I am no great fan of cycling, and there must be thousands of mountains I'd rather climb than Everest. A bike ride lasting several months topped off with some high altitude suffering on the roof of the world probably isn't the trip for me then. Luckily Pauline Sanderson and her Everestmax team mates have ticked that box already, so I don't have to. Phew. This likeable, engaging book is the story of their amazing journey from the lowest bit of land on the planet to its top spot - ie. the World's Longest Climb.
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The expedition of 2006 cycled about 8000km through Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet to reach base camp on the north side of Everest, from where the final push was made.
The Everestmax team weren't the first up Everest by way of an epic two wheeled slog of course; that accolade went to the late Goran Kropp who in 1996 cycled alone from Sweden to base camp, then soloed to the top. But that's not to downplay the Everestmax achievement, or the novelty of their being the first ever team to travel from the lowest point to the highest by human muscle alone. On a mountain where standard ascents long ago lost the power to really wow a climbing-savvy audience, an ambitious self-powered odyssey rekindles some of the adventure.
'Pauline has enthusiasm stamped through her core like Brighton in a stick of rock'
Because simply reaching base camp took so much time and effort the bike journey gets more coverage in the book than the mountain goal itself. In so doing Pauline's account fuses the travelogue with the conventional expedition book - and it's all the better for it. It's not just a ripping yarn either, with scores of pictures that carry the narrative as effectively as the words themselves and give the book an attractive glossy quality. Inevitably some are jokey holiday snaps or posed team shots; but there is excellent landscape and travel photography too, and as a collection the pictures do a great job of conveying the changing scenery and cultures, the rigours of life on the road and on the mountain.
The Dead Sea to Everest's summit by leg power alone? Just reading an account of it might have worn me out, had this book been written by pretty much anyone else. But Pauline has enthusiasm stamped through her core like Brighton in a stick of rock. I found her energy and humour rubbing off on me as I read, banishing any cynicism I might have felt at yet another Everest book, and carrying me through the story - just as I suspect it kept Pauline herself going on the long hard miles through Asia. She had me believing it was all brilliant fun and not a mega endurance test at all. If you've ever met her - and a lot of people will have done, perhaps from her stint marketing for Glenmore Lodge - you'll know that this extrovert optimism isn't something she's just put on for the book.
'The core message is inspirational: You've only got one life, so seize the day'
With its conversational tone the book has something of a diary feel - easy reading, but generally in a good way. The pedant in me wishes there'd been a rather tighter spell check, though that's a minor niggle. I wonder, too, if more editorial discipline could have been wielded at the beginning, where Pauline seems to lose direction for a while in autobiographical reminiscence starting from the year dot. Convent girl, London lawyer - I was just beginning to wonder if Pauline would ever get to the point when all of a sudden she ups and discovers the outdoors, and her conventional life rapidly goes off the rails. An avalanche of UK and international adventures follows, tumbling one on top of the next. I suspect the pace of the book reflects the speed at which Pauline lives life; you don't get the impression she's inclined to mope about, or even pause for breath.
In her extensive travels prior to Everestmax she comes across at times as a naive amateur, blithely and quite by chance falling into all sorts of enviable scenarios - hanging out with Mongolian nomads; crossing right through the interior of Borneo on a whim; a relative kayaking beginner casually flinging herself into gnarly Nepalese white water expeditions. But I suspect that beneath her cheerful willingness just to give anything a go there's a deeper determination. It takes more than smiles to get you up Everest - not to mention the many other respectable climbs she's almost too modest to hint at. The Everestmax journey - when it finally gets underway on about page 87 - seems qualitatively different to Pauline's earlier ad-hoc trips, a sustained organised team effort focused on a definite goal. As a reader the outcome is never in doubt; there's no will they, won't they suspense since the book's very title is a clue that at least someone is going to make it. But what a journey they had on the way.
'It's a fascinating mix - endless endurance; epic desert and mountain landscapes; extremes of weather ...a sewage flood'
It's a fascinating mix - endless endurance; epic desert and mountain landscapes; extremes of weather; a bit more endurance; roughing it and dodgy plumbing; a sewage flood; guns; exotic food and not always enough of it; the clash of tight schedules and Byzantine bureaucracy; laughter, tears and the jokey camaraderie of a tight-knit team; encounters with all manner of bemused locals... and did I mention the endurance? Some of the countries the Everestmax expedition travelled through are routinely demonised by our reactionary media as hotbeds of hotheaded hostility, yet the team seem to have met with friendliness and hospitality almost wherever they went. This is classic adventure travel fodder but not, I think it's fair to say, great travel literature. Pauline's style isn't Chat magazine, but it's certainly lighter than Chatwin's; her blow-by-blow pacing allows few chances to pause and reflect, or to really get under the skin of places and people. There isn't even much in the way of introspection. But then it wasn't that sort of trip, and I guess it isn't supposed to be that sort of book either. Compared with weightier tomes in the travel genre The World's Longest Climb may lack a little literary depth and lyricism, but neither does it have an ounce of pretension. What you read is what you get.
It's a long, long way from Jordan to Everest base camp, and they don't arrive until page 182 (of 230). Cue the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing between camps, logistical juggling, argy-bargy, acclimatisation issues, general exhaustion and 'a lot of just hanging around in tents'; it's all part of the 'fun' on Everest apparently. This stage is related with honesty, a matter-of-factness that manages to strike a middle path between the extremes of studied insouciance and overblown hyperbole that climbing books can suffer from. Among other new additions the team is joined on the mountain by Pauline's husband Phil, an instructor at Glenmore Lodge and an accomplished climber. I was shocked to learn that the same couldn't be said of all the team members, some of whom seem to have had quite an experience deficit for a trip to high altitude. Jumar lessons at base camp? I suppose it's to be expected on the Everest circus.
Given their greater experience it comes as no surprise then when Pauline and Phil eventually pair up for a summit bid. They're a strong sensible team, and make the summit with no worse mishap than Pauline peeing herself. Ah, the romance of being the first British married couple up Everest. On reaching the summit Pauline also scores a world first, the World's Longest Climb. But the euphoria is tinged with tragedy when they learn that in the four days of their summit bid five climbers from other teams died on the mountain; in fact the 2006 season saw 11 fatalities in total. What's the attraction of Everest, again?
This is probably the only downbeat passage in the whole book. Some may find her almost unsinkable buoyancy an irritant, but for me the core message is inspirational. You've only got one life, so seize the day. If Pauline Sanderson can drop everything to work for a rafting outfit in Kathmandu, or endure saddle sores half way around the world merely as a warm-up for Everest, then what's stopping me from following my own irresponsible urges? The World's Longest Climb is that rare thing, an expedition book that genuinely makes me wonder why not? But cycle to the Himalayas? That's one adventure she is welcome to.
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