Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest - Mark Synnott

Summary:  A hundred-year mystery lured veteran climber Mark Synnott into an unlikely expedition up Mount Everest during the spring 2019 season, which came to be known as the year Everest broke.  What he found was a gripping human story of impassioned characters from around the globe, and a mountain that will consume your soul -- and take your life -- if you let it.

The mystery?  On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to stand on the roof of the world, where no one has stood before.  They were last seen eight hundred feet shy of Everest's summit, still "going strong" for the top.  Could they have succeeded decades before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?  Irving is believed to have carried a Kodak camera with him to record their attempt, but it, along with his body, has never been found.  Did the frozen film in that camera have a photography of Mallory and Irving on the summit before they disappeared into the clouds, never to be seen again?  Kodak says the film might still be viable...

Mark Synnott made his own ascent up the North Face along with his friend Renan Ozturk, a filmmaker using drones higher than any had previously flown.  Readers will witness firsthand how Synnott's quest led him from oxygen-deprivation training to archives and museums in England, to Kathmandu, the Tibetan Plateau, and up the North Face into a massive storm.  The infamous traffic jams of climbers at the very summit immediately resulted in tragic deaths.  Sherpas revolted.  Chinese officials turned on Synnott's team.  An Indian woman miraculously crawled her way to frostbitten survival.  Synnott himself went off the safety rope -- one slip and no one would have been able to save him -- committed to solving the mystery.  

Eleven climbers died on Everest that season, all of them mesmerized by an irresistible magic.  The Third Pole is a rapidly accelerating ride ot the limitless joy and horror of human obsession.   (Summary from book flap - Cover Image from

DISCLAIMER:  My brother was part of this expedition.  I received daily updates on the team's progress and knew about the overall outcome before this book was released.  I do not personally know the author, Mark Synnott, nor did I receive any compensation for this review (other than a free review copy).  I will give an honest review of this book, regardless of my personal connection, but please forgive any sisterly pride that seeps through.

My Review:  In 2019, a record number of climbers attempted to summit Mt. Everest, creating a 'traffic jam' in the perilous Death Zone, an area above 26,000 feet where oxygen is scarce and temperatures are well below freezing.  Eleven people died.  However, as crowds of hopefuls pushed for the peak, one team of veteran mountaineers hung back.  They had not come to summit Everest, indeed several already had.  Their primary mission was to search the harsh landscape surrounding the peak for the remains of Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine, a British climber last seen on June 8, 1924, just below Everest's summit with his climbing partner George Mallory.  If found, Irvine, or rather, his camera, could hold the key to solving a mystery nearly a century old.  Had Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay really been the first to stand atop the world's tallest mountain?  Or had it been conquered nearly three decades earlier by Mallory and Irvine?  

The Third Pole tells the story of the team's arduous search for Irvine as well as the harrowing stories of many others who have dared attempt the summit.  Many of the chapters are packed with historical, geopolitical, and scientific information which places the mission within the context of a much larger story.  The author layers the account of his own expedition with a fair amount of background and historical detail, especially regarding the expedition that claimed the lives of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, frequently switching between the modern and historical perspectives.  This had the unfortunate side effect of disrupting the flow of what I felt was the main story...but it also kept me reading late into the night.  As someone unfamiliar with the mountaineering field, I was fascinated by the accounts of the different expeditions, but felt a little overwhelmed by the massive influx of additional information, however relevant.  That having been said, I do believe that the extra details ultimately served to enhance my overall understanding of the Everest experience. 

Without a doubt, The Third Pole is a must-read for anyone who is even remotely contemplating adding 'Climb Mt. Everest' to their bucket list. The author refrains from romanticizing the mountain, instead offering a realistic view of the team's experience as they endure frigid temperatures and cyclone-force winds, battle the effects of high altitude exposure, maneuver around corpses and camps strewn with trash, and tiptoe around the troublesome Chinese Tibetan Mountain Authority.  He also doesn't shy away from discussing the rampant commercialization of the Everest climbing industry, which has led to an influx of inexperienced climbers, clogging routes and putting the lives of others at risk, which is valuable insight for prospective climbers.

Toward the end of the expedition, in what was, perhaps, the most compelling section of the book, the author draws attention to the moral dilemma that climbers may face in the Death Zone -- what to do if they come upon a climber in acute distress.  Though the answer may seem clear from the comfort of our couches, morality often gets muddled on the high mountain, and many pass by, choosing to push for the summit with the assumption that the struggling soul is beyond saving.  The author highlights this dilemma, along with perils of the climb, and other economic and environmental concerns, inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) raising the question: Is the summit worth the cost? 

Personally, I loved reading about the team's expedition. Although I already knew the basics of the mission, reading about the adventure in its entirety was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the author's inclusion of accounts from other climbers on the mountain.  I can't say I 'enjoyed' reading about hardship and death, but the additional material was riveting.  Overall, I gained a greater understanding of the rich, tumultuous history of Everest, an increased sense of respect for the mountain, and nothing but admiration for those who climb responsibly.  I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone who is thinking about climbing Everest or anyone who simply wants to learn more about the complex issues surrounding the mountain.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some death and description of dead bodies, ranging from non-graphic to moderately graphic.  Occasional instances of profanity*

*My brother needs a swear jar.      

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