I was 10 years old when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, but I must have been a little older when I discovered John Hunt's . Because when I did read it, I distinctly remember reading every other book I could find, first on Everest and then on every other daunting mountain in the Himalayas and elsewhere that I could lay my hands on. And when I remember that search, it takes place in my high school library.
There was a time when I could recount Hillary and Tenzing's route up the mountain with as much familiarity as the route from home to school. I could rattle off places like Base Camp, Khumbu Ice Fall, the Western Cwm, and the Lhotse Face as surely as I could name the streets on which my friends and I lived. In my dreams, I gained the South Col and struggled up the South Summit to the peak of Everest, from where I looked out over the entire world.
I fell in love with them all. It was heartbreaking.
It was heartbreaking because the library which I scoured for each and every reference to a Himalayan peak was situated in the city of Decatur, which in turn was situated in the center of Illinois, otherwise known as The Prairie State. The mean elevation is 600 feet. I was in my mid-forties by the time I made it to Washington State, and to my everlasting shame, when a friend asked if I was up for climbing Rainier one summer, I asked if they'd put in the escalator yet. I'd been smoking for 30 years and had no illusions about my mountaineering abilities.
Still, any mention of Everest brings it all back, and once again I'm right there, negotiating the Khumbu Icefall, breaking out into the Western Cwm, and struggling up the Lhotse Face to the South Col. Books took me there, and books can take me back. They can take you too.