VIEWPOINT;MOUNTAINEERING ON THE ROCKS

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All this mount Everest stuff in the papers and on television suggests to me that mountaineering, like pro hoops and baseball and even the NFL, has fallen prey to the evils of expansion.

The quality of the game has been diluted. Just as we have too few competent middle-relievers in the National League these days, the people they're permitting to go up Mount Everest these days aren't up (no pun intended) to the challenge.

First we had all those poor devils frozen to death, eight of them in a single storm, some while escorting to the top, or near enough, a bunch of Manhattan socialites better prepared for lunch at Le Cirque.

Then some South Africans went up and left a chap behind to try to make the summit on his own. The leader of the team just went off to the top and lost track of "the last man on the rope," as the expression goes. Except in this instance, there was no rope, and another poor fellow is now presumed dead. In mountaineering, you simply don't do this.

Just as there is no rational excuse whatsoever to have a basketball franchise in Sacramento or hockey teams in Florida, a lot of people flying out these days to Katmandu to buy their way up Everest, have absolutely no business playing at that level. Do we need .210 hitters making three million a year? No! Do we need a hockey team named The Mighty Ducks? No! Do we need amateurs scaling Mount Everest? No! again.

When I was a kid there was this really swell novel about mountain climbing, including a lot of awesome stuff about Everest, written by a gentleman named James Ramsey Ullman who was, apparently, a pretty competent alpinist who could also spin a dandy yarn. His book was called "The White Tower," and it was set in Switzerland in 1944.

The protagonist is a grand fellow named Ordway who is an American bomber pilot whose plane is shot down on a raid over Germany but he nurses it along until he has to bail out in the middle of the night (his crew is dead) and he lands, by ginger! right there on the lower slopes of the greatest of the Alps, The White Tower, or, in German, the Weissturm. And wasn't it on the very same Weissturm as a young architectural student in Paris that Ordway used to go climbing back in 1932 that he fell in love with the mountain and ever since has dreamt of coming back and getting to the top? But then along came Hitler and the war and different priorities.

But now, when he wakes up in a Swiss resort hotel, Ordway realizes it's his old guide Benner who found him and his 'chute and carried him down in the night. And isn't Carla Dehn, the cute Austrian blond he used to know,there in the hotel working as a maid? Andon hand isn't there a French novelist who drinks too much and a German named Hein (back from the Russian front and himself a super alpinist who always wanted to scale the Weissturm [for the Fuhrer!] and just down the path, that great English climber, now over the hill [ha, ha!], Radcliffe, who was with Mallory on his final Everest assault, and may have been the last man to have seen Mallory and Sandy Irvine vanish into the clouds afew hundred meters from the top?)

Well, of course, Ordway's extraordinary arrival now galvanizes everyone and they put war and hatreds aside and decide to climb The White Tower roped together, the way decent chaps like Mallory used to do. But I won't spoil the book by telling you what happened. Though I would like to to suggest to the next dilettantes who go out to Nepal that they read Ullman first. I mean, it's one thing to fall into a crevasse.

And quite another not to know the proper form, old fruit.

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