Books: Peak malpractice

Pure climbers still find new summits to scale, but Everest is now a TV backdrop for dilettantes, says Charles Arthur
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Britain has a long heritage of people who can find adventure amid mountains and retell it in the most vivid form, from Edward Whymper (who was almost killed after making the first ascent of the Matterhorn) to Joe Simpson (whose Touching the Void tells of his struggle to stay alive as he descended a Patagonian mountain with a smashed leg). A good guide to the state of this genre is the Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountaineering Literature: Simpson was a past winner.

The 1997 winner was Paul Pritchard for his first book, Deep Play (Baton Wicks, pounds 16.99), a collection of tales of his exploits on and off the rock which immerses you utterly in the world of the modern full-time climber. It's not a comfortable place; nobody ever got rich climbing. Pritchard became used to dossing in the abandoned Welsh slate quarries of Llanberis, surviving for a week on a rotten cabbage (used also as a hat to ward off midges) on the tiny Scottish island of Sron Ulladale, and sleeping on canvas-covered metal frames 1,000 feet above the ground on the "big walls" of California and Patagonia.

Nor is it a safe place. Friends die, or are hit by rocks - as is Pritchard. He almost dies twice himself. The most brilliant chapter recounts his meandering consciousness after falling from the sea cliffs of Gogarth in Anglesey, fracturing his skull and almost drowning before he was pulled out of the water by his climbing partner.

He's free of self-aggrandisement or stylistic curlicues, with a laconic humour ("There's no honour in dying, only image enhancement") and the detachment that comes from having repeatedly been separated from eternity only by your fingertips. "It's funny how catastrophes don't always seem so catastrophic at the time. No flashing lights or flares shooting off, no screams of terror or fountains of blood." The energy pours off the page, leaving you gasping. Tie in tightly before you read it.

You might wonder if Pritchard has climbed Everest. He hasn't, and I doubt he would want to. As he comments, "new rock was the essence of climbing for us... no idea, apart from a contract which the eye has with the body, of whether you are capable of getting up a thing or not."

Everest these days is hardly new rock, more like the Hard Rock Cafe. Some days, up to 30 people reach the summit. Ed Douglas, a journalist and experienced mountaineer, comments in Chomolungma Sings the Blues (Constable, pounds 18.95) that he doesn't want to stand on Everest's peak; and I believe him. He writes that "the allure of Everest has little to do with mountaineering, that loveable, fuck-you village of miscreants. People are instead fascinated by the obsession the mountain engenders, by the risk of death that others will contemplate because it is the highest point on earth."

Instead of gazing up at the mountain, Douglas does something which hardly anyone else bothers to do: he looks down, at the people and the life around it, in Tibet (where the Chinese occupation is trying to destroy centuries- old lifestyles) and Nepal.

What is Chomolungma? It's the name the Sherpas, the people at its base, have for the mountain. And it's high time someone sang the blues about the despoliation of the environment and lifestyles caused by Westerners who come over in comfort, trudge up it (or trek around it) and depart, distorting in a few decades ways of life that have evolved over centuries.

But as Douglas also explains, the local culture and the Western visitors are so intertwined that simply stopping tourism or climbing isn't the answer either. There are no simple solutions, yet something is being destroyed so a few can gratify themselves.

That includes Matt Dickinson, whose book The Death Zone (Hutchinson, pounds 16.99) is undeservedly the only one of these three you'll find in major bookstores. A TV director and inexperienced mountaineer, he went to Everest to film the actor Brian Blessed attempting the mountain for the second time. To him, local culture and the Sherpas are incidental to the really important thing - getting good film footage.

He ends up on the summit himself when Blessed has to descend. Though he doesn't acknowledge it, he would be dead were it not for Alan Hinkes - a brilliant mountaineer who turned them back when they were heading into danger - and the Sherpas, who were ahead of them with oxygen. But summiting Everest needs determination, too, and Dickinson had the most ferocious need of all - the desire to get on TV. Is there a reason to read his book? The best would be to grasp why Ed Douglas is so depressed by the circus around Everest: Dickinson is a classic example of someone who went to the top of the world without going anywhere.