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 Ed Douglas, Chomolungma Sings the Blues

Ed Douglas interview, Part 1 & 2 , follows...   new book Chomolungma Sings the Blues, which could very well become a classic.  

Ed Douglas, Introduction:

The writer, traveler and mountaineer Ed Douglas, 32, has been climbing for seventeen years, starting on the gritstone edges of Derbyshire while still at school. He studied English at Manchester University and in his final year there launched the British rock climbing magazine On The Edge. 
After running OTE for three years, he worked in Istanbul on the English language daily the Turkish Times ­ arriving as an Editorial Assistant and leaving after a year as Managing Editor ­ before returning to work as a freelance journalist specializing in adventure, mountain areas and their people, and environmental issues.
In the last seven years he has written features and news for The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and the Independent on Sunday and a range of national and specialist magazines both in Britain and abroad, including Men's Health, Arena, New Scientist and Focus.
In 1993 he launched the international mountaineering journal Mountain Review and ghosted Leo Dickinson's account of his ballooning trip over Everest, published by Jonathan Cape. He has interviewed many well-known adventurers around the world and won the 1994 Outdoor Writer's Guild Award for his profile of top rock climber Ron Fawcett.

Currently Associate Editor of Climber magazine and Editor of the Alpine Journal, he is a member of the Alpine Club and Climbers' Club, and continues to climb to a reasonable standard, in 1995 reaching the summit of Shivling, a 21,500ft mountain in India close to the source of the Ganges. Other recent ascents include the North Face of Les Droites in winter and the Gervasutti Pillar on Mont Blanc du Tacul. In 1997 he climbed on La Main de Fatma, the sandstone towers of Mali, on the fringes of the Sahara. In the last year he has traveled to Austria to interview Heinrich Harrer and to New York to interview David Breashears, both for The Guardian. His most recent assignments were traveling in Kazakstan for The Observer and interviewing the Dalai Lama in India for The Guardian.

Ed Douglas was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship in 1995 to travel around Everest in Nepal and Tibet and his account of that journey, Chomolungma Sings The Blues, was published in November 1997 by Constable. Widely praised in the national and specialist press, Katherine Whitehorn in The Observer called Douglas "a sparkling writer with a great turn of phrase." In the Literary Review, David Craig described him as a "first-class journalist whose interest in the Himalaya and its people enable him to get in close." His biography of the mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, co-authored with David Rose, will be published by Granta next year.

Ed Douglas lives in Sheffield with his wife, Katie, a science journalist, and their two children, Rosa, 4, and Joe, 1.  More on Ed and his new book Chomolungma Sings the Blues Soon !

Ed Douglas Q&A, Part 1. Questions from the Everest News staff and readers of Everest News.

Q.) In your New Book, Chomolungma Sings the Blues, you tell the reader little about yourself unlike so many authors that seem to like to "tell all" (many times a little too much). Frankly, we liked the focus on the experience versus the writer, but tell the readers of Everest News a little more about who Ed Douglas really is. 

A.) It is not natural for the English to talk about themselves. You can call it false modesty if you like, but I was brought up to believe, as a journalist, that I am not the story. Part of the point of Chomolungma was to illustrate that so often the real story behind the headlines of doom or heroics on the mountain was more interesting and more positive. If I'd put more of myself into the story, that would have detracted from the purpose. Everest News, I think, has already provided enough information on me.

Q.) At 32, you are moving up the ladder in Himalayan writing. How did you pull it off?

A.) I'm not conscious of there being any kind of hierarchy in mountain writing and I certainly don't see it as a career path, not one that will make you a decent living! I have ideas about mountains and what they mean to us as human beings and I feel compelled to write about that. End of story.

Q.) In Chomolungma Sings the Blues  you talk a little about KEEP. You seem to have a high respect for them. Tell us more about them.

A.) I have respect for KEEP's ideals but not, alas, for the difference they will make. I see KEEP as one of those organizations that is full of good intentions but will ultimately ease the liberal guilt of a few westerners and little more. They are simply too small to turn back the tide of mass tourism's typical attitudes. But at least they are trying. So many tourists in the developing world are simply not interested in the people and cultures they are visiting and any effort to change that has to be applauded.

Q.) We have made friends with climbers we know one day will not come back. Frankly, we find this somewhat difficult. Many of the climbers seem to feel it won't happen to them because they don't take the risks. I am sure you have heard this...line. What do you think ! 

A.) It is difficult. Several of my closest friends have been killed over the years and as a journalist I know dozens and dozens of men and women who haven't come back. By and large, they all knew what they were letting themselves in for, but to be honest, many of them didn't concentrate too hard on that. And then there have been plenty of people for whom climbing was a laid-back hobby who still got killed. All I can say is that life will end, and to reflect on that every day of your life, without getting depressed about it, is the only way to make sure that every day of your life is wrung dry for everything you can take and give and feel. I've met a lot of climbers who have got that art down pretty well, which says something about the sport. But then I've never been convinced that it's worth the risk. Ultimately, it's down to the individual. I hope I'm still liberal enough to allow that.

