George Meredith (1828-1909)

Willoughby Patterne was the lord/ inheritor of a vast estate in rural England.  In his early twenties, he sought to fulfill his ancestral obligations by getting married and providing scions for the future.  He met Letitia Dale, the daughter of a local land owner, and began to court her with marital prospects in mind.  But he happened to meet Constantia Durham with whom he fell deeply in love and who henceforth attracted his attention, to the sorrow of Letitia, who continued caring for her sick father and occupying her time with routine tasks.

Sir Willoughby in turn received a jolt when Constantia eloped with Harry Oxford,  Captain in a local regiment.  Stunned, Willoughby looked to Letitia for consolation and love, but, understandably, she maintained a cool attitude toward his urgent protestations.  Ten days later he embarked on a world tour with his long time friend, Vernon Whitford.

Three years later the two travelers returned and Willoughby resumed his search for a mate.  He fixed on Clara Middleton, the daughter of a visiting scholar and professor famous for his Latinity and researches into Classical culture.  Clara, overwhelmed and young, agreed to marry him, but soon after reneged on her promise as a result of realizing that she didn’t love him, and that he was a confirmed Egoist.

Willoughby viewed his estate as his own personal kingdom,  a buffer of sorts against what he considered the “outside world”.  He was convinced that unnamed cultural and social forces harbored malevolent intent inimical to his interests, and that he had to guard himself at all times from incursions by evil influences.

One of the frequent visitors to Patterne Hall was Lady Montstuart Jenkinson, an astute observer, who characterized Willoughby tersely:  “You see he has a leg”.  Meaning that he was egoistic and possessed of a certain narrowness of vision.  She also had an opinion of Clara, that she was “a rogue captured in a porcelain vase”, alluding to her hidden resolve to follow her own star.  Both of these analyses were proven to be accurate in the sequence.

Clara soon realized that she could never marry someone like Willoughby, but every aunt, uncle, father and friend were shocked by her attitude, and pressed her to fulfill what they considered to be her obligations.  She felt alone and oppressed and could only relieve her misery by helping a local child, the son of a naval officer who had once walked ten miles to visit the Patternes but was turned away at the gate.  The boy, Crossjay, played a critical role later in the book when he was witness to an attempt by Willoughby to propose marriage to his former love interest, Letitia.  This occurred after Willoughby finally gave up trying to force Clara into marriage and evolved a plot to marry her to Vernon instead, while he convinced himself that he really had loved Letitia all along.  (spoilers ahead)

Characteristically, after a long series of misunderstandings, complications, heart-rendings, and quarrels, Vernon and Clara, Willoughby and Letitia marry each other, and a certain resolution is arrived at.  The first couple honeymoon in the Alps and the second pair travel to Italy.

This is a very complicated book.  After reading about half of it i kept thinking about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which the speed and location of a quantum particle cannot both be measured at the same time.  Willoughby’s uncertainty about his marital prospects, Clara’s waffling over her emotional state, Letitia’s responsibilities to her sick father versus her duty to her former lover, the Reverend Doctor Middleton’s difficulties with preferring port wine to dealing with his daughter’s welfare, Crossjay’s attempts to behave at odds with his natural egg-stealing instincts, aunts Isabel and Eleanor having to change their minds over their nephew’s amatory variations, Ms. Busshe’s predicament over what to do with her wedding present…  these all pend throughout the length of the novel, changing with the emotional ambiance experienced by the principal actors in unpredictable and sometimes exasperating ways.

Meredith is a great writer undoubtedly, but sometimes that judgment is more justified in quantity as opposed to quality.  One of his sentences in Chapter 32 is 227 words long.  But in general he tells an interesting tale and he has a lot of insight into how humans relate to each other and how they cope with their own internal demons.  It’s characteristic of  his overall conception that almost at the very end of the book, Letitia, Clara, and Willoughby all confess to being Egoists.

I think if i read this book again i’d get more out of it, but i can’t see that happening right away.




