Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genetic lottery gifted me with an extreme lack of motor coordination and a case of vertigo, thus I have not become a mountain climber. Yet I love hiking in the mountains and reading about extreme climbing. I have just finished Jon Krakauer's "Eiger Dreams" (1990), and one of the stories in this book is particularly moving. In late 1970s and early 1980s I used to be friends with Dobroslawa "Mrowka" Wolf (I worked in the same room of a research institute with her husband, Jan Wolf, also a world-class climber), and my wife and I spent many evenings with them, proud to be their friends. Dobroslawa perished on K2 during the carnage of 1986. The eleventh story in "Eiger Dreams" is about that horrible summer. (Jan Wolf died several years later, also during a climb).
The book is a collection of 12 articles that mostly had been published earlier in various magazines. The first story is about the famous North Face, Nordwand, of the Eiger, and about the author's retreat caused by bad weather. (Incidentally, Jan Wolf was a member of the team that recorded the fastest winter ascent of the face in 1978.) The other stories are about various adventures related to climbing, such as bouldering, frozen waterfall climbing, determining mountain elevation, etc.
The seventh story, "Chamonix", brings another memory. Krakauer writes "The Czechs and the Poles, for instance, who tend to be both short of hard currency and hard as nails, eschew the hotels and pensions in favor of farmers' fields on the outskirts of town, where they pay four or five francs per night for the privilege of shitting in the woods and pitching their ragged tents amid the mud and cow pies." In 1981, my wife and I spent two days on such a camping in Argentiere, few miles up the valley from Chamonix. We looked at Aiguille du Midi, listened to the cows mooing, and drank large quantities of cheap French red wine, while the rain pounded our tent.
Mr. Krakauer, in addition to being an outstanding climber, is a gifted writer. The book is extremely readable, very informative, and occasionally quite funny ("Dangling fifty feet below the surface in the blue twilight of the crevasse, Conrad first made a quick examination of his trousers to see if his sphincter had let go..."). I also enjoyed learning about various sources of theodolite measurement errors (gravitational pull, refraction) and the ways of compensating for them.
I like the last story the best; it is about the author's attempt to climb the Devils Thumb, Alaska. It contains the following gem: "at the age of twenty-three personal mortality - the idea of my own death - was still largely outside my conceptual grasp; it was as abstract a notion as non-Euclidian geometry or marriage." Even if one has no personal connections to the stories, "Eiger Dreams" is a very good book.
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