Outside magazine, September 1999
Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25).
As a child of ten, Andrew Pham fled Vietnam in a leaky fishing boat with his family after his father barely escaped a Vietcong prison camp with his life. In one of the unlikeliest seriocomic travel adventures on record, Pham reverses his trajectory, determined to bike from San Francisco back to his homeland. Haunted by a sister’s suicide and the anxious expectations
of his parentsùwho are horrified when he quits his engineering jobù27-year-old Pham points his rickety 18-speed hybrid north to Seattle, shrugging off blistering thighs and rednecks who yell “Hey Jap!” and bounce cups off his helmet. After flying to Tokyo, he’s nearly crushed by a bus; at the Ho Chi Minh City airport his bike is masticated in the bag
carousel. He soon learns that, as a Viet-kieu (foreign Vietnamese), he is alternately envied and despised, and he spends the journey to Hanoi and back fending off fistfights in bars, constant dysentery, and memories of his childhood. But Pham also rediscovers Vietnam’s sharp flavors and folk wisdom, dispensed by “Uncle Tu,” an old
fisherman who shares his tiny hut and bottomless vat of catfish stew, and by Truong, a soldier-turned-cabbie who says, “Forget this place; everything here has changed. Your roots here have turned to dust.”
Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond,by Jim Whittaker (The Mountaineers, $26.95).
In 1963, Whittaker, then 34, became the first American to summit Everest. The Seattle native, who had been climbing mountains like Rainier and McKinley all his life, was astonished to find himself an instant celebrity, introduced to astronauts and tapped to accompany Robert F. Kennedy up a Canadian peak named in memory of J.F.K. (Bobby kept asking him to “pick up
the pace a little.”) A mountain guide long before the Everest disaster brought that profession to public attention, he led two excruciating assaults on K2 in the 1970s; the second, in 1978, landed the first Americans on the summit. He also brokered and led the 1990 Soviet, Chinese, and American Everest peace climb. In between peaks, Whittaker helped found REI and led
disabled climbers up Rainier. His writing can be earnest, and he is circumspect about his life’s most interesting conflicts, particularly his rocky relationship with his identical twin and fellow Rainier guide, Lou, who pulled out of the 1963 Everest ascent. It’s that circumspection, howeverùalong with an old-fashioned modesty and a gift for reconciling climbers
and countriesùthat puts Whittaker in a class of his own.
Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering, by Sherry B. Ortner (Princeton University Press, $26.95).
Relax. This is not another nail-biting saga of alpine disaster, but ratherùfinallyùan authoritative study of the group that has made summiting 8,000-meter Himalayan peaks possible for Westerners. With their physiological adaptation to high altitude and a climbing prowess honed since early this century (before which they lacked the leisure and suicidal
arrogance to scale the ice-clad goddesses in their backyard), Sherpas, an ethnic group originally from Tibet, have carried equipment, fixed ropes, and accompanied virtually every expedition to Everest’s summit, some multiple times (ten for Ang Rita Sherpa and Apa Sherpa). In the poverty of Nepal, the high wages paid by Westerners have become so essential to Sherpas
that the men (for cultural reasons women are discouraged from climbing) vie for coveted mountaineering work even though dozens have died. A Columbia anthropology professor, Ortner retells the Everest story from the Sherpa point of view, exposing the paternalism of the early Western sahibs, who sometimes dragged Sherpas up the mountain, as well as a troubling, and
persistent, racial contempt. Ortner quotes one mountaineer, Stacey Allison, who witnessed the horror of a group of Sherpas when the corpse of a fellow porter was shoved off the mountain by a French expedition: “No one, they knew, would ever throw a white climber’s body down the Lhotse face.” A nonclimber who deplores “the senseless risking of lives” on Everest, Ortner
is deeply sympathetic to the Sherpas’ fate. Climbing not for sport but for economic survival while struggling to care for wealthy strangers from another world, the Sherpas serve, in the words of their most famous son, Tenzing Norgay, “not in the spirit of servants but of good companions.”
Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson (Crown, $25).
On September 8, 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history hit Galveston, Texas, where boosters had built a port to rival any on the Gulf but had neglected to erect a seawall to protect its magnificent homes and citizens, 8,000 of whom were killed. Larson, a contributing editor at Time, begins when the storm is still a puff of wind
in Africa, but he dallies too long on a relentlessly melodramatic buildup to the carnage and a minute examination of the career of Isaac Cline, possibly the world’s most ineffectual weatherman. (He had dismissed the idea of a hurricane destroying Galveston as “an absurd delusion.”) The storm, however, steals the show: It “erected an escarpment of wreckage three stories
tall and several miles long” consisting of corpses, buildings, ships, pianos, privies, and an entire streetcar trestle; it decapitated men with flying slate shingles; its massive swell drowned everyone in its path, including 85 passengers on a train and 90 children in the city orphanage. Afterward, the stench of putrefaction drifted far out to sea, and survivors had to
burn pyres of bodies. The implications of this overwhelming disaster are ominous: If Nature could do it in 1900, she could do it again today, or tomorrow. ùCAROLINE FRASER