AN ELEGY ATOP EVEREST, by Don Messerschmidt

The West Ridge: Cover to Tom Hornbein's
Everest: The West Ridge, 1964
What did the first few summiteers say when they reached the top of Mount Everest?
We barely know, for on the first three successful attempts between 1953 and 1963, the focus was more on getting mountaineers up there and back, alive, than fussing over what to speak for posterity.
The Brits were first, in 1953, followed by the Swiss in 1956, and the Americans in 1963. Here’s what the Brits and the Americans said and did on top of it all. They appear to have received the bulk of the press coverage back then.

The 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition
Long after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Everest, Hillary described how elated, surprised, and satisfied he was with the achievement. They reached the top, close together, at 11:30 a.m., Friday, May 29, 1953. Though a lot has been written about those few high moments of long-lasting fame, we have no hint of what Hillary actually said while standing at the highest point on earth. In his autobiographical View from the Summit, he describes how tired they were, moving slowly upward, seeking “rather anxiously for signs of the summit.” And then, he saw the barren plateau of Tibet in the distance, and directly in front of him: The Summit.
Afterward, when word of their success flashed around the world, the international press groused loudly about Hillary claiming the lead during the few last steps to the top. In his book, however, Hillary carefully side-steps the fuss. As they approached the snowy dome, he writes, We drew closer together as Tenzing brought in the slack on the rope. I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I had moved onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked around in wonder. To our immense satisfaction, we realized we had reached the top of the world!
Then, “In typical Anglo-Saxon fashion,” he says, “I stretched out my arm for a handshake, but this was not enough for Tenzing who threw his arms around my shoulders in a mighty hug... With a feeling of mild surprise I realised that Tenzing was perhaps more excited at our success than I was.
How Tenzing felt and what he said on top is written his autobiography Tiger of the Snows. Tenzing did something remarkable, shouting out in triumph and thankfulness at the top: “Thuji chey, Chomolungma” — I am grateful, Goddess Mother of the World!
In that moment atop the holy of holies, at 29,029 ft., Tenzing Norgay was the highest and happiest Sherpa in the world.
During their 15 minutes on top, Hillary photographed Tenzing holding an ice axe with a small Union Jack and the flags of Nepal, India, and the United Nations tied to it. But, alas, he forgot the obligatory photo of himself at the summit. No selfies.
More than anything else uttered that day on mountain, however, it is what Hillary said to George Lowe, the first expedition member he met after coming down from the summit, that will doubtlessly be remembered the longest—“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!
The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition
In 1963, six members of the AMEE became the third set of climbers to reach the peak, and now the search for words spoken on top takes on a whole new dimension.
On Wednesday, May 1, Jim Whitaker and Nawang Gombu topped out at 1 p.m., after ascending the same Southeast Ridge route the Brits had pioneered and the Swiss had followed. In Americans on Everest, the official account, author James Ramsey Ullman describes the scene:
Jim, in the lead, stopped and waited for Nawang Gombu Sherpa to come up to him. ‘You first,’ he said. ‘No, you,’ said Gombu. Then, the dome being wide enough, they walked side by side to its top. Beyond, everything fell away. And they were there.
Jim recalls slapping Gombu on the back, that they hugged each other, and how so “very, very cold” it was that their fingers and toes were numb. With the temperature hovering around minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit they didn’t tarry, but soon turned and started back down.
Three weeks later to the day, four more Americans summitted, in pairs. Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad ascended the same Southeast Ridge route, while Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld pioneered the challenging West Ridge. In his book Everest: The West Ridge (1964), Hornbein writes that during a brief noontime chat by radio with Base Camp, Willi described the West Ridge as (abbreviated here):
a real bearcat! ... too damned tough to try to go back ... too dangerous ... absolutely no rappel points ... nothing to secure a rope to.
Talking into the mike while clinging precariously to the rock face, he looked down and up and concluded:
it’s up and over for us today ... we’re headed for the summit.
The West Ridge ascent made mountaineering history. It had never before been attempted, and never successfully repeated. And—leave it to the Americans!—everything said in radio chit-chat that day was recorded for posterity!
Both teams hoped to meet up on top at midday to celebrate their achievement together, but it didn’t happen. Instead, according to the summit chronology tersely encapsulated by Hornbein:
May 22: Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad reach summit of Everest via South Col route at 3:30 p.m. Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein arrive three hours later up the West Ridge, then descend toward South Col. The two parties unite after dark and spend night out at 28,000 feet.
When Barry and Lute found no sign of the others on top, they started wearily back down toward the South Col. When Tom and Willi topped out around 6:30 p.m.—dangerously late for anyone on Everest—they found only fresh boot prints on the summit mound and the tattered, wind-whipped flag Jim Whitaker had put there on May 1st.
It was midnight before the two teams finally met up. Because it was too precarious to stumble on in the dark with dead flashlights, the four men huddled together in the snow at 28,000 feet and with few words survived what was hailed as the highest bivouac in mountaineering history, at that time.
Reflecting back on their top-most moments, Hornbein writes:
We felt the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed in upon us ...
As oxygen-starved and exhausted as they were, however, no words could have been spoken as candidly in the moment.
All day long, support team members down at Advanced Base were scanning the summit through binoculars, and they kept the walkie-talkie radio on for any action from above. About 5:30 p.m. they caught a glimpse of Lute and Barry, but they neither saw nor heard from Willi and Tom. It wasn’t until late, around 7 o’clock, while Maynard Miller (one of the expedition scientists) was listening, that quite suddenly—"electrifyingly”—he later told Ullman for the record:
the radio came alive with Willi Unsoeld’s voice. He and Tom had just come off the summit, he said. They were a few feet below it. They were about to descend the Southeast Ridge. 

