This is a poignantly belated book review, if ever there was one. Ed Webster died of a heart attack last month at the age of 66. His book Snow on the Kingdom had been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for more than seven years, ever since the writer Harriet Tuckey recommended it to me in a Twitter thread in 2015. I finally got round to reading it earlier this year.
Harriet said the book was ‘just as dramatic as you’d expect from his talk at the RGS’ and that she couldn’t put it down. The talk she was referring to was the 25th anniversary celebration of Ed Webster’s expedition to climb a new route on Everest’s Kangshung Face in 1988. I had attended the event and written a blog post about it. This expedition is best remembered (in the UK at least) for Stephen Venables’ successful solo ascent, becoming the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen.
Ed’s performance that day was memorable and theatrical. It including screaming into the microphone in panic to simulate his and teammate Robert Anderson’s behaviour during an avalanche, and mimicking the laboured breathing of a climber at 8,000m so realistically that we thought he was going to pass out on stage.
Snow in the Kingdom is subtitled My Storm Years on Everest. It focuses on a four-year period of his life, between 1984 and 1988, during which he took part in three very different expeditions to Everest. None of these expeditions were straightforward – they all took something out of Ed emotionally – and the subtitle is as much about these emotions as it is about the weather.
The first of these was a gigantic American expedition of 21 climbers to climb Everest via the Lho La, West Shoulder and West Ridge. While there are plenty of commercial Everest expeditions in the modern era that aim to put that number of climbers on the summit (and some even do so successfully), they are never on a difficult technical route like the West Ridge. Back in 1985, an expedition would be considered successful if only one or two climbers reached the summit, and they would often pack up and leave as soon as this happened. Most team members were expected to fix rope and carry loads in support of the lead climbers, without an opportunity to have a crack at the summit themselves.
These expeditions inevitably led to competition as climbers jostled to become the lead climbers. Some did this by working hard for the team to show they were among the strongest; others did it by hanging back and resting during the early stages to stay in better condition when it was time to push for the top.
A team that size needs strong leadership, but the earlier American expeditions, including this one, tended to be run on more democratic lines, with everyone encouraged to voice an opinion. There was little cohesion in the team and many arguments about climbing strategy. There was a mixture of abilities and personalities in the team, some apparently only in it for their own agenda. Ed isn’t shy about reflecting these personalities; it’s plain to see who he considers the team players and who the prima donnas. Nevertheless, he comes across as one of the more timid members of the team, with no expectation of being one of the lead climbers. He is keen to pull his weight to support the team, but lacks the confidence to be assertive.
The expedition was a failure. Robert Anderson and Jay Smith made an attempt on the West Ridge from their camp above the West Shoulder, but it was a late, desperate bid with little support from below. But for Ed, the expedition was a worthwhile experience that would open doors for his next two expeditions. There was also a quirky postscript when Ed was introduced to the rock musician Billy Squier on his way back to Kathmandu, and enlisted into a madcap scheme to try and land a helicopter on Everest’s summit.
— Harriet Tuckey (@HarrietTuckey) February 16, 2015
The second part of Snow in the Kingdom describes a much smaller expedition. Ed was invited to be high-altitude cameraman for British-Canadian mountaineer Roger Marshall’s attempt to climb Everest’s North Face solo in 1986. The climbers were accompanied to base camp by their girlfriends, but even in this smaller family-style unit there was rancour. Marshall wasn’t an easy man to get along with; at one point he made his girlfriend cry, much to Ed’s embarrassment.
It was a mad scheme; Marshall was not in the same class as Reinhold Messner (who soloed Everest from the Tibetan side in 1980). He failed on the North Face in 1986 and died in a fall the following year attempting it again. There was personal success for Ed, however, when he made a solo ascent of one of Everest’s sister peaks, 7,543m Changtse.
The bulk of Snow in the Kingdom focuses on Ed’s 1988 Kangshung Face expedition with Stephen Venables, Robert Anderson and Paul Teare. On their trek through the Kharta Valley, the team are accompanied by Norbu Tenzing, the oldest son of Tenzing Norgay, who has been an American citizen for most of his life. There is a historically significant and heart-warming chapter where Norbu meets his father’s half-brother Tashi. He is taken to the house where Tenzing Norgay was born and meets his long-lost Tibetan family.
I’ve written about this expedition previously, so I won’t go into too many of the details here. In contrast to his other two expeditions, this was a happy team who worked together for the benefit of the whole enterprise. For example, Ed describes the great sense of gratitude the whole team felt when a hypoxic Paul Teare unselfishly descended from the South Col on his own, enabling his three climbing partners to continue.
I read this book a few months after reading Stephen Venables’ autobiography Higher than the Eagle Soars. The similarities were striking. While Venables was the stronger climber, both of them suffered to the point of hallucination during their summit attempt. And they both conveyed the sense of utter desperation during their descent of the Kangshung Face, and the feeling that it was nothing short of a miracle that they all survived.
While the Kangshung Face expedition was arguably the high point of Ed’s mountaineering career and certainly the expedition he is best remembered for, it took more out of him than the other team members and left him scarred for the rest of his life. His diligence in recording their historic summit climb on camera left him with severe frostbite. He had to be carried out on a stretcher by porters and ultimately lost the tips of all his fingers.
He also suffered what he described as ‘an invisible injury that was far more devastating’. A few days after the sixth operation on his fingers, he started experiencing daily panic attacks that left him unable to drive, go to work, run errands or visit friends.
He wrote that:
Words barely begin to describe the panic attack sufferer’s crippling feelings of dread and anguish. You do not merely feel nervous. You feel an absolute terror that springs from the utter conviction that your death is 100% imminent.
Snow in the Kingdom is one of the most heartbreakingly honest books about mountaineering that I have ever read. Ed Webster comes across as extremely humble, and his candid writing makes it one of the more interesting and refreshing books on Everest.
The poignancy begins in the very first chapter as he describes the moment in 1983 when he watched his girlfriend and love of his life Lauren fall to her death while they were climbing together in the Rockies. He describes the accident in an arrestingly matter-of-fact way, but this great personal tragedy is an undercurrent that weaves through the book. By the time he was climbing the Kangshung Face in 1988, he had still not recovered from it.
On a slightly more quirky note, Snow in the Kingdom has so many photographs (both Ed’s own and many historic photos taken by others) that it must also be one of the heaviest books about Everest ever written. Its 580 pages weigh in at a mighty 1.65kg in hardback form. I don’t keep it on the bookshelf above the sofa in case it falls on my head.
Snow in the Kingdom is now out of print, and although it’s available on Kindle, it’s a book that’s worth seeking out second hand. Ed Webster may be gone too soon, but his engaging character lives on in this powerful memoir.