Simon Winchester (b. 1944)

The above picture is of William Smith, not Simon Winchester.  William was born in Churchill, England in 1769, the son of the local blacksmith.  This was a time when new discoveries in mechanics and the natural world were fomenting progress in science and industry.  Steam engines, trains, sciences and even global finance were burgeoning and disrupting centuries of entrained thought.  One of the innovations was the concept of canal building.  With the discovery and increased utilization of coal, a method was needed to get the fuel to factories and smelters faster than the old muddy rutted roads would allow.  The first canal was planned near the city of Bath.  William, having lost his father at the age of eight, was early introduced to the world of working, and through self-study, was eventually hired to survey the proposed route.  He had studied surveying on his own, working through Fennig’s “Art of Measuring”.  He impressed the head surveyor, Ed Webb, as an eager and intelligent lad, with his energy and curiousity, and was soon handling most of the work which involved lots of walking and route-finding.  In the process of excavating the planned route, William noticed the different sorts of rock and soil they were digging through, and came to understand that not only were there varying layers under the surface, one on top of another, but they all appeared to be slanting toward the east.  And he began to find that each of the different layers seemed to have its own type of fossil.  He went on to identify brachiopods and echinoderms as inhabitants of the Paleozoic era, and soon realized that each stratum could be identified by the type of fossil it contained.  His genius allowed him to imaginatively extrapolate the strata to cover the entire country of England, and even the whole planet.

Once William understood the basics of what he’d been observing, he was able to begin the construction of a map of the complete vertical section of rock revealed by the walls of the unearthed canal.  In the oncoming years he traveled tens of thousands of miles all over England, analyzing and collecting fossils, all directed toward his great plan:  revealing the stratigraphy underlying the island of Great Britain and creating a master map of the same.  He continued studying and was able to support himself as a drainage engineer.  Whenever a farmer wanted to drain a sodden field, William was there to help him do it.  He repaired city drainage systems and helped remote households search for likely sources of water.  Once when the Roman Baths in Bath stopped flowing, he was hired to fix the problem.  With a team of navvies, he dug down where the well was located and found, at a considerable depth, a large ox bone covered with pyrite that had been gradually cutting off the flow.  Upon its removal, the water returned, flowing with greater pressure and volume than it had had before the excavation.

Smith’s map was appropriated and used by several other persons, mostly notedly a Mr. Greenough, the president of the London Geological Society.  Greenough was a fossil collector but had no concept or interest in fundamental geology.  He was a social butterfly with no concept of science or morality.  He not only stole William’s map, he barred him from being admitted to the echelons of the Society because he was a mere laborer and not a “gentleman”.  In paying for his years of research, William had spent all his money and was eventually incarcerated in King’s Bench prison for debt.  A benefactor had him released after eleven weeks, but, discouraged, William stayed away from the city for fifteen years.  He finally saved enough money to buy a small house in Scarborough, where he spent his declining years.  He was popular there because he’d repaired their ailing water system and built a fossil museum in addition.

After many years had passed, Greenough lost his status as a “geologist” as the science began to assume a more professional aspect.  Before he died, Smith was recognized as the founder of Stratigraphy in England and received a gold medal from the British Museum for his work and his Map.

Simon Winchester has a degree in geology.  He became interested in writing and is the author of many books and articles, being featured as a columnist in several newspapers, including the Guardian.

I decided to join the Classics Club in one of their periodic “spins”:  here’s my list of twenty books:

Voyage Around The World:  Lord Anson

Portugese Voyages

The Antiquity of Man:  Lyell

The Old Yellow Book

Mandeville’s Travels

Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers:  Blakeney

The Skeptical Chemyst:  Boyle

Letters to His Son:  Chesterfield

Life of Nelson:  Southey

Diary:  Evelyn

Travels in France and Italy:  Young

Evelina:  Fanny Burney

The Egoist:  Meredith

The Tin Trumpet:  Horace Smith

Felix Holt:  Eliot

Persian Letters:  Montesquieu

Rural Rides:  Cobbet

Tour of Britain:  DeFoe

Orlando Furioso:  Ariosto

Tirant Lo Blanc

So naturally, the one i have to read is number 13, my least favorite author, G. Meredith…  i’d better start cramming, lol



