Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book review: "Denali's Howl" by Andy Hall

"Denali's Howl" is an outstanding account of the 1967 ill-fated mountaineering expedition that left seven young men dead high on Mount McKinley. Even today, it remains the deadliest episode on North America's highest peak.

Backed by thorough research and numerous interviews of those involved, author Andy Hall deftly reconstructs the events of what was known as the Wilcox Expedition.

It is, in a way, like watching an auto accident in slow motion. You know things are going to go wrong, so you start looking to see where the trouble starts.

The 1967 expedition was actually supposed to be two separate endeavors, one led by 24-year-old Joe Wilcox of Utah, and an entirely separate one from Colorado. But when one of the Colorado climbers was in a car accident and had to withdraw, that group didn't have enough members. With a push from the National Park Service, the two groups combined to make a party of 12.

This led to some internal friction among the members, though Hall makes it clear that it wasn't a major factor in the fatalities.

Once on the mountain, the expedition makes an odd decision to leave behind its shovels to save weight. Those shovels could have come in handy later, to dig shelter when seven members of the expedition were caught in a monster storm.

Hall makes it clear that it is that storm, one of the worst to ever strike Mount McKinley, that was by far the key factor in the deaths. The stormed raged for five days, battering the top part of the mountain with winds of over 100 mph.

"Had there not been a storm of such endurance and overwhelming power, the Wilcox Expedition would not have ended in tragedy," Hall writes.

 For all the strengths of the book, Hall faced a frustrating reality in writing it. It's impossible to truly know what happened with the group of climbers who died, since there were no survivors among them.

Given that, though, Hall does something brilliant at the end. He recounts the story of a separate expedition, one from 1997, that found itself in much of a similar situation as the men from the Wilcox group. In 1997, some lived to tell the tale, which Hall shares. This helps us get a vivid picture of what could have gone wrong in 1967.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Comparing Fatah and Hamas

Founded: 1959
Power base: West Bank
Ideology: Secular
Background: Has pursued peace talks with Israel as the best option to achieve Palestinian statehood and has disavowed violence

Founded: 1987
Power base: Gaza Strip
Ideology: Islamist
Background: Considered a terrorist group by the United States. It has dismissed peace talks as fruitless and refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist or to renounce armed resistance.

Facts about people receiving government benefits

How many people …

  • ... are enrolled in Medicare? 47.5 million (2010)
  • ... are enrolled in Medicaid? 47.5 million (2009)
  • ... receive Social Security benefits? 54.0 million (2010)
  • ... receive Women, Infant and Children benefits? 9.0 million (2011)
  • ... receive food stamps (“Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”)? 44.7 million (2011)
  • ... receive free or reduced-price school lunches? 21.0 million (2011)
  • ... receive free or reduced-price school breakfasts? 10.2 million (2011)

(Yep, the Medicare and Medicaid numbers are the same)

Kenya travel: Getting around

Coming to Kenya? Don't expect to get anywhere fast.

Nairobi, where you're likely to start your visit, is home to some of the most appalling traffic on the planet. It's distressingly common for traffic to come to a complete halt and nothing move for five minutes or more. 

When my family arrived recently, our introduction to Nairobi unfortunately coincided with rush hour and it took 90 minutes to reach our destination. When we left, however, we did so at 4:30 a.m., and the reverse trip to the airport took just 25 minutes.  Sadly, even mid-day looks a lot like rush hour.

It's not just the delays that makes Nairobi traffic notable, it's the chaotic nature. Drivers cut and weave without regard to any sort of traffic rules (are there any?). Accidents are avoided by inches. Throughout all this, pedestrians are cutting through traffic to cross the street. Men pull or push carts overloaded with goods. Vendors selling newspapers or bags of oranges go from car window to window peddling their items.

Throughout it all, the noxious odor of exhaust permeates everything (air pollution control is not a priority in Kenya).

We didn't see a working traffic light anywhere during our 10-day stay in Kenya, though I've heard that there are some. It might not make any difference. According to an article in a Nairobi paper, few Kenyans find any need to stop at a red light.

"In Nairobi," the article said, "if a car dared to stop at a red light while the way was clear, the cars behind would lay on their horns until their ears bleed."

Part of the city's problem is that all major highways crossing Kenya go right through the heart of Nairobi (it's as if to cross the United States, all vehicles had to go through downtown Chicago). Nairobi desperately needs a ring road.

Traffic in Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city, is not quite as bad as Nairobi, but only by a slight degree.

Outside Kenya's cities, the traffic does ease, but then you'll find other issues, such as speed bumps and animals on the road.

Every town along the highway, no matter how small, is accompanied by two to six speed bumps, forcing drivers to slow. At other times, your way will be blocked by herds of cattle, sheep or goats crossing the road.

And then there's the roads themselves. Holes large enough to swallow a tire are common.  And if you're going on safari,  prepare to spend an hour or two on bone-rattling rock and dirt roads our tour guide called it  "The African Massage"  just to reach the entrance to some of the national parks.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book review: "The Call of the Wild"

It is ridiculous, really, to write a review of a book like "The Call of the Wild"
a book that has been read and enjoyed by millions, and is considered a classic by many.

What would happen if I gave it a negative review?  Is that really going to hurt sales? Oooh, I'm sure Jack London is scared.

So let's not call this a review. Instead, let me just put down a few "thoughts" after my reading of Jack London's 1903 book.

First, this is a remarkable book; I've never read anything like it. How many books, outside of those for little kids, are told from the perspective of a dog? Not many.

What I found so amazing is how well London gets inside the head of Buck. You really feel as if you're looking at the world through Buck's eyes.

It may seem like a weak compliment to call a book "educational," but there is a lot to be learned from "The Call of the Wild."  Though I've read about the Yukon Gold Rush in other places, and even visited some of the actual historical sites, Jack London provides a grittier, more personal view that brings that period alive.

For the dogs, London shows, life pulling sleds in Alaska and the Yukon was harsh and the rivalries among dogs sometimes vicious. It didn't take long for Buck to learn it was survival of the fittest.

"Buck was merciless," London writes. "He had learned well the law of club and fang, and he never forewent an advantage or drew back from a foe he had started on the way to Death. ... He must master or be  mastered; while to show mercy was a weakness. Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear, and such misunderstandings made for death. Kill of be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law."

London also has a nice way of portraying people, as in this description of an incompetent trio of prospectors:

"The wonderful patience of the trail which comes to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of speech and kindly, did not come to these two men and the woman. They had no inkling of such patience. They were stiff and in pain; their muscles ached, their bones ached, their very hearts ached; and because of this they became sharp of speech, and hard words were first on their lips in the morning and last at night."

The weakest part of the book is the last chapter, where London does less showing, and too much telling. That is, rather showing us what Buck is experiencing, he does more just telling us how Buck has grown into a powerful animal of the wild.

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