The Vast Unknown

vast unknown

Go America! Climb the tallest mountain!

But the Brits and Swiss have already made the summit?

Yeah, but we beat the Soviets to the top!

According to Broughton Coburn in his latest book, The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest, that was the main motivation for the American expedition to Mount Everest in 1963. And if not the main motivation for the climbers, it was a motivation for many of the expedition’s sponsors.

I used to dabble in mountaineering so I understand the motivation for climbing and facing the danger. In a complicated world, it’s a simple goal. Go as high as you can, the summit if possible, and get back down safely.

By all pragmatic standards climbing mountains is “useless.” That, indeed, is one of its glories: that it needs no end or justification beyond itself – like a sunset, a symphony, or like falling love.
– James Ramsey Ullman in Americans on Everest

Ullman already wrote a classic account of the massive American team assault on Mount Everest in 1963. In addition, Thomas Hornbein wrote about his assault on the mountain’s West Ridge during that same expedition in Everest: The West Ridge.

I enjoy a good book on mountaineering. The Vast Unknown was not going to tell an untold story. So it would have to stand on its own quality of writing and illumination into the climbers.

When the publisher offered me a copy to review, I was sure it be worth reading. It was just a question of whether it was a good adventure story or a great one. It was merely good. It is a good celebration of the 50th anniversary of the expedition.

The climbers come across flat and it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other as they attack the mountain with an army of Sherpas and tons of supplies.  The storytelling does not create a heightened sense of danger that the great adventure books create. As a result the book falls a bit flat.