BOOK REVIEW / From a Jacuzzi to the peak of Everest: On top of the world - Rebecca Stephens: Macmillan, pounds 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'NO MONEY could buy this,' said Rebecca Stephens as she clambered from the glacial chaos of Everest's Khumbu Icefall and saw for the first time the Western Cwm, the broad hanging valley through which runs the highway to the world's highest mountain.

But up to then money had been key. And Stephens makes this perfectly clear, describing the costs - a total of pounds 197,000 for the expedition itself - and the search for sponsorship in gear, services and cash, in great detail. A lengthy thank-you list is appended with household names running from Apple Computers to Weetabix. It is a sad comment on the business of getting even to the foot of the highest peaks today. The expedition which put Stephens on top of Everest - the first ascent by a British woman - had its roots in the world of contacts and public relations.

One of its members, Peter Earl, was prepared to underwrite the expedition through his New York company, the Carter Organization. Then a courier firm stepped in as the main sponsor and it became the DHL British 40th Anniversary Everest Expedition. Stephens did not forget to wave a flag with the DHL logo for the summit photograph, and her Sherpa companion sports a Carter label.

Yuppie mountaineering could be the grim verdict - scarcely deniable given the picture of Earl wheeler-dealing from base camp via a satellite link. Stephens claims her 'social conscience' tickled her just a little as the team considered sponsorship while sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi in Meribel. But, even on Everest, money is not everything. Half way through the book, on reaching the Western Cwm, the joys of being a pampered member of 'a rather elite Rolex explorers club' give way to the debilitating effects of altitude and the frustration of sitting out days of bad weather. On 10 May, while Stephens, expedition leader John Barry, two other team members and their Sherpas, hesitated at the South Col - the last camp before the summit - a record 38 people of various nationalities reached the top. Among them was ex-SAS man, Harry Smith, who had gone ahead of the main DHL group and, unlike the rest, was climbing without bottled oxygen. But he was close to death by the time he was helped back into camp late that night, having developed snow-blindness and fallen 100ft. Getting Smith down to safety caused further delay and sapped the team.

The sense of a cherished dream sliding towards failure is well conveyed. Eventually, even Barry - tough and vastly experienced - succumbed. But Stephens, who is disarmingly frank about her lack of climbing ability and her fears, persisted in the face of poor weather forecasts and finally made the ascent with two Sherpas.

Rebecca Stephens' ascent was made in a season when 15 teams attacked Everest from the Nepalese side. Some 520 people have stood on the summit since Hillary and Tenzing. But following an increase in peak fees from dollars 10,000 to dollars 50,000 for a team of five, there has already been a reduction in traffic. Whisked back to London for her day as a media star, Stephens was in time to join the veterans of the 1953 expedition for an Everest jamboree. John Major received her at No 10 Downing Street and awarded her an MBE in the 1994 New Year Honours List. Those who have been honoured for their association with the mountain always try to give something back. Half of the proceeds of On Top of the World will go to Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust, a charity set up to help the Sherpa people to build schools and hospitals.

Comments