Monday, October 17, 2011

To Great Lengths

Before I went to interview Emil Henry for yesterday's story in The Commercial Appeal (Writing mountaineer bio a career pinnacle, Oct. 17, 2011), I was given detailed instructions for how to get to his house inside the gated community within Chickasaw Gardens. E-mailed instructions that included the suggestion I bring my cell phone along just in case something comes up.

And something did come up! The power was out in the whole subdivision, so the electric gate didn't work. Someone standing on the other side of that gate sent me around to the south side of the community where there is an emergency gate used by the fire department, service vehicles, etc. At that gate there was a line of cars waiting to get out, we were all waiting on the security guard to come let us out and in. When he showed up, he had trouble manually opening the large, iron gate by himself, so I jumped out and gave him a hand.

It's arduous, sometimes, what we go through to get a story. Take Emil Henry, for instance. He scaled the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps in 1984 at the age of 55. When I asked him about it, his answer reminded me of George Costanza telling that woman that he built the addition on the Guggenheim: "Didn't take very long, either."

Was it difficult? I asked Mr. Henry. "No, not really," he replied. Seems they have ropes attached to the summit to help a climber pull him or herself up the rest of the way. That's helpful. It took him nine hours total, from bottom to top and back down - a regular work day without a proper lunch is all. He was quick to say, however, that 431 people have perished trying to scale that summit.

The story was in the writing of the book about the first man ever to scale the Matterhorn, Edward Whymper. Henry traveled to Switzerland, France, Italy and England for the facts; all on his own time, all on his own dime. I don't write nonfiction, other than these pieces for the newspapers and magazines, but there is something appealing about traveling halfway around the world for an in-depth story. It's work, certainly, but what an adventure.

Speaking of work, Henry was the chairman of the FCC for a bit, appointed at the age of 34 by John Kennedy in 1962. There are stories about that that had no place in the newspaper story about his book. For instance, when he first traveled to Geneva as an FCC representative, it was for a conference on radio frequencies to be used in space. Moscow and Washington were in a race to the moon and it needed to be determined who would use which frequencies up there. Isn't that civil?

And, as chairman of the FCC, Henry was the last official visitor to the White House before Kennedy was assassinated. He was in the Oval Office escorting a dignitary from England or some place, immediately after which JFK and Jackie left for New Orleans and then Dallas the following day. Henry was having lunch with his English counterpart when the Brit was called to the phone, returning to inform Henry that his president had just been killed.

Incidentally, the last unofficial visitor to the White House was Nat King Cole, who Henry saw there taking photos with JFK as he left.

There are stories everywhere! Stories on mountaintops, stories locked behind dead gates in Chickasaw Gardens and stories that might be realized in the following days with a phone call or a communiqué over an as-yet determined radio frequency.

Writing mountaineer bio a career pinnacle

To hear Emil Henry tell it, climbing the Matterhorn at 55 years old wasn't so difficult. There was little training, only to be tested on skills, endurance and altitude sickness; it wasn't even a life's dream.

"As tall, high mountains go, it's probably the easiest of all the high mountains in the Alps now," Henry said of the summit that has seen 431 deaths, 58 in the 21st century alone.

Researching and writing a biography of Edward Whymper, the first person ever to scale the 14,690-foot mountain, however, became a monumental task of endurance, travel and expense. And a challenge he wouldn't give up for anything.

"It turned out to be the most enjoyable occupation of my life," Henry said of the book, "Triumph and Tragedy: The Life of Edward Whymper" ($18.31).

Henry, now 82 with three children and five grandchildren, began life in Memphis, growing up in Chickasaw Gardens before going away to a boarding high school in Pennsylvania and college at Yale. He joined the Navy during the Korean War, spending three years on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, and then went to Vanderbilt for law school.

After practicing law in Memphis for five years, he was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 1962. When the chairman resigned only eight months later, Henry was appointed, "at the ripe old age of 34," chairman of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy.

It was in 1963, while in Geneva for a conference as the FCC representative, that Henry was first approached with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn. "I don't do that," he said. "It's not my thing." He reconsidered 21 years later when a business colleague suggested he contact mountain guide Rickie Andenmatten.

"My guide (Andenmatten) said, 'Emilio, you're going to get waked up at 4 o'clock, get dressed, eat a light breakfast, we're going to walk out the door at 4:30 and it's action, action, action'," Henry said. "We got to the top of the Matterhorn at 9:30."

It took five hours to scale the mountain and four hours to descend, Henry said. "My legs were jelly."
The Matterhorn is part of the Swiss Alps and sits on the border of Italy and Switzerland. With its iconic summit and difficulty to conquer, it was known during the Golden Age of Mountaineering (1854-1865) as the "impossible mountain."

Edward Whymper was a young Englishman -- only 25 at the time he became the first to scale the Matterhorn in 1865 -- who would also become an accomplished author, artist, photographer, lecturer and natural scientist who researched the causes of altitude sickness. "He was many things, and this book is about all of those things."

It was the discovery in a Zermatt bookstore of Whymper's own book, "Scrambles Amongst the Alps," first published in 1871 and still in print in an abridged version in 1984, that led to Henry's fascination with the adventurer. Whymper wrote several other books, but the only full biography on the man was one published in 1940. "It was highly dated and highly opinionated, and it did not give a full picture of the man, in my opinion," Henry said.

So Henry set about to write a comprehensive book about not only Whymper, but also the circumstances surrounding the Golden Age of Mountaineering, the physical challenges, triumphs and tragedies, and the majestic mountains themselves. "Part of the allure of this book was due to the romantic appeal of the Alps themselves and the Alpine regions," he said. "Chapter 3 is only about the Alps, how they were formed in geological time, what they look like, how they differ from the Himalayas, the spirited amateurs who climbed them, the chalets and haylofts where the climbers found shelter. I compare the early mountaineers to the aviation pioneers."

The writing was an expedition in itself, taking Henry to England, Wales, Switzerland, France and Italy. "I wanted to do justice to the man, I wanted it to be a serious biography ... so I spent a lot of time at the Alpine Club Library in London."

It was all research paid for out of his own pocket, he said, adding, "I'm not in it for the money." There were several publishing houses and agents interested in the manuscript, including several in the United States and Random House in London. "I finally decided that companies and agents were not going to publish an octogenarian, unpublished lawyer." He ultimately self-published the 428-page book through Troubador Publishing in the UK, where Whymper is vastly better known.

The book is for sale through all online retailers, as an e-book and at the Booksellers of Laurelwood, where Henry recently held a reading and book signing.

The Golden Age of Mountaineering ended with Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, not because he proved the "impossible mountain" could be conquered, but quite the opposite. On the descent, four members of his team plummeted thousands of feet to their deaths, the worst tragedy in mountain climbing history. The sport has changed over the years with improved technology and a better understanding of the conditions the human body can withstand.

But what haven't changed are the public's fascination with the environment and man's need to push himself and challenge the unknown within. In his book, Henry explores the life of a true adventurer and a theme which helped Henry push himself to the summit.

"What I tried to do and what I've done, I think, is to create the story of this man's life and, in so doing, illuminate as best I can his character and the things that set him aside from other people," Henry said. "So it's not just about mountaineering, but mountaineering ... goes a long way in explaining the kind of man he was."

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