Monday, August 16, 2021

Book Review: The Cruel Peak

One of the great controversies in mountaineering history began in 1959, when Cesare Maestri claimed to have reached the summit of Patagonia's Cerro Torre with Toni Egger. While descending the mountain, Egger was swept off the mountain by an avalanche and killed. According to Maestri, the climber was carrying a camera with definitive proof of their summit success. But that was gone, along with Egger.

After many attempts, Ermanno Salvaterra, Rolando Garibotti and Alessandro Beltrami were successful on the line that Maestre claimed to have climbed, forty-six years after the purported first ascent. The problem was that there was no evidence of the previous party and the route was dramatically different from what Maestri described.

Most people in the climbing community felt that Maestri lied about his success. This nearly destroyed the man, so he went back to the mountain and completed a different line, and placed 400 bolts no more than a body-length apart for nearly 1,100 feet.

The mountaineer was severely criticized for his techniques, but never backed down. To this day he still claims to have summited his original route and argues that his Compressor Route (the bolted line) also provided a legitimate way to the mountain's summit.

Gil Hogg's intelligently written novel, The Cruel Peak, was clearly inspired by the reality of Cesare Maestri. In his book, the patriarch of a wealthy New Zealand family rose to fame and fortune after claiming that he reached the summit of Mt. Vogel, an incredibly dangerous fictional peak in the Southern Alps. Ernest Ashton won international fame after he wrote Fateful Snows, a book about his supposed success on the mountain and the loss of his climbing partner, Bill Stavely.

Many years after the climb, Ashton's son, Stuart became a celebrated mountaineer in his own right. While Stavely's son, Tom moved away to escape the dark shadow cast by the Ashton family, his ex-wife who is an Ashton, and his own family's historically subordinate status with the aristocratic family.

When Tom returns to New Zealand to celebrate the wedding of his estranged daughter, a rumor arises, a rumor about a notebook that appears to dispute Ernest Ashton's claim to the summit of Vogel. Together, Stuart and Tom make their way back to the mountain to learn the truth.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't spend a great deal of time in the mountains. Instead, the novel is a front-country story, with the ghosts of a long-ago backcountry drama haunting the present. The result is that most of the action takes place in a small New Zealand town, instead of on the cliffs and snows of Mt. Vogel.

With a somewhat slow beginning and a lot of different members of the Ashton family to follow, The Cruel Peak starts out as a bit of a cruel read. The first third of the book sets up the second two thirds slowly -- almost painfully slowly -- which can be challenging for the reader. However, the second two thirds of the book provide an excellent payoff for the patient and it is both explosive and exciting.

Gil Hogg has a slightly stilted writing style. You often feel as if he lets exposition get in the way of character and plot.  But this doesn't mean that Hogg can't write those things. Indeed, he's very good at them. And when he lets go of character history and launches into the way that the characters relate to one another in the present, the book takes off.

At the heart of the novel is a question about a climber who lies about his ascent. This is something that doesn't really matter to those who are on the outside of our sport. But in here, in the world of the climber, lying about a mountain achievement is a form of blasphemy.  It's common to hear climbers badmouth those whom they see as overstating their accomplishments. It's almost passe to talk down those who "spray" about how good they are. But that's nothing more than good natured ribbing compared to what happens when someone blatantly lies about an ascent. When it becomes clear that an individual has lied about an ascent, that's when the knives come out. The explosive rage that in online forums and in climbing magazines can be both astounding and a little bit scary.

The Cruel Peak has some weaknesses, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the climber's read. The idea of lying about an ascent strikes some as so unethical that Ernest Ashton lie turns him into an incredibly fascinating and vile character. It's likely that Hogg knew that we might have a reaction like this to the climber. It's also likely that our fascination with such a character is one of the reasons that we still talk about Cesare Maestri and his routes on Cerro Torre.

--Jason D. Martin

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