Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Book review - Dark summit by Nick Heil

Dark summit by Nick Heil

Camberwell : Penguin Australia, 2008           ISBN 9780143010630

I have no desire to ascend Everest - I could never get fit enough, wouldn't have the endurance, and I don't think I could stand the egos on display around Base Camp. Which begs the question - why do I read so many mountaineering titles? Starting with Bonington when I was a kid, I've been reading tales of mountaineering almost as a guilty secret for thirty years. Which makes me somewhat of an armchair expert, if not at climbing mountains, at least of the literature that comes from climbing them.

Nick Heil is not a mountaineer, he is a journalist and writer, and with that knowledge and the quote on the front cover of Dark summit  ("On Everest morality stops at 8000 metres"), I wasn't holding great hopes for this title. Ever since Jon Krakauer's Into thin air, there has been a genre of Everest books that concern themselves with the ethics of modern guided trips to the top of the world, most of which haven't reached the high bar set by Krakauer, and some of which have been as shameful as the events they purport to portray.

Thankfully Heil's book is quite a few rungs above those depths. His book is a description of the disastrous 2006 season on Everest, when eleven people died on the mountain (not all deaths occurred above 8000 metres). That makes the 2006 season one of the most deadly, in fact more people died than in the infamous 1996 season that forms the basis of Into thin air. Krakauer's book centred around the then novel notion of guided mountaineering trips up Everest, and the ethics and morality of that process. Since Krakauer's time the guided ascent has become an industry, and Heil jumps right into the centre of it. As with many of these types of books, the nub of the story is not quite enough to flesh out a whole book, so we are given the usual potted history of attempts on Everest, with a concentration on the North Face, where most of Heil's action is set. While this background is useful and informative, for me - and I think Heil - this was going through the motions a little bit.

The "meat" of this book concentrates on the climbers on the North Face, and in particular Russell Brice's Himex group. Heil deftly explains the advances made in modern technology since 1996, which make planning a climb easier (better weather forecasts and communication), and has pushed Everest into the twenty-first century (the battle between groups to get clients, animosities between people fought out on the web). The inherent danger of very inexperienced people high on Everest (for some climbers in 2006 Everest was their first 8000 metre climb) is always in the background, and is well portrayed.

While the drive that sends people to attempt Everest may be difficult to articulate, the drive that leads the legion of armchair mountaineers (my sister has lent me this book, and when I'm done I'll lend it to my brother-in-law) to read books such as this is simple: the subject of human beings being pushed to their limits is inherently both gripping and fascinating. Thankfully Dark summit is relatively well-written, with only a modicum of cliche, so the story is free to breathe.

The apogee of the tale is the description and discussion of the death of David Sharp, a lone climber who was found in a near-death state high on the mountain by members of Brice's expedition. Brice, and double amputee Inglis (who was one of the people who found Sharp), got a lot of flack from the press over the decision to leave Sharp. Heil treats this incident fairly, showing both that Brice and his expedition did what they could, and pointing out that some of the more, shall we say "cowboy"expedition managers at Everest don't really do their job properly.

The death of Sharp was put into high relief by the amazing survival and rescue of Australian climber Lincoln Hall during the same climbing season. Hall was an experienced climber, who collapsed and was left for dead. He survived a night in the open near the summit and was rescued by other climbers. I have read and reviewed his book Dead lucky here. Heil speculates that the rescue of Hall was one of the drivers of the criticism of the people who left Sharp to die, but goes on to point out that whereas Sharp was mostly passed by "amateurs", Hall was lucky enough to be discovered by a team of very experienced mountaineers.

As the industry of Himalayan climbing develops year-on-year, we can expect more tragedies to occur in the death zone - since 2006 we've had 11 deaths on K2, described in One mountain thousand summits by Freddie Wilkinson (which is not at the same standard as Heil's book), and 2012 saw another 10 people die on Everest - and no doubt more controversy to come.

This book is well worth reading if you're into mountain literature - Heil went with Brice to the North Col in 2007....maybe that's an achievable adventure......

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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