SHERPA: Memoir of Ang Tharkay

Ang Tharkay (1908-1981)  with Basil P. Norton

He was born in Khunde village near the Teng-Boche monastery in SoluKhumbu province, northern Nepal.  The family was very poor and Ang was sent to live with his aunt in Tibet until he was twelve.  His father died and Ang worked at varying occupations to support his family:  herder, wood cutter, day labor of all sorts.  At 25, being ambitious and dissatisfied with insecurity and the daily grind, he walked to Darjeeling, hoping to get hired as a porter on an expedition to one of the high mountains.    But nothing was immediately available so he took work with a contractor hauling rocks by hand for the new Victoria Hospital.  Then he was hired as a courier delivering staples and tobacco to inland villages.  Crossing the Nangpa La (a high pass – 5800 meters) he developed a splitting headache and became nauseated with double vision, so he threw a rock at the neighboring mountain (Sharmi Lo) to wake the god up and the symptoms went away.  He was hungry and cold most of the time and often ate bark and roots to survive.  He took sand baths when he could to get warm or swam in naturally heated lakes.  Hearing of a German expedition to Kangchenjunga, he walked several hundred miles to base camp to apply for a job, but all the positions were filled.

Ang continued carrying supplies and tobacco to remote locations for the next few years.  Then he was informed by a friend that a new venture was  hiring in Darjeeling for another Everest attempt and he decided to walk there with a friend, hoping to be hired.  But he got jaundice on the way and after a grueling trek in spite of his sickness and lack of care, arrived too late, as he thought, to get a job.  But he went and interviewed anyway and was hired.  Sherpas in those early days were treated like slaves, and Ang was bullied by the head porter (the sirdar) even though he was ill and undernourished.  But he persisted and made it to base camp, where most of his time was taken up by collecting wood.  Slowly acclimatizing and improving his strength and skill, he learned how to walk with crampons and how to cut steps with an ice axe, and how to navigate on glaciers and rocks.  Eventually he reached Camp VI, hauling supplies and taking care of the climbers and developing his route-finding abilities.  The final assent from the North Col was abandoned because of the weather.

Ang, now being an experienced sherpa and climber, continued working for expeditions to the mountains and beyond.  In 1935 he went again to Everest on a Shipton expedition and met Tenzing Norgay, who later summited the mountain with Edmund Hillary in 1953.  Tenzing gave him a sleeping bag.  In 1936 he was made sirdar over 10 porters and was officially registered as a climber.

He was hired in 1938 as sirdar and cook (he studied cooking for two months with a Mrs. Odling in Kalimpong) on a reconnaissance mission to the environs of Everest, and for another attempt at ascending the mountain.  Once again they established Camp VI at the North Col, but the weather defeated any further attempts.  Ang was instrumental in rescuing a sherpa who had become paralyzed at Camp VI.  They had to bundle him up like a sausage and lower him down the cliffs and through the ice field to base camp, and then transport him over ridges and across swollen rivers back to Kalimpong.  The bridges were that in name only.  Frequently they would consist of two ropes, one to hang onto and the other tied into loops in which feet were inserted;  this at an alarmingly elevated distance above a torrential and rock-bound river.  Ang received a lot of recognition for his role in this arduous trek.

The most admiration and gratitude he garnered was with the Herzog expedition that ascended Annapurna in 1950.  In addition to route-finding and supply-hauling up to the the 8,000 meter level, he was in large measure responsible for enabling the stricken climbers to reach base camp after their heroic ascent.  Herzog had frozen fingers and feet and Lachenal had frozen hands.  Lionel Terray was snow-blind.They were not capable of handling ropes or ice axes and steps had to be chopped out for them and ingenuity was needed figuring out how to get them from one stance to another.  Once at base camp, the two climbers had to be carried out to safety:  no helicopters in those days.  The French were so grateful that they awarded Ang an Alpine Club gold medal and paid his way to Paris for a week of celebration.  Herzog lost all his fingers and toes and Lachenal all of his toes.  Annapurna was the first mountain above 8,000 meters that was ever climbed, and the two did it without oxygen.

