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The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation Paperback – October 26, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With nowhere to go but down after the 1953 conquest of Mt. Everest, mountain climbing was reinvigorated by the group of young British daredevils celebrated in this gripping adventure saga. Journalist and mountain-climber Willis (Epic) profiles elder statesman Bonington and such climbing legends as the truculent working-class prodigy Don Whillan, the austere ex-seminarian Joe Tasker and the perpetually brooding Dougal Haston, "a beatnik's idea of a Romance poet." Their ethos of anti-establishment authenticity drove them to extreme climbs in which smaller teams working with minimal gear tackled harder routes under riskier conditions. Willis narrates almost step-by-step retracings of their ascents; they dodge falling rocks, freeze and hallucinate, dangle from fraying ropes and slip heart-stoppingly into crevasses. (Some of this detail, like the reconstructions of the last thoughts of men who died on the mountain, must be imagined rather than factual.) Less compelling are the many poetic evocations of the existential mystery of climbing—"a pilgrimage, an act of faith that arose from a sense of their own emptiness"—which add little to the standard "Because it's there." Fortunately, the spiritual musings don't obscure the bracing immediacy of Willis's story of life spent teetering on the edge of the abyss. Photos. (Oct. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Tucson Citizen," 5/29/08
"This gripping account, written by a seasoned reporter, is fascinating and powerful."

InfoDad.com, 5/22/08
"Contains enough stirring adventure so it may be attractive to people interested in what sorts of people climbed the world's highest mountain before it became a tourist destination, why they made the ascent, and what happened to them."

Bookviews.com
"Why people climb mountains remains a mystery except for the most widely repeated answer, 'Because they are there.' This book helps explain why for these men."

"Tucson Citizen"
"This gripping account, written by a seasoned reporter, is fascinating and powerful."

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (October 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786720247
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786720248
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,554,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There are a lot of great things about this book: it's certainly well-written, it deals with loss and with death as well as with the motives that draw climbers to these mountains, and it intersperses the fascinating history of postwar British climbing with gripping descriptions of the actual climbs. It suffers from two flaws, tho', one small, one big. The small is that it has no maps; unless you're familiar with these mountains, you're left guessing ascent routes (these matter a great deal, since a large part of what Bonington's generation did was pioneer new routes up classic mountains). The larger problem, as the Publishers Weekly points out, is that it's written very internally; we get a lot of inside-the-climber's-head and especially what-they-are-thinking-as-they-die moments that are based on... what? The acknowledgments thank Bonington for giving the author two mornings; this book is not based much on firsthand interviews etc., so how could Willis have this information? Since all of the internal dialogue/deaththoughts sound exactly the same, it's a fair bet that they're Willis' projections-- but he's a journalist, and while a fair climber, certainly not even close to being a member of the group he so fervently chronicles. In the end, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that I was reading Willis' own projections of his motives and thoughts of climbing onto a group of men very different from him, and in their most vulnerable moments-- as they climbed, and as they died. Like Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a book that tells a great mountain story, but in the end is far too much about the author, in a way that both seems intrusive and perhaps gets in the way of the story he wants to be telling.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Back in the 1980s, when I was slaving away in grad school, escaping occasionally for a brief hiking trip, or a short cross-country ski outing, I liked to read stories of great expeditions and adventures, on sea and on land. And I think of all the books I read, Chris Bonnington's books of his expeditions were my greatest escape literature. Sitting in my downtown apartment I was transported to the slopes of Everest with Bonnington and his crew, making my way of a narrow rock gully on the face of Everest. When I was out on my skis in the woods, I'd imagine I was working my way through the ice fall, or carrying gear up to advance base camp.

Then in 2000 I read Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", his personal story of the tragic 1996 Everest expedition, and it stripped away all romance from Himalayan mountaineering; all I was left with was images of pointless death and selfish behavior. I stopped reading mountaineering books. Every trip seemed a pointless risk of human life. Then a few weeks ago I came across "The Boys of Everest" while looking for cross-country ski technique books, and my curiosity was piqued; I bought the book.

Like some of the reviewers, I'm a bit put off by the author's use of imagined interior monologue, especially when depicting the last hours of a climber who disappeared into the mists, never to be seen again. But at the same time, I think Willis does a better job than most writers- including the mountaineers themselves- in explaining exactly why they climb, and why they take such unimaginable risks in pursuit of such intangible rewards. While this doesn't justify the deaths of so many ambitious young men, at the same time it makes them a bit easier to understand.
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Format: Hardcover
As an armchair mountain climber (I read these books out of amazement that anyone would ever try these stunts), I have to say that author Willis is at the top of the heap. He not only seems to get what's going on in the heads of extreme mountain climbers, but he knows how to convey it--in gripping prose that is never clicheed. I have some of Willis' anthologies of adventure writing, so I know he is well-read in the genre (and a mountaineer himself). He has clearly absorbed the best of that writing, and turned it into something fresh in his own effort. Paradoxically, for a story that celebrates a bunch of social misfits, the book is full of wisdom about how to live life. This is no ordinary biography. As for the actual climbing passages--good luck putting this book down. I had to force myself not to flip ahead and see who dies next.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An exceptional history of the mountaineers of England from roughly 1960 to 1980, the post Hilary period. Clint Willis follows the history from early climbing, partners and feuds, to eventual aggressive expedition climbing of Everest and many other peaks. The book centers on Chris Bonnington who gained the most fame in this period but tracks many other climbers in the process.

What this book did that I have not seen in any others is describe the thought process high on the mountain of the specific maneuvers where climbers knew they had exceeded safety limitations and would fall to death potentially killing partners also with a misstep. This may not sound earth shattering but as a novice climber you are taught not to do this and always have safety devices set in case of the accident. Clearly stating where they exceed this safety is an interesting concept particularly above 22,000 feet in extreme cold/wind while tired and oxygen deprived. Given the great retelling of the climber and family relationships, this book is better than any others as it involves you in the death of the climbers, the calls back to home and the long-term reactions of family and other climbers.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It's not a page turner which is the reason I did not rate it a five. It's a detailed chronological history that will appeal to anyone with an interest in climbing, particularly the large peaks of the world.
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