On May 29, 1953 Edmun Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. It was a time of exploration and mountaineering was seen as something for a nation to take pride in. In fact, teams of climbers from different nations practically raced to be the first to find the summit on major mountains all over the planet, but especially in the Himalaya. When news of the first Everest summit reached the World, there was celebration, for man had finally conquered the tallest mountain on Earth. But there was also a sense that it was the end of an age. That all the great adventures were over, and that there were no more mountains to conquer.
It was in this time that a group of young British climbers began to come of age. They were not the typcial British climber or explorer of the past however. Most of the early British mountaineers came from rich, aristocratic backgrounds, but this new breed came from all walks of life including blue collar and middle-class families. Perhaps the most famous of these climbers was Chris Bonnington, and his close circle of friends, who challenged new, and difficult routes on all manner of mountains around the globe. It is their story that is told in The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis.
The book chronicles how Bonnington, and his group of climbers came to know one another, even as they challenged new routes on mountins in the Alps, Patagonia, and eventually the Himalaya. The group, which consisted of such legendary climbers as Don Whillans, Peter Boardman, and Dougal Haston, amongst others, were looking to break with the conventions of climbing of that age, and make their own new ways on the mountains. They wished to eschew the old siege style of climbing in favor of smaller groups, going lighter and faster to the summit. Their alpine style of climbing did away with the large numbers of porters and sherpas that were used in ages past, in favor of a tight knit group of climbers focused on one goal, reaching the summit.
Over the years, the group made attempts on some of the most challenging and difficult climbs anywhere in the world. They made first ascents on Changabang, the Southwest face of Everest, and the Central Tower of Paine, amongst others. These were some of the most challenging technical climbs ever under taken, and with each successful climb, new and riskier routes were opened. Along the way, they met both great triumph and great tragedy. Bonds were forged, and broken, reputations built, and legends grew.
Willis has weaved an exceptional tale with this book. He gets inside the heads of the climbers, helps you to understand what motivated each of them, and how they fit into the dynamic of the group. Bonnington may have been the lynch pin, at least at first, but each of them had their own ambitions, their own ideas on how to climb, and their own agendas. They each brought something to the party, and they each helped to carve out a new era for British climbers, that went on to influence the generations to follow.
The book is a great mix of the stories of these men and their expeditions. Between those epic climbs, Willis tells us about their lives when they’re back home, with friends and family. What made them tick and what motivations they had off the mountain. Some were family men, some were caught up in their careers, and still others lived only for the climb. These sections of the book help to define them and fill in their backgrounds, and they help to set the stage for the sections of the book that are set on one of the many dangerous climbs that they undertook.
It is these climbs that are the real central, and compelling, element of the book. Willis gives an almost blow by blow account of the days spent on the mountain. He weaves a vivid image that will leave you not on the edge of your seat, but on the edge of the rock face itself, as you’ll feel like you are there, with Bonnington and his Boys, as they make some of the boldest summit bids imaginable. At times you’ll swear that you can feel the wind on your face, the chill in your fingers and toes, and the lack of oxygen in the air around you. You’ll get a true sense of the expeditions these men conducted, and the dangers they faced, and it will leave you breathless.
The author does an excellent job of informing the reader about basic mountaineering techniques without going overboard on the explanation. It’s clear that he is a climber as well, as he easily slips in bits of mountain lore or knowledge as if in passing, but yet it still conveys perfectly to the reader the importance of the item he is describing. If you’re not already familiar with mountaineering, you’ll learn a great deal while reading this book, and you’ll come to appreciate what these climbers do even more. But the teaching of this mountaincraft is so subtle and well done that you’ll pick up on the concepts without even realizing that they are being told in a way that even an armchair mountaineer can understand.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved The Boys of Everest. It’s a great book filled with so many epic triumphs that couldn’t have come without a great deal of tragedy as well. You’ll come to know Bonnington and his circle of friends as if they were your own climbing partners, and you’ll be left speechless at the audacity of some of their climbs and the risks they were willing to take to achieve their goals. It’s amazing stuff, and I highly highly recommend it. Whether you’re a climber yourself, an armchair mountaineer, or just someone looking to read a great book filled with adventure, you’ll find everything you’re looking for and more in The Boys of Everest. So as the long, cold days of winter set in, and it looks like it might be awhile before you get a chance to head to the mountains yourself, let Clint Willis take you there, along with some of the most legendary, accomplished climbers ever. It’ll be worth the trip, and you’ll be glad you went along for the ride.
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