The first successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa teammate Tenzing Norgay is a familiar saga, but less well known are the tales of many other adventurers who also came to test their skills and courage against the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains. In this lively and generously illustrated book, historians Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver present the first comprehensive history of Himalayan mountaineering in fifty years. They offer detailed, original accounts of the most significant climbs since the 1890s, and they compellingly evoke the social and cultural worlds that gave rise to those expeditions.
The book recounts the adventures of such figures as Martin Conway, who led the first authentic Himalayan climbing expedition in 1892; Fanny Bullock Workman, the pioneer explorer of the Karakoram range; George Mallory, the romantic martyr of Mount Everest fame; Charlie Houston, who led American expeditions to K2 in the 1930s and 1950s; Ang Tharkay, the legendary Sherpa, and many others. Throughout, the authors discuss the effects of political and social change on the world of mountaineering, and they offer a penetrating analysis of a culture that once emphasized teamwork and fellowship among climbers, but now has been eclipsed by a scramble for individual fame and glory.
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A conversation with Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver
Q: What distinguishes your book from the many others on mountains and mountaineering?
A: Fallen Giants is the first comprehensive history of Himalayan mountaineering to appear since the mid-1950s. It is also the first attempt to tell the story of Himalayan mountaineering from the bottom up,” which is to say understanding mountain climbers as the products of particular times and particular cultures.
Q: What do you mean by fallen giants”?
A: The title is, on one level, meant to be ironic. After climbing Nanda Devi in the Indian Garhwal region of the Himalaya in 1936, the British climber Bill Tilman wrote regretfully that the first time a great mountain is ascended, some of its mystery and grandeur” are diminished. He added that a book recounting the fall of one of the giants” would be bought or by mountaineers more likely borrowed with misgiving and read with loathing.” We hope our book will inspire feelings other than misgiving and loathing, even though it describes the fall of many such giants. But the title has another meaning, because in Fallen Giants we are chronicling the rise and fall of a set of values and norms that once nurtured a strong sense of fellowship and responsibility to others among mountaineers. In the later decades of the 20th century, such attitudes faltered on the slopes of high peaks, as the ideal of a brotherhood of the rope” succumbed to self-seeking commercialism and a reckless indifference to others. So we are not just recording the falling” of mountain giants in our book; we are also paying tribute to admirable and endangered values, embodied in mountaineers like Tilman and his longtime climbing partner Eric Shipton, as well as such American climbers as Charlie Houston and Bob Bates, among others.
Q: Are either of you mountaineers yourselves?
A: Not like the ones we write about. We share a love of mountains and have spent a lot of time climbing and trekking, including in the Himalaya. But we cannot, alas, claim the ascent of a single 8,000-meter peak between us. Our hope is that as historians we bring other useful abilities to bear on telling the story of Himalayan mountaineering.About the Author:
Maurice Isserman is James L. Ferguson Professor of History, Hamilton College. He lives in Clinton, NY. Stewart Weaver is professor of history, University of Rochester. He lives in Rochester, NY. Both authors are enthusiastic hikers and mountain climbers.
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