I’ve never climbed a mountain…at least one where there wasn’t path to the summit. Nor have I ever had any burning desire to do so. It always seemed to me to be a bit of a foolhardy endeavor – of all the things men and women risk there lives for, standing on top of a really high rock never seemed like one of the more worthwhile justifications.
I haven’t changed my mind, but after reading two mountaineering books in so many weeks, I have to say that I can understand this drive a bit more. This is ironic as both books I read chronicled two of the more deadly incidents in mountain climbing over the past fifteen years. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air recounts a 1996 expedition to Mt. Everest which claimed eight lives; Graham Bowley’s No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 tells of a 2008 tragedy in which eleven people died on K2.
Both stories are harrowing and remarkably well told. At first glance, it would appear that Krakauer’s book would be the more credible of the two as he was actually on the mountain experiencing the disaster unfold. However, as Krakauer acknowledges, participation necessarily results in a lack of objectivity, especially when the proverbial hits the fan. Furthermore, at high altitudes, judgement is impaired and memories cannot be relied upon. Counterintuitively, Bowley’s book may actually be a more accurate account of a different disaster as he was able to write from an objective perspective, taking all accounts into consideration without preconceived impressions or prejudices.
That’s all besides the point, however. Both read like novels – well written novels full of adventure and heartbreak. Both authors realize that, in order to even begin to dissect mountain disasters, they must understand what it is that drives people to even venture up into the death zones of 26,000 foot peaks where death is an inescapable and imminent reality. For some, its a simply a physical challenge. For others, it’s an adrenaline addiction. One of the climbers on K2 said that summiting a mountains made him feel closer to his dead father. Whatever the reason, they all share a single characteristic: an almost unimaginable determination.
Krakauer and Bowley both come to the conclusion that it’s this determination which precipitates a tragedy. While both disasters have their own particulars, there are all too many commonalities. In both expeditions, climbers ignored the time, determined to reach the summit even though common sense and experience told them it was time to turn back. On Everest, this led to climbers being caught in a freak storm on the descent. On K2, the climbers were forced to climb down in the dark. Oversized egos also played a prominent role, with climbers on both mountains determined to prove that they were better than the others by taking unnecessary risks.
These risks, when the conditions are just so, lead to disaster. Both books are full of heartbreaking scenes. Krakauer’s book has Rob Hall, a world famous Everest guide, calling his wife on a satellite phone to say good-bye just before succumbing to hypothermia. In Bowley’s book, a Norwegian woman, only feet away from her husband, hears him hurtle to his death off an ice cliff in the pitch black.
Despite all of this tragedy, the mountains themselves loom large, alluring and beautiful in their deadly majesty. Both authors are, as I imagine anyone would be, awed by the sheer size and magnitude of the peaks about which they write. Their description are vivid and harrowing and breathtaking. When Krakauer writes of 3000 foot cliffs or Bowley writes of glacial ice chunks the size of office buildings, it’s hard to not want to see it for yourself.
While I’m certain I won’t be climbing Everest or K2 anytime soon, most likely ever, it’s easy to understand why men and women are compelled to go to such places, risking life and limb. In a world so crowded and artificial, there’s a raw power in the mountains that exists nowhere else on this overpopulated sphere we inhabit, and, for some people, that’s worth the steep price of admission.