Book Review: The Last Blue Mountain: The Great Karakoram Climbing Tragedy

Book Review: The Last Blue Mountain

Book Review: The Last Blue Mountain

Author: Ralph Barker
2020 edition published by Vertebrate Publishing, Sheffield, UK, March 2020

I came across ‘The Last Blue Mountain’ ten years ago as I was researching lessons of history for a new book on outdoor safety and survival. The 1959 edition was titled ‘The Last Blue Mountain: The True and Moving Story of the Ill-starred Expedition Against Mount Haramosh,’ and led off with a foreword by Sir John Hunt. I found it through a 50th anniversary feature in the Sunday Times of London, published in September 2007 and titled ‘The Friends Who Died at the Top of the World.’ I discovered that the book was a collector’s item, fetching up to $200 from online booksellers; if you were lucky to find a copy. I was fortunate to locate a single copy in the BC library system which I borrowed through our marvelous interlibrary loan service. Then, in February 2020 the UK’s premier mountain literature publisher told me that they were republishing the work and offered me a review copy… I jumped at the chance.

The Last Blue Mountain’ is Ralph Barker’s account of the 1957 Oxford University expedition to 7,397 m (24,270 ft) Mount Haramosh in Kashmir’s Karakoram Range. One of the world’s great survival stories, and a mountaineering classic on a par with ‘Touching the Void,’ this is an epic tale of friendship and fortitude in the face of tragedy. Three Brits, an American and a New Zealander made up the climbing team, and for four of them it was their first high altitude venture. They were supported by six Hunza porters up to their penultimate camp 3, which they established at 5,639 m (18,500 ft).

After extensive periods of bad weather had ended any hope for a summit bid, they settled on their fallback option of a high altitude reconnaissance from a fourth camp. This they achieved when four members of the team reached 6,401 m (21,000 ft) near the top of Haramosh I, from where they could see in detail the final route to Haramosh II. They were relieved to see that the summit ridge was technically very difficult, firmly ending any temptation for a summit dash. Then, just minutes from retreating safely from their final high point, their triumphant reconnaissance turned into a nightmarish disaster when two members of the party decided to go a hundred feet farther for a slightly better view. They were instantly swept away by an avalanche into a nearly inaccessible snow bowl.

Having miraculously survived the 1,000-foot fall thanks to the cushioning effect of the avalanche debris, they were mostly uninjured, but they had lost their ice axes and other critical clothing and gear, and were trapped. The expedition doctor suffered a dislocated hip that could have spelled certain death in the circumstances, but it sprang back into place when he made a sudden move. During three terrible days and nights that followed, the two remaining climbers led by Tony Streather set out to rescue the first two. They eventually succeeded in their effort, only to fall themselves into the same snow trap in an ironic situation reversal, enduring harder falls that lacked the cushioning effects of the earlier avalanche.

Ultimately one of each party — one rescuer and one rescued — died, despite the most heroic efforts. Ironically, were it not for a single lost crampon, all four would likely have survived; but two did make it out alive, and according to Sir John Hunt in his foreword to the first edition, “The real measure is the success or failure of the climber to triumph, not over a lifeless mountain, but over himself: the true value of the enterprise lies in the example to others of human motive and human conduct.”

Tony Streather was once again thrust into a heroic role, having earlier distinguished himself in rescue efforts on the ill-fated American K2 attempt in 1953 that was described in the book ‘K2 The Savage Mountain’ by Charles Houston and Robert Bates. He had further established himself as one of the leading Himalayan climbers of the day when he reached the top of Kangchenjunga in 1955.

The two survivors eventually made it down to camp 3, where the fifth member of the climbing team, American, Scott Hamilton had almost given up hope for them after occupying the camp alone for a week. Less experienced than the others, he had been prevaricating for some time between a dangerous solo descent through the icefall and down steep snow slopes in an almost certainly futile bid to get help, and an even more desperate solo climb to search for his missing companions. As it was, from camp 3 the trio barely made it down alive after another bivouac along the route.

Streather, alive and well in his eighties, was the subject of the 2007 Sunday Times story, in which the writer concluded “At a time when mountaineers are often portrayed as callous egotists, their sacrifice remains a shining example to us all.” Streather died in 2018 aged 92.

The VP edition retains Lord Hunt’s original foreword, as well as a new introduction by Ed Douglas, former editor of the Alpine Journal. Douglas provides new insights into the protagonists as well as the author, who achieves the difficult goal of telling a riveting tale and bringing out the climbers’ personalities and interrelationships, despite not being on the expedition himself.

The Last Blue Mountain: The Great Karakoram Climbing Tragedy’ by Ralph Barker
Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-912560-42-4, 232 pages, Publication date: March 2020, £12.99; Special hardcover edition: £24.00.

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