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INVISIBLE ON EVEREST: INNOVATIONS AND THE GEAR MAKERS Mike Parsons 2003 1st edition
By Parsons, Mike and Mary Rose.
Price: $49.95


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2003, 1st edition. 320 pp, color & b/w illustrations. A new and unique approach to mountaineering history. We always hear that climbing is easier now due to the gear; well, this book explains how the advances in gear, clothing, oxygen sets etc have allowed higher standards in climbing, and deficiencies have caused disasters. Uses numerous examples from Everest and other expeditions. New Hardcover with dust jacket.

Invisible On Everest is not simply about mountaineering equipment; it's about the bold free spirits that drove the key polar and mountaineering and gear innovations over the last century and a half. Disasters and discomforts abound in the text and are often seen as the catalyst for breakthroughs in climbing and cold-weather equipment.

Invisible On Everest reaches out internationally and tells the story of passionate and persistent endeavors which in some cases lead to success and in other instances heartbreaking defeat and disaster.

Chapters focus on specific activities or time periods, including polar exploration, big wall climbing and the emerging role of women. The story line is supported by product biographies of the key pieces of outdoor equipment from tents and stoves, to warm clothing and breathable waterproof jackets. All the key mountain hardware is covered including ice axes, karabiners, ropes, and abseiler devices.

The book explores the development of the sport/leisure industries against the background of new technologies. It tells the story of the innovators in the industry and the development of outdoor brands. Industrial scholars will be fascinated to learn how design innovations affected the history of adventure/sporting industry and how these innovations were exploited and molded into trusted brand names that are recognized around the world.

From Whymper to Nansen, Welzenbach to Whillans, Scott to Mallory & Irvine, Pierre Allain to Everest 53, the secrets of their equipment and clothing are revealed. The book looks at how these innovations in 'gear' lead to the development of the multi-billion dollar adventure/sporting industry.

 
MORE:
 
You might assume from its weird title that this book is yet another account of the search for the elusive body of Sandy Irvine. Thankfully, Parson and Rose's research-rich tome is something far more original - a complete and utter history of the evolution of outdoor equipment. (The title is actually a reference to 'Mountain Equipment' founder Mike Hutchinson's comment that 'The best gear is invisible'.)
 
Even so, this in itself would normally be enough to send the non-specialist reader into deep coma after the first page. The pedigree of the instigator of this work, Mary Rose (a lecturer in 'Business Studies' at Lancaster University), certainly suggests you might be in for a densely footnoted, worthy-but-dull plod through familiar territory involving hobnailed boots and Grenfell jackets. And it's entirely possible that this may have been the case were it not for the fortunate fact that Rose took the decision to collaborate with the effervescent Mike Parsons (the former 'Mr Karrimor'). Parsons injects the text with an anecdote-rich vim which elevates it high above just any old stroll down memory lane.

The writing combo has instead delivered a book which is academic in spirit, but populist in delivery. There's something here for the serious historian or general reader alike. Gear freaks will certainly love it: if you've ever yearned to know how the Karrimat was born, or the origin of the word 'Backpacker' - this is the book for you.

Having said that, the early chapters on pre-Twentieth Century developments cover relatively well-trodden ground (apart pointing out that much early climbing gear was actually remarkably lightweight, if inefficient). The book really comes alive with Parson's tales of the growth of the big British equipment companies like Lawrie, Blacks and later Karrimor and Berghaus. The straight narrative is mixed with humorous hints about the personalities of legendary figures involved in the trade such as Graham Tiso ('used to scare the pants off the company representatives') and climbers like Don Whillans who was remarkably influential in gear design in the 1960s and '70s. Parsons relates how some of his ideas never made it past the drawing board. The experimental Whillans Whammer, was an alleged ice axe with multi-tool facility which, 'could open cans, act as a screwdriver, be used as an abseil device - in fact almost anything except be used as an ice tool... Even for hard drinking climbers, an integrated beer can opening tool was no real alternative to a curved pick.'

But it's also the little revelatory asides that keep you turning the pages - like how pre-war climbers would wee on their 'rubbers' before starting climbing on order to make them stickier; or how Saxon climbers were doing E3 6a in 1920. Such startling information peppers the text, waiting to surprise you like factual hand grenades lobbed into the narrative.

It is the wider sociological aspect of this book which makes it far more significant than a mere narrative history of technical development. For 'Invisible' is as much the story of the consumerisation of climbing as anything. Parsons makes a convincing case that the main cross-over of outdoor gear from specialist hobby to the mainstream came with Chris Bonington's Annapurna expedition of 1970. The trip itself spurred technical innovation while the enormous publicity generated by the marketing flair of the Great Bearded One started a more business-minded trend in the outdoor trade. The subsequent drift of outdoor clothing and equipment into a wider constituency is well analysed by Parsons and Rose.

Ultimately then, Invisible on Everest helps to explain how climbing and its associated attitudes and tastes was winkled from a cultish ghetto in the 1960s and transformed by the gear makers into a mainstream 'lifestyle brand.' For better or worse, it's never been the same since.


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