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 Snow In The Kingdom By: Ed Webster

Reviewed by: Thomas Pollard May 23, 2001

With the great numbers of books about the tragedy on Everest in 1996 and the discovery of George Leigh Mallory in 1999 you’d think that the mountain was all about one thing: where people go to die.  Contrary to popular belief, noteworthy climbing still takes place there.  And, finally, an Everest book comes out that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The new publication by Ed Webster entitled Snow In The Kingdom, My Storm Years On Everest not only chronicles one of Everest’s most significant ascents, but it also blows a path straight to the top of the ‘I’ll-write-a-book-as-therapy’ Everest accounts of recent years.  Culminating in the awe-inspiring oxygenless ascent of the Neverest Buttress on Everest’s Kangshung face in 1988, Snow In The Kingdom is a drama of the first degree.  At over 500 pages, the book is loaded with beautiful photographs, important historical information, route diagrams, detailed indexes and wonderfully written inspiring tales of courage, loss and adventure.

My most lasting impression of Snow In The Kingdom is Ed Webster’s brutally honest insight into the difficult lessons he has learned as a climber.  Beginning with the tragic loss of his girlfriend, Lauren Husted, in a climbing accident in Colorado, Webster evokes a sense of catharsis in writing about his innermost fears and losses.  Every climber can relate to the end-of-day shortcuts taken after a day on the crags, walking unroped over easy, but treacherous terrain.  Little did Ed Webster know that one such act would result in the life-defining accident that claimed Husted’s life.

Much more than a climbing book, Snow In The Kingdom, My Storm Years On Everest is about the making of a man.  While the climbing accident with his girlfriend has undoubtedly ripped something from his soul, Webster turns to Everest as the forum for rediscovering that which has been taken away.   The reader becomes the fortunate beneficiary.

A talented rock climber who put up many fine routes in Colorado and New Hampshire, Ed Webster kept to his hard-way-to-the-top credo on Everest, too.  His first taste of Everest took place in 1985 on a West Ridge expedition, headed up by big wall climber Jim Bridwell.  Bogged down by large numbers and cumbersome motorized hauling equipment, the expedition ended far from the top.  But, the mere taste of Everest was enough to keep Webster coming back for more.

In 1986 he returned, working as the photographer of a solo attempt of the north face by Brit Roger Marshall (Marshall was killed during a later attempt on the Super Couloir in 1987).  It was on this expedition that Webster earns his wings as a true Himalayan mountaineer.  He solo pioneered a new route on 24,879 foot Changtse, Everest’s north peak.  The stage had now been set for the ultimate challenge.

Soon after the ’86 expedition, Webster accepts an invitation to join a small team on an oxygenless attempt of the eastern Kangshung Face of Everest.  Echoing in the minds of the four team members (Stephen Venables, Robert Anderson, Paul Teare and Ed Webster) must have been K2 pioneer Charles Houston’s remarks about the team’s intentions:

 “Four against the Kangshung Face?  You’re mad.  Go and climb a smaller mountain!”

Not making the top was the least of their worries.  The four approached the mountain resigned to the distinct possibility of never coming back.

Whether through luck or sheer stubborn tenacity, the carefully detailed account of the 1988 expedition proves that the ascent of Everest’s Neverest Buttress and ultimate summit success by Stephen Venables was nothing short of a miracle.  Webster’s easy style of writing leads the unwitting reader within a few steps of death: thunderous avalanches down Big Al gully; under an ominous serac called the Greyhound Bus; through a gaping crevasse called the Jaws of Doom. 

While most climbers would turn and run after one look from Base Camp, Webster and his team pushes farther and farther up the route, gaining confidence with each small success. Through setbacks and near disasters, Webster guides the reader into his bird’s eye view of death.  He conveys precisely the feeling of helplessness a climber experiences while in the grasp of a Himalayan giant.

Leading into the final do-or-die summit push I found it impossible to put the book down.  The four climbers, despite differences in style and climbing speeds, had gelled into a world-class, highly effective team.  After weeks of inching up the Kangshung Face, their effort and persistence finally paid off.  On May 10, 1988 they became the first mountaineers to reach the South Col from Tibet.  Webster describes their arrival:

“Its subzero wasteland of snow, ice, and rock was being raked by hurricane-strength jet stream winds.  Terrific snow plumes streamed from the summits of Everest and Lhotse, while pummeling gusts tore at my clothing and face.  At first I attempted to comprehend the hauntingly bleak desolation, remote as outer space; then, after taking two faltering steps, I doubled over.  My lungs heaved and fought for even the smallest volume of life-giving oxygen.  I was suffocating for several seconds, and thinking I was dying, mortal panic speared into my brains.  I pulled and rasped as much air down my throat as each convulsion allowed.”

The true climax of the book comes fittingly toward the end as the three remaining climbers embark upon a summit push that would become the epic of their lives (Paul Teare retreated safely to Base Camp after falling sick at the South Col).  Before leaving for the summit Webster recounts a vivid dream of his deceased girlfriend, Lauren Husted.  Touchingly, he reveals the contents of his innermost sanctum, as if preparing for the fight of his life.  Lauren’s memory had driven him to push higher.  In his dream, she had been carried “down a long river”, which Webster interpreted to mean Lauren had met her destiny.  Looking up at the summit from the frigid South Col, it was now Ed Webster’s time to meet his own destiny.

If the book were to begin at this point it would still stand as one of the finest mountaineering accounts I can remember.  Webster dramatically describes his ascent to 28,700 feet and ultimate bivouac there at the edge of death.  I felt like I was with him, experiencing his hallucinations and lapses into unconsciousness.

While the gripping account of their fight for survival is enough to bring praise to the book, Snow In The Kingdom offers the reader much, much more.  Webster uses the book as an opportunity to expose the dismal reality of a Chinese occupied Tibet, relate his affinity to Buddhist ideals and morality and give credit to the Sherpas and teammates who made his experiences so formative.

In one serendipitous event during the trek to Base Camp in 1988, Webster accompanies one of his team Sherpas, Norbu Tenzing Norgay, through a village in Tibet.  The village turns out to be the childhood home of Norbu’s father, the legendary Tenzing Norgay.  Met by relatives and family acquaintances of Tenzing’s, Norbu has discovered the actual childhood home of his father (who originally claimed to have been born in Nepal).  During that same visit, it was also learned that George Leigh Mallory himself had passed through Tenzing’s childhood village during his expedition in 1921, when Tenzing was only nine years old.  Could it be that Tenzing and Mallory, two of Everest’s greatest pioneers, actually met face-to-face?

Webster’s book Snow In The Kingdom, My Storm Years On Everest, while a great read all around, is a must for any one wishing to look courage square in the eye.  Surely, the 1988 expedition took its toll on Webster.  Having spent years in recovery for lost fingertips and toes, Webster still deals with the lasting physical consequences of the expedition. 

Even so, while Snow In The Kingdom may share a shelf with books that explore death on Everest, Webster’s book will leave the reader knowing that Everest, on the contrary, is a place where many people go to live.

But it now ! Snow in the Kingdom : My Storm Years on Everest by Ed Webster

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