In Between his jobs as climber and sirdar for mountain climbing expeditions, Ang journeyed with Shipton, Tilman and others in long surveying treks into the western Himalayas, the Hindu Kush region and to the various Karakorum peaks.  The parties blundered through dense jungles, climbed 18,000 foot passes and often lived on what they could shoot, even though they started out with two and a half tons of  food and supplies.  Encounters with Yetis were not unknown:  Ang was wakened more than once by yetis growling outside his tent, and the party members saw them several times in the distance.  Once three sherpas  fell into a giant wasp nest and were stung all over;  one of them lost an eye due to the stings.  Ang was swept away during a river crossing and only survived because he accidentally washed up onto a rock.  While climbing Nun Kun with four Europeans and a lady (Claude Kogan), he was caught with three others in an avalanche.  Later it happened again and the climbers were only saved by their dog, Togo, who grabbed the rope with his teeth and slowed them down enough so they could use ice axes to halt their fall.

In 1954, Ang was appointed instructor at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering in Darjeeling.  He was on the first Indian Everest Expedition in 1960.  In 1968 he semi-retired, but participated in a last, unsuccessful attempt on Dhaulagiri when he was 70.  The time of his death is variously given as 1978 and 1981.

Ang never learned to read or write, but his reputation was only second to that of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa that first climbed Everest with Hillary.  According to those he worked with, he was always smiling, never complained about over work and had a natural talent for disseminating disagreements and violence among and between Sherpas and expedition members.  The many hazards and difficulties he was instrumental in surmounting is only hinted at in this post;  he was greatly respected and admired by almost everyone he worked with.

My only complaint was with how the book is organized:  episodes are broken up in time, so that the reader is frequently taken back to a former period in Ang’s life in order to describe some particular event that occurred ancillary to some that were previously depicted.  But overall, it was a revealing look into the life of one of the foremost, albeit unknown, participators in the exploration of the Himalayas.


Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Traveling with a friend in Italy, Mary happens upon a cave hidden in the hills behind Naples.  They enter and squeeze through several holes in succession until they find themselves in a fairly large grotto with a hole in the roof leading to the outside air.  With the light thus furnished they notice a lot of bark fragments and leaves littering the floor with curious inscriptions on them.  Taking them up, the couple sees that the markings are writings in an ancient script.  Collecting all that they could hold in their arms, they exit the caverns but return repeatedly until they’ve gathered up all the scraps they could find.  After a long struggle, they determine that the writing is that of the ancient Sybil of Cumea, and that a story is told of the future of humankind in the latter part of the 21st century, as follows:

When Lionel Verney was five, his parents died.  The father had been a rakish sort of man, wasting his money and energies in gambling, horse racing and the like.  When he struck himself with poverty, he moved the family to the Lake District, where they lived simply for a while until he passed on shortly followed by his wife.  Lionel got work as a sheepherder and ran wild in the countryside for years, unlettered and angry:  a feral child with no social instincts.  His sister Perdita stayed in the family cottage on the edge of the Ullswater, house-keeping in a desultory kind of way, and surviving with the reluctant aid of neighbors.

Lionel is caught poaching on the Earl of Windsor’s land and sent to prison.  After his release and return he meets Earl Adrian and they become friends.  Adrian has been sent to the Lakes to recover from his love for Evadne, a Greek Princess, and he educates and civilizes Lionel, attaching him to his household and finding him a job as secretary to the Ambassador to Vienna.  Court life doesn’t greatly appeal and Lionel returns to England, where he finds that Adrian has vanished, partly because he has discovered that  Evadne is in love with Raymond, a Greek general who has achieved a military reputation in the wars with the Turks.

Raymond runs against Ryland, a local politician, for the position of Lord Protector of England and wins.  He marries Perdita and establishes a benevolent dictatorship over the country.  Idris, Adrian’s sister, wants to marry Lionel and her mother, the gaunt and robotic Countess, forbids it.  In fact she plans to have her kidnapped and carried off to Austria to marry a Count at the Royal Court.  Meanwhile Evadne has disappeared.  Lionel and Idris marry regardless, and the Countess, distraught, returns to Austria, where her family originated.

Five years pass.  Raymond discovers Evadne, living in poverty in a hovel in London and secretly helps her with money.  They become lovers, Perdita finds out about it, and Raymond leaves the country and returns to Greece, where he leads the army against Turkey in another war and disappears.  Adrian has returned and four friends, Adrian, Lionel, Perdita, and Perdita’s daughter Clara travel to Greece to find Raymond.  Adrian is wounded and returns to England.  They follow the army to Constantinople and Raymond dies in a gigantic explosion, the result of a booby trap set by the retreating Turks.  They find Evadne on the battlefield just before the blast and she foretells Raymond’s death and then dies herself.  Clara, a child of five or so,  runs merrily about the scene of battle with her dog, Florio.  They bury Raymond’s remains by the sea and Perdita stays to tend the grave.  Lionel and Clara go back to England via flying balloon (the major type of long-distance travel:  hot air balloon with wings and a motor).

