The Best Books on Climbing Mt. Everest

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Mt Everest is in the news again, with the photo of the traffic jam of people waiting to get to the summit going viral and climbers dying (11 so far). If you’ve read about the 1996 disaster, none of the headlines (‘too crowded’ ‘too many inexperienced climbers’) will come as a revelation—just a repetition of the same warnings about the dangers of climbing Mt Everest two decades on. Why are people so interested in climbing Mt Everest? “Because it’s there” was British climber George Mallory’s answer. He died on the north face of Everest in June 1924, and his body was found, frozen in the snow, 75 years later. He may have been the first to summit Mt Everest, but it’s unlikely. Mallory was a schoolteacher and a friend of the author Robert Graves. Graves writes quite a bit about Mallory in his memoir, Goodbye to All That, which is a beautiful book about the agony of World War I. Mallory survived the Great War, only to die climbing Everest.

My interest in climbing Mt Everest has always been strictly of the armchair variety. I sometimes dream about summiting it, but I start getting headache and nausea at less than 2000m. I have to be careful visiting friends in Switzerland, let alone anything more ambitious. However, I first read about climbing Mt Everest when I was 8. My older brother gave me Edmund Hillary’s autobiography for Christmas as a joke. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I had learned about explorers at school and I was obsessed with Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

I’ve read books about climbing K2, Nangaparbat and some of the other 8000ers. But Everest is still my favourite. This is my selection of favourite books about it.

  • 1

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    Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
    by Jon Krakauer

    This is the book that really got me going on Everest literature as a grownup. It's highly readable with an 'angle.' Basically, there were too may inexperienced mountaineers on the mountain, in fact too many people period. There was a huge traffic jam at the Hillary Step near the summit and this, among other things, contributed to the disaster. His descriptions of climbing, getting a headache from the sun in the day, feeling slightly dehydrated and yet at the same the cold, it's all quite evocative. Oh. And the dead bodies.

  • 2

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    The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest
    by Anatoli Boukreev

    This book is by the Russian/Kazakh climber Anatoli Boukreev who has since died I think on Annapurna. As my father always said, as well as bad mountaineers, very good mountaineers all seem to die in the end too. The book is something of a defence of his actions during the Everest disaster of 1996, as Boukreev came under criticism in Krakauer's book for not doing enough to help the people under his care. Boukreev gives a credible argument that he was sensible to rush up and down the summit, so that he was in a good state to help later, once disaster struck.

  • 3

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    High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest
    by Edmund Hillary

    What's fascinating about Edmund Hillary's book about climbing Mt Everest is the complete contrast in tone to Krakauer's. Krakauer's book is all about the dangers of climbing Mt Everest, all very serious and professional in tone. Hillary, one of the first two men to climb Everest, treats it more like a lark. He's very British in that sense (although he was actually a New Zealander). It's almost like he's going off for a minor jaunt on a local mountain and happens to get to the top of Everest. There's also a bit at the end about finding a Yeti. He's basically enjoying not being very serious. Unusually, Hillary lived into his 90s, though he too had his share of tragedy: his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu. The whole family had been in Nepal for a year as Hillary was helping to build a hospital. He also built many schools. He really was quite an extraordinary man.

  • 4

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    The Summit of the Gods
    by Baku Yumemakura

    This is a 5 volume Japanese manga series that I absolutely love (though I haven't read all 5 yet). It's fiction, but it's based around the story of George Mallory. Mallory and Irvine died on Everest in 1924, and the question was whether they made it to the summit or not. (As I mentioned, before, they probably didn't. Irvine wasn't hugely experienced and their equipment probably wasn't good enough to make it, dressed in tweeds as they were). Anyway, the story goes the Mallory had a camera, which was never found. If it were found, it might well contain photos and evidence that they made it to the summit and only died on their way down. In the manga, the conceit is that the camera is around somewhere in Kathmandu, and it's about trying to track it down. For a fan of mysteries like me, it's obviously wonderful reading.

  • 5

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    The Lost Explorer : Finding Mallory On Mount Everest
    by Conrad Anker

    Yes, they really did find the body of George Mallory (from 1924) on Everest in 1999. It's absolutely unbelievable. Basically the ice preserves everything quite well up there. He was wearing a tweed jacket. The camera was not with him, so now there's speculation that if they find Irvine's body he might have it. This book is a great read and not very long.

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