In June of 2001 Rob and I were on our way to a travel agency to discuss a flight to Kathmandu and a trek to Everest base camp when we heard over the car radio that Nepal's Crown Prince Diprendra had shot and killed his parents and seven other members of royal family before committing suicide during a dinner party.
Plan B was formulated on our (correct) assumption that the murders would throw the country into political turmoil and instead in October 2001 we trekked in the Andes Mountains in Peru where we hiked a 4,200 metre peak (13, 780 ft) and, incidentally, got engaged.
A trip to Everest remains a distant dream for both of us and when I say Everest, I mean Everest base camp, which at 5,208 metres (17, 090 ft) is the highest I would ever attempt to climb, remembering as I do the nausea, headaches and fatigue we experienced as a result of oxygen deprivation in Peru.
Everest stands 8,848 metres (29, 029 feet). Anything above 8,000 metres is considered the death zone: a place where the brain swells, blood vessels leak and fluid accumulates in the lungs. I am both fascinated and horrified by human compulsion to summit Everest and so when Random House offered me a review copy of Nick Heil's Dark Summit, The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Climbing Season, I jumped at it.
Dark Summit is a detailed account of the 2006 season during which 10 climbers lost their lives attempting to conquer Everest. One of them, an Englishman named David Sharp, lay dying near the top while 40 other climbers walked past him on the way to the summit.
Nick Heil is a measured and restrained storyteller but he nonetheless manages to clearly show how the commercialism at the roof of the world encourages naked ambition over compassionate humanity.
He writes of the aftermath of that deadly season:
"Beyond the lurid spectacle of men and women suffering slow deaths at high altitude was the suggestion that the modern circus on Everest had exposed something essential about who we are as human beings...because Everest was such a grand stage, one on which players performed so close to the limits of self-preservation, it had the unique ability to magnify...basic drives and behaviours."
Heil, a former senior editor at Outside magazine, is guilty of being almost too detailed as he moves the reader through the cast of characters, from various teams and expeditions, who assembled at Everest base camp that spring. The writing is sharp and crisp, but it is still difficult to keep everyone straight: it is clear Heil has taken pains to be exhaustive lest Dark Summit be seen as just another one of the shrill and judgemental voices that flooded the media once the 2006 death toll became apparent.
Dark Summit really shines in the last few chapters when he uses his considerable gift for writing to best effect by indulging his inner philosopher. He asks, but refuses to answer, difficult questions of many people - the mostly affluent climbers, the commercial operators on the mountain, the people and governments of China and Nepal and even people like me who romanticize the achievements of early mountaineers like George Mallory and Andrew Irvine and, of course, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
Fans of Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's book about the deadly 1996 season on Everest, will be similarly enthralled by Dark Summit. Long after the final page has been read climbers and non-climbers alike are likely to find themselves pondering, as I did, the mystique of a mountain where human achievement and hubris intersect with deadly results on such a regular basis.
Leave a comment to win your very own copy of Dark Summit. I'll close comments Thursday, August 14th at 6 p.m. and announce the winner on Friday the 15th.