Willi’s words faded in and out of the static and howling wind then drifted back―

Faintly, very faintly. And it seemed to the incredulous Maynard that what he was hearing from up there was poetry....
 Willi was reciting the last lines of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by the American poet Robert Frost:

'...I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep.'

Ever the gentleman, even at 29,000 feet,” writes Ullman, Willi had changed Frost’s original “I sleep” to “we sleep,” to include Tom; and those “promises to keep” were to his wife Jolene, that Everest would be his last “big mountain.”
Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods...’ has been described as “one of America’s most revered and recited poems,” known for its “moody pondering of mortality.” Like an elegy.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
                            (Robert Frost, 1923)
Sometime later, when Willi lectured about climbing the West Ridge, a member of one audience suggested either Willi or Tom could just as well have quoted the last three lines of another Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’:
'...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

ECS Nepal magazine (Kathmandu). print & online: ecs.com.np/features/an-elegy-atop-everest
Features ³ Issue 210 ³ May, 2019
Chomolungma, ‘Goddess Mother of the World’, is the Sherpa and Tibetan name for Mount Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali). To date, over 4,000 people have reached the top, but few have done it with the same spirit and style as their earlier predecessors. Books quoted in this story are Edmund Hillary’s View from the Summit (1999), Tenzing Norgay’s Tiger of the Snows (1955, written in collaboration with James Ramsey Ullman), Tom Hornbein’s Everest: The West Ridge (1964), and James Ramsey Ullman’s Americans on Everest (1964). It was Steve Hendrix who called Frost’s poem a “moody pondering of mortality” in a January 1, 2019, article in The Washington Post, entitled ‘Robert Frost Wrote This Masterpiece...’ The two poems quoted here are Frost’s most popular―all the way to Everest!


BIG DOGS OF TIBET & THE HIMALAYAS - the book - is now available to avid dog fans, and others... many others, worldwide. 

An autographed copy is now priced at $30 + shipping. Interested in a copy? Send me a message (by Email or Facebook ~ http://on.fb.me/1fPZccY), with your address, and I'll tell you the total cost. Numbers are limited (for the autographed copy), so buy it now to be sure you get one. 

The photo at the right was taken on the day 'Kalu' became an international champion dog: 'Ch. Saipal Baron. New Delhi Dog Show, 1984. The photo was taken by the journalist S. Theodore Baskaran, and appeared (surprise to me!) in his 'Book of Indian Dogs' (New Delhi: Aleph, 2017 -- available on Amazon in hardback or for Kindle). 


Spiny Babbler of Nepal
by Don Messerschmidt in ECS Nepal magazine, Kathmandu, 'Spilled InkIssue 205, December 2018. 

"Birds from different species recognize each other and cooperate. Researchers show for the first time how birds from two different species recognize individuals and cooperate for mutual benefit."

