A photo from the 1909 attempt to climb K2. They didn't make it to the top.
A few years ago, I had a real job--yes, really--with benefits that included vacation days. I was contacted about a freelance job to do on the side, and decided that I would use the money I expected to earn from that to go on a vacation, something extravagant and exciting. I told people that I wanted to go somewhere that no one I knew had been, somewhere different, that no one would expect me to choose. That's what I said. Truth be told, I was trying to impress a guy. He'd grown up in the Pacific Northwest and was a lot more outdoorsy than me. So after watching a TV show where people went mountain climbing in Nepal, I rashly decided that that's what I would do. I found a company (REI, if you're interested--they were great to travel with) offering a Nepal package that offered climbing in the Annapurnas, river rafting, and then a few days in a jungle nature preserve. I had never been mountain climbing in my life. Or rafting. Oh, and I had never even been camping or even slept in a tent in a backyard. Hey, when I set out to do something different, I mean different.
I had a fantastic time, despite some rookie mistakes (which led to a bout of altitude sickness that has left me with an aversion to rice). And my mountain climbing experience wasn't the real mountaineering kind. Climbing is kind of the wrong term for it; we were really just hiking. No crampons, axes, crawling across ice shelves. That's a whole other world. But after having just been in the region, and seeing those mountains--from afar, but closer than in a picture--I developed a fascination with stories about those who do and who have made it to the top of the highest peaks.
That's what led to my interest in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts. I had never heard of Viesturs before, but I guess he's a big name in the mountaineering world. He's one of the few who has climbed all 14 of the world's 8,000+ meter peaks* (for those of you who are as metric impaired as I am, 8000 meters = 26,246.72 peaks). His book isn't just about his own expedition climbing K2, the mountain of the title, but is a history of expeditions, some of which went well, but just as many that ended in recrimination at best and disaster at worst.
K2 today. Yup, still looks like a tough one.
I'm afraid that once again, I finished this book a few weeks ago, so I don't have the clearest memory of everything in it; I will not be able to give it the attention it deserves. Considering my tendency to ramble on, maybe that's for the best.
Everest is, of course, the world's tallest mountain, but K2, the second-highest, is the far more difficult climb. In any given year, probably over one hundred, often over two hundred people, get to the top of Everest. On the other hand, it's a good year if double-digits summit on K2. Relative amateurs can, with a lot of support, get to the top of Everest, but K2 regularly defeats even the most experienced climbers. I don't think there's any story of a K2 expedition in Viesturs book that doesn't include at least one, and probably more, deaths.
The descriptions of the expeditions from earlier days of mountaineering show how times have changed. There weren't any high-tech fabrics to make keeping warm and dry, no light and easy to carry power bars or gels. Expeditions that employed hundreds of porters carting things like bags and bags of flour were not uncommon. Climbers relaxed with cigarettes, even in the highest altitudes. Some things are always true, though--an expedition where the climbers know each other, trust each other, and know their limitations are more likely to succeed than those beset by rivalries, simmering anger, and an inability to communicate. Although that statement depends on what your definition of success is: the bickering 1939 expedition got higher than the calm, friendly 1938 group, but the 1939 had a number of unnecessary deaths that were due to the problems within the group. The 1953 American expedition gave up when one of its members became sick and they turned around, despite good prospects for the summit, to try to save his life (he died on the way down). The 1954 Italian expedition resulted in a successful summit. I don't recall if anyone died on that one (sorry, had to return the book to the library), but the story of how one pair left another to spend a freezing, stormy night on a ledge without even a tent for protection led to accusations and lawsuits that continued into the next decade.
For these stories, Viesturs relies on a number of secondary sources, which made me realize what an unexpectedly large literary outpouring of mountaineering books there has been over the decades. But he also tells the story of his own ascent on K2 in 1992, which he felt was one of his great escapes. Viesturs talks a lot about how a mountain climber has to know him or herself and be realistic about limitations and conditions on the mountain. While attempting to make the ascent on K2, he kept feeling that this was not the right thing to do; a storm was coming and maybe it was better to stop. But despite what his gut was telling him, he kept going up with his fellow climbers. In probably my favorite passage in the book (and one that would make a great monologue, which is why I note it), he admits that he didn't continue because of bravery, conviction, or even peer pressure; rather, he kept going because he couldn't make the decision to quit. After they succeeded and made it back down successfully, he felt that he had gotten away with something, and thereafter, whenever he felt something wasn't right, he listened to himself and turned around. And somewhat chillingly, he later got an email from a climber who was on a K2 expedition in August 2008. The climber had read one of Viesturs's other books in which he talked about his feelings on K2, and taking that lesson to heart, the climber turned around when he felt this K2 attempt was going bad. He survived, but a very high percentage of the climbers in his group who tried to continue to summit died (just checked the sometimes reliable, sometimes not Wikipedia and that said 11 out of 15 people died on that attempt). It should be noted that it seems more people die on the way down than the way up. That's the most important part, yet the part that people often, to their peril, fail to take into account. As Viesturs says, getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory.
Viesturs is an interesting narrator (I'm sure his co-writer made sure his voice is the primary one). He's not shy of voicing his opinions and when he's irritated at someone, it's pretty obvious. It's clear that he thinks his approach to mountain climbing is the best approach; I don't know if this is true, but hey, he's alive and a lot of the people he's writing about are not. Some things infuriate him, like the obvious stupidity of not "wanding" or marking a trail with willow wands on the way up, leaving to summit too late in the day, and not putting the safety of your companions on a par with your own. A lot of his annoyance at incompetence or inadequacies comes out in his description of the successful 1954 Italian expedition. It was bad that the leader of the group, a geologist, kept acting like the main purpose of the climb was to study rock formations for the sake of knowledge. It was terrible that this was an overly busy expedition with hundreds of porters, none of whom ever got any credit for their work. It was awful that favoritism put less expert climbers on the summit team over better climbers. But what really seems to drive Viesturs crazy is that the book written by the geologist was incredibly boring. This was an offense that could not be excused. I found this hilarious.
I will note, by the way, that the book is obviously directed at people with climbing experience, or at least knowledge. I have some idea of what rappeling means. I have less of an idea of what a belay is. I have no idea what it means to jumar. That's one thing I would have liked to have seen in this book, a little more help with terminology that your average, non-mountaineer might not know. On a brighter note, the photos are spectacular.
Like I said, my own mountain adventure was hardly of the kind described in this book. I don't know if I could make it up Everest, and I know I couldn't climb K2. I don't really have the drive to, either. That kind of adrenaline and desire for risk is something that I think you're either born with or you're not. And I think you have to have a trust in your body that comes with starting to climb that was at an early age. But while I might not ever climb those high peaks, I did develop my own kind of desire on my little Annapurna circuit--a desire for adventure and far away places. Far far away places, less known places. I have my own geography to think about, mountains I have not climbed that I want to climb, deserts to cross, things to do, things to do. I don't know when I will get away to any of these places--the real or the internal--but I don't ever stop believing I will get to them and conquer them. If I stop believing in them, nothing will ever happen.
Oh, and for the record--remember that guy I was trying to impress by going on a camping trip in the Himalayas? He never fell in love with me. Not even close. He liked the pictures from my trip, though. I eventually fell out of love with him, but I had fallen in love with the mountainscape and the stars so close on a night in Nepal. And maybe that's better.