Q.) You talk in Chomolungma Sings the Blues about lodges being built by various individuals around Everest. What is the status of these. Do you think they will be a positive or the  negative ?

A.) The lodges are being built by local people and are a very good way of locking the money they earn as climbers or trek leaders into the local economy. Personally, I don't find them too intrusive, but if development continued at the same rate for the next few decades then some kind of limit would have to be set.

Q.) Some think the Sherpa will "take control" of the icefall and "guiding Everest" in the near future. Some would argue they already have taken control of Everest, but few know about it. Other think they will always need the western leaders. What do you think?

A.) Sherpas have more expertise and are more professional than in the past, but to suggest that they have control of Everest is misinformed. Yes, they put ropes through the icefall, but if western leaders didn't bring clients there wouldn't be anyone to pay them for doing it. As for guiding Everest, I still have profound doubts about whether that is possible. The parallel to be drawn is with the French and Swiss guides of a century ago who were beginning to organize themselves into an industry. The Sherpas are roughly at the same point. Perhaps when there has been a cadre of strong Sherpa guides for a few years they will take more interest in the sport for its own sake, just as European guides did. Until then, they will be reliant on climbers from abroad and that means strong links with western experts.

Q.) You discuss much about the environmental condition in Nepal in your book. How would you compare the conditions to India ?

A.) Everything in India is bigger; population, problems, industry, growth, corruption and so forth. The problem Nepal faces is principally that it doesn't have the same prospects for development that India has and the faster its population grows, the worse that problem will be. Nepal cannot feed itself already, while India has worked hard to do exactly that. As I suggest in my book, I think the only way Nepal will change the situation is by weaning itself off aid. Everybody, or nearly everybody, should just go home and let them sort it out.

Q.) You also discuss the resentment of the attention given to Sherpa in Nepal in your book.

A.) I don't want to overstate this. There are tensions in any country and it is inevitable that a successful population will earn the resentment of those who are not achieving as much.

Q.) You mention Ang Phurba, who few probably know. Everest News reports on all climbers as we know you do. But much of mainstream media disregard the Sherpa climbers. Feel free to tell our readers more about Ang Phurba and your views on the Sherpa climbers.

A.) I don't want to pretend that Sherpas have somehow been shortchanged because I don't believe it. They are guns for hire, and they do it for money not fame. If a western climber wants to pretend to him or herself that they climbed Everest fare and square when someone was carrying their gear or short-roping them, they lose, no one else. With Ang Phurba, what I wanted to show was how serious the day-to-day lives of Sherpas are. That doesn't mean they are serious people because they are not; like Tibetans, they have a great facility for laughing even in the midst of adversity. I was really drawing a contrast with the vanity of western mountaineers. But then, if we didn't come then they'd be out of a job. I think it was a plea not to take this stuff not too seriously, because the really important stuff goes on at home.

Q.) Do you find it odd that Eric Escoffier's death received so little attention?

A.) Not really. Escoffier's death got lots of coverage in France but as far as the world was concerned, he hadn't done much in the last ten years. He was a great climber, but great climbers  die all the time and don't make the obituary pages of Climbing or Rock and Ice. I feel more aggrieved that the Poles, Slovenians and Russians haven't got the credit they deserve. There are only half a dozen American mountaineers in history who compete with the best of the eastern Europeans.

More follow-up Q&A from Ed soon !!!

Chomolungma Sings the Blues ~ Dispatched in 2-3 days

Ed Douglas / Hardcover / Published 1997

Ed Douglas Q&A, Part 2. Questions from the Everest News staff and readers of Everest News.

Q.) I am somewhat confused by your comments in your book, about Everest 96. You say Krakauer did not mention Boukreev going back up to attempt to save Fischer. You do not refer to Into Thin Air, but you refer to Krakauer as working for Outside. Please explain.

A.) When I wrote Chomolungma, Into Thin Air had not been published and I was working off the Outside article for Jon's views. The book did come out just as the book was being prepared for publication. Obviously, Jon has added considerably to that original account, but I still feel that Boukreev's physical achievements, leaving aside whether he behaved correctly on summit day, have not received due credit.

Q.) Ed, I agree, Krakauer briefly mentioned Boukreev efforts on Everest 96. Why do you think he did not talk more about Boukreev efforts in the Outside article or ITA ?