When I read the lead above, on Sciencedaily.com, I was puzzled. Isn’t “for the first time” an over-statement? As an amateur but avid bird-watcher, occasional bird-writer, and a bird-book collector, I know that birds do very well at recognizing and cooperating between species. Most bird books on Nepal say so, dating back many years. A “first time” doesn’t apply to what’s already documented.
Bird Speak
Birds communicate in chirps, tweets and twitters, cries and shrieks, hoots and caws, clucks and crows. And they sing melodiously, especially to attract mates. Bird vocalization may express fear, alarm, or pure pleasure. A few species are noted for duet calls; that’s when a male bird sounds off immediately followed by his mate’s call, so soon that it seems like one voice speaking.
Not all bird sounds are vocal. While reading up on the subject, I learned new words, like ‘sonate’―the act of producing non-vocal sounds intentionally modulated by ‘non-syringeal structures' such as wings, tails and other feathers, as well as beaks and feet. Next time you see a Great Hornbill flying through the Chitwan forest, listen to its wings; such a sound as you might expect from a prehistoric paradactyl.
Babblers are one of the largest bird families in Nepal, with diverse, species-specific voices ranging from the ‘poo-koo-poth’ and ‘whert-whert-zzzzzz’ of Slaty-Headed Babblers; the ‘which-which-whichi-ri-ri-ri...’ of Common Babblers; the ‘tit tit’ or ‘chit chit’ of Red-Capped Babblers; the ‘cheer’ of Striated Babbler; and the ‘beat-you, he’ll-beat-you’ of Spotted Babbler, to name a few.
The exotic and elusive Spiny Babbler (Turdoides nipalensis), endemic to Nepal, Is an especially good mimic with a variety of squeaks, chuckles, and chirps. Its common call is a long, descending ‘tee-tar—tee-ter-tar—tee-tar’, preceded and concluded with a ‘preep—pip-pip-pip’. Its alarm call is a ‘churrrrrr.’ Other Babbler alarms sound like ‘pee-a-wee ‘of Black-Chinned Babblers and ‘pic-pic-pic’ of Red-Capped Babblers.
Why and how birds vocalize to communicate and cooperate in the bush is what the researchers featured in the Science Daily article have studied. They describe a type of Australian wren that not only recognizes individual birds from its own species but uses vocalization to form long-term partnerships with other species, both to help defend shared space and forage as a group.
In Nepal such a discovery is old news.
Mixed Hunting Parties
I first heard of mixed hunting parties in ‘Search for the Spiny Babbler: Bird Hunting in Nepal’ (1953) by S. Dillon Ripley, a world-renowned ornithologist. Ripley describes them as –
“groups of birds commonly found in forest and scrub Environments, roving in cooperative bands of mixed species, Profiting from each other’s foraging behaviors. Salim Ali, India’s Most famous ornithologist, once described a scene of ‘Babblers rummaging amongst the fallen leaves for insect food [who] disturb a moth which is presently swooped upon and captured in mid-air by a drongo...’and of a “woodpecker scuttling up a tree-trunk in search of beetle gallenes [that] stampedes numerous winged Insects... promptly set upon by a vigilant flycatcher or warbler’.”
In ‘Birds of Nepal’ (1976), Fleming, Fleming and Bangdel add Laughing Thrushes, Yuhinas and warblers to various babbler species in such parties. And Salim Ali, in ‘Indian Hill Birds’ (1949), describes flocks of six or more Quaker Babblers (also known as Nepal Babblers),
“invariably to be found among the mixed hunting parties of small Insectivorous birds that rove the forest. The birds hop from sprig to sprig, often clinging upside down, sideways or back to ground to peer into the angles of the leaf-stalks and various nooks and crannies for lurking insects...The clear, whistling, quavering song of four notes... is constantly uttered as the birds move about... The scattered members of a flock keep in touch with one another by a harsh, rather subdued ‘chur-r, chur-r’.”
In ‘The Book of Indian Birds’ (12th ed., 1996), also by Salim Ali, Jungle Babblers are described hopping about in flocks or ‘sisterhoods,’ rummaging on the ground together, chattering and squeaking, “which sometimes develops into Loud discordant wrangling.” This group behavior, Ali says, goes beyond foraging, for they are also known to band together to ward off attacks by owls, hawks or cats. It’s called “mobbing” in bird lore, combining their voices to repel predators.
Search Fulfilled
As Dillon Ripley searched for the Spiny Babbler in Nepal in 1947 (by special permission of the (then) Rana Prime Minister), he found one in a mixed hunting party while birding in low shrubs and heavy grass–
“Halfway down the slope and near a large bush, I heard a series of Low chuckles and ‘querr’ noises. I stopped short. There must be a flock of laughing thrushes or babblers about, the sort of birds That go around in small family parties, constantly talking to each other. After waiting carefully, stock-still for several moments, I saw a group of birds hopping about ... They were dark and bulky-Looking, as big as a thrush, and they flicked and flirted their tails as they hopped about, in the characteristic manner of the noisy nervous babblers or laughing thrushes.”
After collecting one as a scientific specimen, he described it as –
“A brownish bird the size of an American robin or an English Blackbird. The throat and upper breast were white, the rest streaked brown. The feathers of the upper side, particularly the forehead and crown, had stiff wiry shafts as did those of the throat. As this bird lay in my palm, I could think of no species of Laughing thrush known to me which it remotely resembled...
“It was not really until the next day that I began to ponder seriously over my new bird... Holding my prize and thinking about it, I began to turn over all the Indian species in my mind. What could this bird be? In the field a problem like this was not an easy one when books were not ready to hand, when there were several hundreds of species to choose from. Finally, the stiff wiry shafts of the feathers gave the bird away... it could only be the Spiny Babbler... a species that had defied scientists for years. None had seen collected for one hundred and six years, since 1843 and 1844...”
Despite their rarity in Dillon Ripley’s day, Spiny Babblers are fairly common in Nepal, though hard to spot. You may hear them babbling in cut over scrub brush and tangled thickets where they move about singly or in small scattered parties. Look for a grayish-brown bird with white on face and chin, streaked and pale below, and the tell-tale 'spiny' feathers, stiff and wiry, around the throat.


The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

What a great book!

I read it cover to cover in two sittings. Simply superb...! 

Read on, then go to your library and check it out.

About The Book



“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post


A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

Why I Write

Susan Orleans points out in The Library Book (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018, p.93) that she wrote this book to preserve memories of her childhood visits to libraries.

I convinced myself that committing them to a page meant the memory was saved, somehow, from the corrosive effect of time,” she says.

“The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten―that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleak­ness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose―a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whisper­ing in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building is library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a decla­ration that you believe in the persistence of memory.

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase. I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s conscious­ness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stores inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it―with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited―it takes on a life of its own.”#