Monday, 10 November 2014

Book Review - High Crimes by Michael Kodas

High crimes : the fate of Everest in an age of greed by Michael Kodas

New York : Hyperion, 2008                                     ISBN 9781401302733

What a very depressing book. High crimes is another instalment in a mini-genre of books covering the dark side of mountaineering - a genre kicked off by Into thin air, and continued by titles such as Dark summit, and picked up with schadenfreude by many national newspapers and magazines.

High crimes intertwines two narrative threads to help Kodas make his point that the current "Everest industry" harbours as much lying, cheating and criminal behaviour as it does sport, nobility and ethics, and death on the mountain has become an accepted part of the transactions between those ascending it.

Kodas was a member of the 2004 "Connecticut" expedition, which was a disparate group of climbers from that state, brought together under the inspiration of George Dijmarescu and his wife Lhakpa Sherpa, both of whom had ascended Everest previously. Kodas, a reporter for a local paper, and his wife, also a reporter, joined the expedition to cover it for the paper, and for the opportunity for Kodas to attempt the summit, as he is an experienced mountaineer, with some of that experience in the high Himalaya.

Kodas certainly got a cracker of a story - just not the one he was hoping he'd get. His story becomes one of greed, threats, theft and violence, as the expedition turns out to be a free-for-all, with Dijmarescu failing to provide enough equipment, oxygen or food for all the climbers to be able to summit, and verbally and physically abusing other climbers. Other members of the expedition steal items that they need from each other and other expeditions, and display no regret when caught out. While stealing some stove fuel (or the stove itself) mightn't seem much, at these altitudes it can mean the difference between life and death. Kodas reports other climbers having whole tents cleared of items they were relying on for a safe climb.

The other story in the book is that of Nils Antezana, a US citizen born in Bolivia, who found mountaineering later in life, and at 69 decided he wanted to ascend Everest. Unfortunately, he had the misfortune to chose as his guide Gustavo Lisi, who, as Kodas reveals, is a person seemingly completely without morals, and who has left more than one client to fend for themselves high on mountains, and who - at the time he was hired by Nils - was falsely maintaining that he had summited Everest previously. In fact, the pictures purportedly showing him on top of the mountain were stolen by him from someone that ended up losing their fingers to frostbite in the descent. High crimes explains that not only did Lisi leave Nils to die on the mountain while he summited himself, but when he got back to camp he failed to raise the alarm or even mention that he'd left his client behind. The dedicated work of Nils' daughter revealed the true story of what happened, and is relayed here, as well as Lisi's false claim to be an accredited guide, and his expulsion from two mountaineering clubs.

Lisi still touts himself as a guide, which brings Kodas to the point he's trying to make - the  mountaineering industry is almost completely unregulated. For different reasons, both in Nepal and Tibet there is limited ability and will for proper government oversight of the mountains, and up high there would be no way to enforce the law even if a government wanted to. This has resulted in the main expedition companies becoming the de-facto state powers. While some, like Russell Brice's Himex, help other people in trouble and are run in a generally ethical manner, others, such as Henry Todd's Himalayan Experience, provided a permit and that's about it. Todd himself is a shady character, who has been implicated in scandals about re-used oxygen cylinders, among other things, and has actually been banned from Nepal for his shady dealings. So he set up in Tibet, and ran his business on the North Col route.

As I stated at the start of this review, all this makes for a depressing read - there is little of the excitement and wonder of the mountains in this book, but it is a book that had to be written. It's enough to put a potential Everest climber off. It's a shame that something that could be such a great experience seems to be dragged down into the depths of what we humans are capable of at our worst.

Required reading for all armchair mountaineers.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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