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review 2017-11-05 16:50
Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate
Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate - Reinhold Messner

I don’t climb mountains simply to vanquish their summits. What would be the point of that? I place myself voluntarily into dangerous situations to learn to face my own fears and doubts, my innermost feelings.

In interviews, in this book, in about anything I have read or watched featuring Reinhold Messner, I always thought he comes across as self-righteous, arrogant, unsympathetic seeker of attention. Love or loathe Reinhold Messner? I can't bring myself to do either. I do, however, have a lot of respect for his feats as a climber.


And this is what this book, Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate, is about - Messner's motivation to climb mountains and his one of his incredible adventures: the idea to climb Mt. Everest without the help of supplementary oxygen.

Is it really possible to climb the highest mountain in the world without any help from oxygen apparatus? That is the question. Many doctors don’t think so. A large percentage of expedition climbers agree with them. After the West Ridge had been climbed, and the North side, and the South-west Face, as well as the normal route, the problem of a ‘fair’ ascent still remained, to storm the summit without masks. And I wanted to be the person to do it, together with Peter Habeler; we wanted to attempt to climb Everest ‘by fair means’.

Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate is based on the notes Messner took during the expedition, and chronicles the history of previous expeditions as well as the expedition that saw Messner and his long-term climbing partner, Peter Habeler, manage to be the first to climb up without supplemental oxygen in May 1978.  


There are some serious issues with the book:


I read the translated version which also contained an introduction by Messner - the translation was atrocious. Really horrible. The flow of writing read like it had been put through Google Translate, which did not make sense in parts. I have a hunch that it would make even worse reading for someone not familiar with German syntax. 


In addition, the book really needed an editor. Messner's introduction included passages that seem to have been taken from articles written about him, but not by him - unless, he intentionally chooses to speak of himself in 3rd person. This did not make sense.


The book also includes excerpts from the notes of previous expeditions and other books which are not set off from the rest of the text. This makes them look like a part of the author's narrative - even though they aren't.


Apart from this, Messner did not endear himself to me much. He goes on and on about how his motivation for climbing is to find out more about himself and how he acts in extreme situations, but he doesn't actually tell us anything about it. All we get is:

During the walk in to Base Camp I frequently asked myself why Peter and I should want to climb Everest without oxygen. The reason does not lie in a pure mountaineering or sporting purpose. To be able to explain this I had always to turn back to history and say that in the first 200 years of alpinism, it was the mountain that was the important thing. During this time it was the summit that was conquered and explored, that was the unknown that man attempted to reach by any means, employing any techniques. But for some years now and particularly on my own tours, it is no longer the mountain that is important, but the man, the man with his weaknesses and strengths, the man and how he copes with the critical situations met on high mountains, with solitude, with altitude. My expeditions have thus enabled me to draw closer to myself, to see into myself more clearly.

The higher I climb, the deeper I seem to see within myself. But were I to put all sorts of technical gadgets between myself and the mountain, then there would be certain experiences that I could not feel. If I were to wear an oxygen mask, I should be unable to know exactly what it means to climb at heights of 8,000 metres or more, what it feels to struggle against the body’s resistance and to endure the loneliness of being totally beyond the reach of help.


Despite all of its short-comings, tho, the draft-like quality of the book also has a rawness to it that makes the book quite credible. 


Don't get me wrong, I still believe Messner's ego should have been named as a co-author, but there are parts - where he is not going on and on about his own motivations - that are really interesting and heart-warming and just plain astonishing:


I mean, there are a lot of emotions on that mountain - A LOT of EMOTIONS -  due to serious and fatal accidents, weather conditions, and the sheer exhaustion of the men. And then there are some lighter bits about how to deal with challenges of a hostile environment:

I ask the Sherpas for a mug of hot tea, and at the same time keep an eye on my sauce, which is beginning to thicken, to make sure it doesn’t burn. The onions are too dark, I notice. This is probably because they were frozen solid when they went into the hot fat, I think. Ang Phu, the Chief Sherpa, sits now beside me and eats potatoes. To get the noodles al dente at 5,340 metres is a real art. A minute too long and they turn into a soup.

