Thursday, August 7, 2008

Where humanity and hubris intersect

I have always been intrigued by Nepal and specifically by Mount Everest.

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.


Mandy said...

I loved Into Thin Air and the response book, The Climb. I read them after my own trip to Nepal in 1997. It is a phenomenal place, and although we didn't do the basecamp hike (I was there with a group of high school kids), it was an experience of a lifetime.

The tragedy is, all those climbers are ruining Everest. It's always a hard balance... do we go spectate, or leave the area alone? Personally, I guess I'm more guilty of going to visit.

Sandra said...

Found Into Thin Air fascinating too. After the recent K2 deaths, am speculating again about the motivations of such extreme climbers.

InTheFastLane said...

I know i commented on your other blog...but do you get discover channel? Did you see the series they have had about a group of climbers trying to get up everest? It touches on the Sharp story as well in the 2nd season.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I have zero interest in ever climbing about 10,000 feet, but I am fascinated by people who do. I'd love to read the book.

Mental P Mama said...

I loved Into Thin Air, and this one sounds wonderful. Thanks for the heads up! By the way, I also bought and enjoyed Petite Anglaise on your rec!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I am intrigued by your review and would love to read it myself. Sounds great!

Karen MEG said...

This sounds like a great read Kelly; I was just thinking about climbers and what drives them to do what they do (given the recent events in the news) ...

~*Jobthingy*~ said...

sounds like a great read for sure. and i too would never attempt it but am blown away by those who do knowing it can be the end

Kelly O said...

I'm always intrigued by people who risk their lives on these kinds of endeavors. I completely can't relate. This isn't to say it isn't worth the risk, just that I'm baffled by their motivation.

Glowstars said...

I can't see myself ever wanting to attempt the climb, mainly because I'd probably get 100m up and give in. The book sounds fascinating though - I'd love to win a copy.

Anonymous said...

I loved Into Thin Air and would love to read this book! The highest summit I've reached is 14,110 feet (Pikes Peak) - and I've hiked 2 other 14ers in CO . . . I just can't ever imagine why people want to summit Everest. I can understand the beauty and even the amazing sense of accomplishment that goes with it . . . but really, is it necessary?

I'd love to read this wonderful book!

Bryan said...

Into Thin Air is one of my favorite books of all time. There is such a fine line between life and death. I find the people who flirt with that line fascinating.

The Discovery Channel series is called Everest: Beyond the Limit and they show footage in one of the episodes the debate at advanced base camp about what to do about the stranded climber.