A.) I think Jon, for all kinds of reasons, wanted to make sense of what had happened. I think it is the nature of the American psyche to ascribe blame when things go wrong. I have no doubt that Boukreev made mistakes, but a Russian would argue that mistakes happen, it's human nature. You can argue that you learn by your mistakes and should operate best practice at all times. I would suggest that this is impossible above 8,000 meters with or without oxygen. Sooner or later, something will go wrong. If you're not prepared to accept this, then don't go, and if you do go, don't complain when things go wrong. (This philosophy, which I was brought up with as a climber, is hamstrung by commercialism. As soon as money changes hands, then the dynamic changes. I would also suggest that nationalism does something similar, and that the mediocre but ambitious amateur who finds himself out of his league will also play by different rules.) As to why Jon didn't concentrate on Krakauer's later efforts, it seems likely that he was angry at Boukreev for not behaving correctly. I've spoken with other -- American -- guides who were on the mountain that day who agree that Anatoli made a mistakes. Whether or not these things should be in print is another matter.

Q.) Are you saying Krakauer forgot what he went to write about ?

A.) I do that all the time, but I'm not sure I understand the gist of your question. I would say that any preconceptions Krakauer had were blown away by events.

Q.) Mr. Douglas has you read the salon articles on the internet concerning the Krakauer/Boukreev debate? I think Krakauer proves himself right and Boukreev wrong in this debate. What do you think ??

A.) I glanced at the Salon piece. And as for there being a right answer and a wrong answer, then I refer you to my earlier comments. It is a western response to believe in absolute right and wrong. A Russian, or an Indian for that matter, would see things differently.

Q.) Can clients be guided on Everest ?

A.) To an extent, Lord Copper.

Q.) Where would you place Boukreev in the H.A. climbers class ? I read he reached the 21 or  more summits of the 14 8000 meter peaks, but did not complete the "14", as you know. Any idea what the record is for most 8000 meter peaks by a single climber ?

A.) The 14 8K list is no judge of ability as far as I'm concerned. It so happens that those who have completed it are/were very, very strong, but plenty of more average climbers are getting close. I never climbed with Boukreev and feel reluctant to say how good he was. He was clearly very strong, as strong as top American climbers, if not stronger. He'd spent a long time -- hours -- on the summit of Everest the previous year, having reached the top without an ice axe or bottled oxygen. That's pretty strong.

Q.) I think Krakauer should be credited for this new interest in climbing in American, but many guides seems not to like him. Is this because people now know what questions to ask?

A.) I'm concerned about the sudden rush of interest in climbing, although it's made my job a lot easier! Climbing is dangerous, and people should think hard before getting involved. There are great commercial pressure wanting to capitalize on this new interest, selling novices gear, telling them to go for it. Paradoxically, Jon's book of doom and tragedy is bringing in people who may never have gone climbing at all. As for guides feeling twitchy, I have mixed feelings. Litigation is on the increase, and I'm not sure that a civil court is the best place to resolve disputes about mountaineering. When I've done a story about these issues, I've usually had no trouble in finding an "expert" who can argue the exact opposite of another "expert". What chance does a jury have? Having said that, guides should be under the microscope. They do tend to run a closed shop.

Q.) I think writers and climbers did not like Boukreev because he was better than many of them. Do you think this was a factor in the apparent dislike of him by some of climbers?

A.) Possibly. In my experience, most nations overestimate the ability of their athletes and climbing is no exception. There are plenty of Brits who still think we're top nation when we haven't been, with a few exceptions, since the nineteenth century. I think it's also true of some Americans, who have a cultural reflex on meeting Russians that whatever they do will be inferior. The truth is that there are few American mountaineers who can hold a candle to the best of the Russians at high altitude. It's a different story elsewhere, plenty of fine American alpinists and rock climbers. Maybe Viesturs, Pete Athans, Roskelley in his prime, a few others. But Boukreev really did go well. (I'm sure it's got something to do with an impoverished background. Most western climbers are just too decadent.)

Q.) There's been no slowdown in numbers of climbers on the South Col since '96--are the companies/expeditions making progress in cleaning up the place?   

A.) I'm told they are, but I haven't been back since 1996. It is certainly in their interests to keep the place tidy, since they are the ones who go there. And they have a moral responsibility to do so as well.

Q.) Looks like a record number of trekkers in the Khumbu this year. Shouldn't the environmental focus be on their impact, instead of the climbers?  Can trekkers act in a responsible way, or do you advocate that they should just stay home?

A.) Yes, yes, no. That's the short answer. The whole point of my book was to suggest this. To my mind, the real environmental problems not just in Nepal but in the Himalayas generally are to do with over-population, political unrest and exploitation of resources. Tourism is a pinprick in comparison.

We should concentrate on not wrecking the place, as Sheridan Anderson would say, and leave it at that. Climbers stare at their navels about this one, but as you say, trekkers are more numerous and affect areas where there is a local population. Climbers live above the snowline where nobody sees. We can and should act in a responsible way, and I certainly don't think people should stay at home. Most of those living in developed countries with mature democracies have no idea how most of humanity lives. I think they should be educated, not by ticking off a place on their list like it was an acquisition, but going somewhere and trying to make a leap of the imagination in understanding what it's like to live there.

Thank You, Ed !

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