What I liked best tho was when Messner reached the top of the world but waited for his  sherpa guide, Ang Phu, to catch up so they could climb the last few steps together. When his climbing partner, Habeler, made his attempt at the summit a day or two later, Messner was with him, too. It really appears from this account that he just did not want to be alone on that summit (even tho he would make the ascent alone a few years later). There was a sense of community in the expedition that I had not expected - not just between the climbers but also with the guides, without whom the expedition would have been impossible.  


So, for all my misgivings about the author, I actually liked his approach to writing about the expedition - giving credit where due. In the end, I would even say that while Messner's personality mostly gets in the way of the book, there is a part where is passion for climbing and his conviction that climbing Everest is an endeavour that most people are probably not worthy of, makes a valid point:

Mount Everest tends to shrink in our imagination when we read it has been ‘conquered’ by a couple of hundred mediocre alpinists, who probably would not trust themselves to climb Mont Blanc without help; but then it grows again, if a half dozen of these trophy-hunters get themselves killed in the process, as happened in 1996 in the course of two commercial climbing trips organised by Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Jon Krakauer has written a profound book upon the subject, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Despite this, the hordes came again the following year, and once more there were tragedies.

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that humans cannot survive at heights approaching 9,000 metres. While more and more of us climb where we don’t belong, the accidents will go on increasing and, with them, because of them in fact, so will the desire to make such an attempt. Treading the footsteps of those before them, waiting in line at the Hillary Step below the summit, growing numbers of people clamber to heights that offer no retreat for the inexperienced when storm, mist or avalanche play havoc with fuddled brains. What makes Mount Everest so dangerous is not the steepness of its flanks, nor the vast masses of rock and ice that can break away without warning. The most dangerous part of climbing Mount Everest is the reduced partial pressure of oxygen in the summit region, which dulls judgment, appreciation, and indeed one’s ability to feel anything at all.

With modern, lightweight oxygen apparatus the mountain can be outwitted, but what happens when the bottles are empty, when descent through a storm becomes impossible, when you can’t go a step further? An Everest climb cannot be planned like a journey from Zurich to Berlin, and it doesn’t end on the summit. In any sports shop you can buy, for a price, the lightest equipment there is, but you cannot purchase survival strategy. The client surrenders responsibility for him- or herself to the guide – and the higher the mountain, the more personal responsibility is yielded up, even though this is the basic prerequisite for any mountain experience. And what happens when the leader gets into difficulty? Clients are left hanging in the ropes on a mountain they neither know nor understand.

This Everest is no longer the Everest of the pioneers. Increasingly the apex of vanity, it has also become a substitute for something the summit-traveller wants to flaunt on his lapel, like a badge, without taking any of the responsibility in the field.

The more Mount Everest is turned into a consumer article, the more importance attaches to the key moments of its climbing history – with or without supplemental oxygen. As the highest mountain in the world – for trekkers, climbers, environmentalists, and aid workers (to say nothing of undertakers) – it is guaranteed more publicity than other mountain. Its mythos is continually being misinterpreted, so that it becomes a mountain of fortune and fantasy even for those with no need to go there themselves. For them, I tell this story of climbing ‘by fair means’.


(Photo source)

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review 2017-11-04 14:30
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

If we presented Michael Faraday or Paracelsus with the scientific evidence our courts now take for granted, it would seem like magic to those most rigorous of researchers. And the advance of science has run hand in hand with corresponding advances in the delivery of justice.

As much as I like McDermid's works of fiction, Forensics didn't work well for me. She does acknowledge at the end of the book that she was new to non-fiction writing (her history in journalism aside) and that this book was, more or less, an experiment, but that didn't help my enjoyment as a reader. 


The thing is, I could not stop comparing the book to other books and tv series that I enjoyed infinitely more and that I learned more from - and I am including my first love of all things forensic in this: Quincy, M.E. 



Yup. I feel like I got a better understanding of the science of forensics from a 1970s tv drama than from what is supposed to be a book about the very topic.


While I enjoyed reading about the cases told in the book, I was missing a common thread that these stories were supposed to illustrate. It felt more like there were a number of stories which were aligned because they had some basis on forensic investigation and a tenuous connection to forensic sciences today. There just was not enough of a clear train of thought that would explain what points, discoveries, or scientific facts these stories were supporting. 