The weather becomes violent.  Huge winds decimate the planet for four months and earthquakes, famine and pestilence harry the globe.  Plus the plague, which had begun in Constantinople, has flamed through Europe like an avenging angel, reducing the population by millions of victims.  Trade is disrupted world-wide and farming and industry are quelled in almost all countries.  Ryland, who had assumed the Protectorship upon Raymond’s death, resigns and Adrian takes over.  The situation of the country is dire, with the plague causing death and havoc in every city and town.  The countryside is almost as bad, with families dying wholesale in their farmhouses.

At last, Adrian, Lionel and their friends decide to leave England to try to find a place where the plague has not yet reached.  About 2000 people are all that’s left in England and they make their way to Paris.  Their trail is littered with corpses and by the time they get there  only 1500 persons are still alive.  After some difficulty with a fanatical leader who is promising salvation to his adherents, the remnants decide to head toward the Alps, where the colder climate might dispel or slow down the deadly disease.  By the time they get to Mt. Blanc, however, only four of them are left:  Lionel, Adrian, Clara, and Evelyn, Lionel’s youngest son.

(spoilers ahead)  It has been seven years since the plague began, and suddenly it seems to have ceased.  The four make their way down through Italy to the east coast and decide to appropriate a boat and sail to Greece to see if Perdita is still alive.  But the boat is caught in a storm and all are drowned except Lionel, who is thrown back onto the Italian coast.  He desperately searches the beach for survivors, but finds nothing, not even bodies.  Holding his grief off as well as he can, he walks to Rome where he spends a year looking for living persons and admiring the ruins and artistic productions of the ancient Romans.  Finally he decides to tour the world, seeking possible dwellers along the shores, as that would seem the most reasonable place to discover remnants of humanity.  At this stage the book ends.

I have to admit i was moved  by this book.  The language is heartland romantic, lush, florid, and detailed in its descriptions, and occasionally splashes over into maudlinism, but the total effect sweeps one along in its path like one of the storms Ms. Shelley describes.  The plot is complex and it’s hard to keep track of all the characters at times, but it’s somewhat episodic in its development, which assuages the beleaguered mind somewhat.  Reading along, i was periodically reminded of that extraordinary  novel by M.P. Shiel, “The Purple Cloud”, about a similar situation, dealing with the sole survivor of the planet, and his reactions and behavior as the sole occupant of all he surveys.  I’m sure there are other novels with the same premise;  it’s an interesting niche of science fiction that has possibilities for the inquiring mind, philosophically speaking.



Ed Viesturs (1959- ) with David Roberts

Ed was born in Ft. Wayne Indiana and raised in Rockford, Illinois.  He was energetic and ambitious, learning persistence and grit from his experiences as a competitive swimmer in high school.  He loved animals and after graduation moved to Seattle to study veterinary medicine.  To support himself in college he took whatever jobs he could find, but soon connected with a house builder and learned carpentry, which supported him in his idle moments for years.  He had a friend with a disreputable orange VW bug, a convertible, and they explored the Cascade mountains on the weekends.  The first mountain they climbed was St. Helens, about three years before it erupted.  (Curiously enough, i climbed it a year before the explosion, and i had a disreputable black VW bug). By the time Ed was in vet school (he was a fully-accredited veterinarian), he was working as a guide on Mt. Rainier and doing carpentry in his off hours.  He climbed Rainier 194 times.  And he was constantly improving his physical condition by exercising:  running and working out in the gym.

The book opens with Ed and his partner Scott Fischer waiting in Camp III at the 24,300 foot level of K2 in the Himalayas for two team-mates to return from a summit attempt.  They were wakened by a roaring sound and an avalanche swept over them, wiping out their tent and propelling them down the mountain.  Ed managed to take advantage of a small dip in the snow and jammed in his ice axe, thereby arresting their descent.  (Curiousier enough, the same thing happened to me on St. Helens, when i slipped while descending a couloir:  i managed to drive the sharp end of my axe into the sidewall thus slowing myself down so could avoid being killed by falling several thousand feet, haha).

