Monday, April 14, 2008

Book review: Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil

Mount Everest is Earth’s highest point: 29,028 feet at the summit. It is a brutal place where temperatures at –50F are common; where fingers, toes and noses can quickly freeze solid; where there is only one-third of breathable oxygen available as there is at sea-level; where the cold and hypoxia can lead to madness, coma and death. It takes months to acclimate your body to attempt the climb; it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to hire the right guides to help you survive a summit attempt. But despite the danger and the hardship, climbers flock to Everest from around the world, determined for whatever reason to reach “the roof of the world.”

In 2006, Mount Everest claimed the lives of eleven people, the highest number of on-mountain fatalities since 1996: three Sherpas, Tuk Bahadur (a Sherpa kitchen boy) Vitor Negrete (Brazil), Tomas Olsson (Sweden), Sri Kishan (India), Jacques-Hughes Letrange (France), Thomas Weber (Germany), Igor Plyushkin (Russia) and David Sharp (England). A twelfth, Australian Lincoln Hall, was left for dead but managed to survive overnight at 28,200 feet with no shelter or food.

Some of these deaths were immediately recognized as accidents – falls or people succumbing to pulmonary or cerebral edema. Others were viewed more suspiciously: some other climbers near Thomas Weber at the time of his death, for example, believed that his guide took too long to respond to Weber’s distress; later investigations suggested that Weber may have climbed Everest as a means to commit suicide.

The saddest story was that of David Sharp: a solo climber, not affiliated with any of the big outfitters and purposely attempting the ascent without oxygen, Sharp died alongside the trail as reportedly forty other climbers trudged past him on their way to the top. While the rest of the world erupted in outrage that no one rescued Sharp, the reaction of most high altitude climbers was that it was all most of the other climbers could do to keep from dying themselves, much less drag another sick climber down to safety.

Lincoln Hall should have been another tragedy. After failing to reach the summit, Hall became very sick, delusional and exhausted. His team of Sherpas tried for nine hours to bring him safely down to camp, finally leaving him where he lay on the snow, completely unresponsive (the Sherpas were snow-blind and nearly dead themselves when they returned to camp, having been above 28,000 for more than twenty-two hours). By some miracle, Hall was found the next morning – alive but crazy and badly frostbitten - by a team of ascending climbers.

A climber himself, author Nick Heil first wrote about the devastating 2006 Everest season for Men’s Journal. After the article was published, however, it was evident that there was much more to the story; this book is the product of his investigation. While not quite as compelling as Into Thin Air (Heil was not a first person observer/participant as Jon Krakauer had been in 1996), Dark Summit is a fascinating and horrifying read.

I do not in any way share the compulsion these high altitude mountaineers have to struggle and suffer so in reaching such great heights; I do not understand why it is worth nearly killing yourself to stand for twenty minutes at the top of the world. At the end of Dark Summit, the author confesses that he doesn’t understand it either - but his own compulsion, to bring the stories of the people who survived and who perished on Everest in one of its harshest seasons, is well worth reading.

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