In his book Dark Summit, Nick Heil described the events of the controversial 2006 Mount Everest climbing season, when 11 people died on the mountain. An experienced mountain climber, skiing and climbing instructor, and outdoor writer, Heil interviewed both the principals involved (those who survived) and those on the periphery (some of whom contributed to the controversy).
It’s a fascinating story of people willingly enduring extreme physical and mental challenges for the fleeting glory of having (briefly) conquered the tallest peak on planet Earth. Heil tells the story from the point of view of an objective observer (not one of the people involved) though he admits being sympathetic towards some more than others.
So what was the controversy? The dilemma of whether to sacrifice one’s attempt to summit Mount Everest in order to assist fellow mountain climbers in distress. The dilemma was complicated by judgment calls – whether the climbers were unprepared or unwilling to take precautions, and whether other climbers are too focused on their own achievements at the price of letting fellow human beings die. It’s not as easy a decision as I’d thought at first because helping someone in distress under the extreme conditions on Mount Everest can actually lead to your own incapacitation and death.
The only fault I found with this book was the extensive back-story that I had to wade through to get to the gripping account of the 2006 climbing season. Some of the details could have easily been put into an appendix at the back of the book though I have to acknowledge that the historical and cultural context Heil provided gave me a better understanding.
Interesting climbers mentioned included David Sharp, an experienced British climber who died in his attempt to conquer the mountain, Lincoln Hall, a seasoned Australian climber who collapsed but managed to survive, and Russell Brice, the most successful operator of commercial climbing expeditions on Mount Everest.
I don’t know what it is with mountain climbing, but I LOVE reading accounts of the experiences involved. It’s especially amazing considering that I’ve never enjoyed climbing and prefer meandering walks on level or gently rolling ground. And yet I’m fascinated by those intrepid explorers willing to suffer and potentially give up their lives just to get to the top of a geological structure.
First sentence: “Late on the night of May 10, 1996, a twenty-eight-year-old Ladakhi named Tsewang Paljor struggled slowly down Everest’s Northeast Ridge.”
Last sentence: “He had turned up in his own tent, hung-over, mildly perturbed, eager to go home.”
(Note: not the same guy mentioned in the first sentence.)
This book gets a thumbs-up from me.