I'm not going to say that there was not enough science in the book - although I would have wished for more - because the book could have worked as a history of forensic science, if the structure had been developed on that line. However, it was not clear enough to me what the sections were supposed to add up to. There seemed to be too many human interest stories amongst the reported cases that just distracted from trail of scientific discovery. And did I miss an analysis of how different forensic methods changed criminal investigations beyond a general statement here or there throughout the book?

Surely, that would have been worthwhile?


The book was not all bad, tho. The history on fingerprints was interesting.

Our fingerprints are part of us from before birth; they first appear in the tenth week of pregnancy, when the foetus measures only 8 cm. As one of the three layers of tissue that make up the foetus’s skin – the basal layer – starts to grow at faster rate than the other two, ridges form to relieve the resulting stresses, ‘like the buckling of land masses under compression’. If your finger pads were flat, the pressure on the skin would be equal and the ridges would be parallel. But because finger pads

slope, ridges form along lines of equal stress, most usually in concentric circles. Ridge patterns also appear across the palms of our hands and on the bottoms of our feet. Other primates have them, too, and evolutionary biologists believe there are good reasons for them. They help our skin to stretch and deform, protecting it from damage; they create valleys down which sweat can escape, reducing slipperiness when we hold things; and they give us more contact (and hence grip) with rough surfaces like tree bark. When we touch a surface with a finger, the ridges leave their unique pattern on it. Even the prints of identical twins differ.

And the general history of discoveries, however superficial, was interesting. It is just that the overwhelming part of the book is just that - superficial, with a side dish of case reporting that had a bias towards human interest and sensationalism.


As for the impact that the advances in forensic science have made in the delivery of justice, I may have missed this altogether as there seemed very little about any changes in law or procedure that derived specifically from the advance in forensic science. For example, I was expecting a link between the chapter on arson and the Stardust Disco fire to any changes in law because the Stardust fire led directly to changes in law in the following years that still provide the basis  for Building Control legislation in Ireland today (see here for an interesting blog post about this).


It felt throughout the book that Mcdermid's focus was on the descriptive, the shocking, and the telling of stories than on the investigation of facts, on analysis, or on effects of the cases she reported.

For a non-fiction book with the sub-title of "What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, And More Tell Us About Crime" there was just not enough factual discussion, analysis, or even discussion of different ideas in this book to make this an enjoyable non-fiction read.


Again, there was more science, discussion and balanced argument coming from this guy:



(And, yes, I am totally hijacking my post for a Quincy-fangirl agenda.)


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text 2017-11-02 00:06
Reading progress update: Chapters 1 & 2
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I need to stop here for the time being. 


It took me all of chapter 1 to get used to McDermid's style in this book, which I can only describe as a mix of her prose and what I presume is her reporting style (she was journalist before turning to crime writing full time...). 


She definitely places a lot of focus on the stories of different crimes, but the science related facts are there too. Not as much "hard science", yet, as I'd love but there are definitely some parts that made me perk up after reading about some of the descriptions of the horrible crime scenes. 


I particularly liked this one so far:

"Arsonists often leave matches behind, assuming they will burn away to nothing. But the powdered rock in a match head contains the fossilised remains of single-cell algae called ‘diatoms’. A diatom’s shell is made of silica, which is abrasive enough to help you strike the match, and tough enough to endure extremely high temperatures. Each of the 8,000 known species of diatom has a unique shell structure, identifiable through a microscope. Different brands make their matches using powdered rock from different quarries. If forensic scientists can spot the diatoms, they can identify the match brand."

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text 2017-11-01 21:26
Flat Book Society: Forensics
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid



I have been looking forward to this book ever since I got it at the Bloody Scotland book festival last year.


I may not take this on the plane tomorrow - I cherish my copy too much - but I hope to read at least the first chapter tonight.


Happy reading, All!



Edit: Inspired by Ani's post, I am also reading this for Square 15 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season. 

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text 2017-10-30 21:19
Reading progress update: I've read 73 out of 652 pages.
William Pitt the Younger: A Biography - William Hague

The relationship between Prince Fredrick and his father King George II was an early example of a noted Hanoverian tradition, being one of unmitigated hatred between monarch and heir. The Prince of Wales was truly loathed by both his father and mother. Queen Caroline once exclaimed when she saw the Prince pass her dressin-room window: "Look, there he goes - that wretch! that villain! - I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!"




Cue the 4 Georges...


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