Ed goes on to describe the salient features of the Himalayas:  Mt. Everest is the highest of 14 peaks that are above 8000 meters in height:  that’s about 26,000 feet.  Access is not easy, requiring up to weeks of hiking to reach base camp unless one spends lots of money for helicopters or in some cases cargo planes.  The climbing difficulties are formidable, most successful ascents requiring staged planning and almost military adherence to whatever route or procedure is adopted by the team leaders.  The world’s attention was first directed toward the Himalayas by the 1950 French expedition that first successfully climbed Annapurna.  The published accounts tell of Lionel Terray, Gustav Rebuffat, Louis Lachenal and Maurice Herzog, four of the most accomplished alpinists of the day, and their struggles against technical difficulties, treacherous avalanches, steep glaciers, and temperatures well below zero.  Lachenal and Herzog both lost toes and fingers from frostbite.  The mountain wasn’t climbed again for years.  Ed made his ascent in 2005 with Viekka Gustafson, a Finnish climber and known for his endurance.  Annapurna was thought by Ed to be the hardest 8K peak to climb, partly because the only feasible route required crossing a giant couloir with avalanches constantly roaring down it (they called it the shooting gallery), and partly because once on top they had to traverse four miles of jagged peaks to get to the highest one.  At 26,000 feet without bottled oxygen, that was prohibitively arduous.  During Ed and Viekka’s successful attempt, Viekka led, breaking trail through snow and ice, and climbing the inevitable ice-bound cliffs that seemed to bar their way in a never-ending series.  Ed stated at several points previously, that progress at that height required fifteen breaths to every step.  Once Ed was willing to give up, but Viekka just kept relentlessly placing one foot after the other.  At last they stood on top.

One of the points Ed kept repeating, and was really his mantra for mountain climbing in general, was that the most important part of planning a climb was getting back down.  Reaching the summit was meaningless if you died doing it.

After descending successfully, they were devastated to hear that one of their fellow climbers, Christian Kuntner, had been killed by an ice block in the shooting gallery.

Ed had a lot of experience climbing Everest, and was hired as guide numerous times.  At the end of 20th century, all sorts of persons were cuing up to climb the highest mountain in the world.  One Swedish climber, Goran Kopp, bicycled from Sweden all the way to base camp in order to make the ascent.  Selling permits became a money maker for the surrounding nations, and too often monetary gains superseded safety considerations.  Some persons who weren’t really capable of the intense effort required were allowed on the mountain.  In 1996, there was a major disaster in which 12 Climbers died on one day, mainly due to a sudden storm, but also due to the overwhelming desire for success on the part of some of the climbers.  Two of Ed’s friends froze to death near the top, and he had to observe their bodies every time he climbed the mountain.  (It was too high for helicopter rescue, and they were too heavy to bring down over the steep descents and glaciers, even with the rescuers using bottled oxygen.)

One of the friends Ed made in those mountains was Jean-Christophe Lafaille, a French climber who eventually became recognized as perhaps the best Himalayan climber in the world.  The two were partners more than once.  After Ed finished his goal of climbing all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks, he heard that Jean-Christophe had died on Makalu.  He’d been trying to climb it solo without oxygen, and apparently did so, but on the way down was last heard from at the 24,000 foot level, where he was evidently overcome by pulmonary edema ( in which the lungs fill with fluid), cerebral edema (the brain swells up), or was simply too tired to continue…  At any rate he was never heard from again.  Contrary to most idealized impressions of mountaineers, Lafaille was only 5’2″ tall.

Mountain climbing books can be addictive.  This one was more in the nature of an autobiography than a strictly technical description of ascents and techniques, but was well written and fascinating.  It’s amazing what a human being can do if he devotes his life single-mindedly to one achievement.  Ed was so taken by the mountains that he abandoned his veterinary career after only three years (he did get his degree from Washington State University, where my father taught, btw) to follow his hunger for heights.  He no longer is so avid about his career, and has adopted another role, that of husband and father.  He gives inspirational lectures in public and private sectors, and continues guiding on Mt. Rainier in his spare time.