloir in less than 10 hours, and ‑ taking the west buttress route down ‑ descended in a mere two hours.

In Antarctica, Robert Anderson’s climbing skills were illustrated most convincingly of all. He climbed the Vinson massif twice ‑ both were first ascents. He initially soloed the south face of Vinson in a 30-hour marathon and then some days later climbed the peak’s west ridge (which he named the Rolex ridge after one of his principal sponsors). “The continent with no people had yielded the best summit, the purest climb.” Anderson’s pioneering climbs in such extreme conditions deserve a place in the annals of mountaineering.

But Anderson’s tale is not the story of successive successes. Mt Everest ‑ the highest, the most famous, and the most alluring of the seven summits ‑ is his nemesis. For 10 years Robert Anderson has tried to climb Chomolungma, “the Goddess Mother of the Earth”, and each time he has failed. However, Anderson led an Everest expedition in 1988 which saw Britain’s Stephen Venables reach the top after Anderson and his team had carved a brilliant new route up the Kangshung face to the south col. For that feat alone, Robert Anderson’s name is literally in the record books. But Anderson stopped at the south summit ‑ probably only 100 vertical metres from the top ‑ and turned back in 1988.

Three years later, Anderson “stuttered to a halt at 8300 metres, the north-east ridge of Everest tossing rocks through the air like big black snowflakes”. Anderson retreated to lick his wounds (he was “minus another toe”) and he began his seven summits quest at the opposite end of the scale by climbing Mt Kosciusko in Australia (which isn’t even as high as Mt Egmont/Taranaki, for example). Weather defeated Anderson on Everest in 1993, but he tried ‑ yet again ‑ in 1995: his third solo attempt, his seventh overall.

Together with Mike Bearzi (a fact which Anderson glibly ‑ dare I say it? ‑ slides over, saying simply “Seven Summits Solo ‑ albeit now a duet”), Anderson spent several nights camping without oxygen at 8000 metres. The two climbers then made a push for the summit on the third evening, but “a deep snowstorm whirled, circling, dropping into the apex of the [great] couloir… Snow crept up to our waists. Drifts built into miniature avalanches and moved down towards us.” Recording their defeat, however, Anderson unfortunately lapses into the banal. “The moon slid behind the couloir like a ghostly friend exiting the room. Without a word we turned and slid back towards the tent.”

The history of mountaineering is full of stories of people obsessed with reaching their goal; it is replete with tragedies and triumphs. Robert Anderson’s attempts to climb Mt Everest match those of another climber well-known in New Zealand, Mike Rheinberger, who succeeded on his seventh attempt but died on the descent. Anderson’s struggles with the elements and with his ambitions could have made compelling reading. For obvious reasons (ie, the Southern Alps), New Zealand has produced some outstanding mountaineers ‑ Edmund Hillary, Bill Denz, and Gary Ball are just a few of them. What this country has not produced is great climbing literature. Robert Anderson’s epic achievements cried out to be told in a standard rivalling classics such as those by Gaston Rebuffat, Galen Rowall and Joe Simpson. Regrettably, an opportunity slid by.

Nigel Roberts is a political scientist who has climbed three of the seven summits (Aconcagua, Elbrus, and Kilimanjaro) each via the easiest route.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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