Friday, March 10, 2017

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous MountainK2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"As they forged on down into the darkness, the two Austrians lost track of Mrufka. They assumed she was just behind them, but they would never see her again."

As a clumsy person afraid of heights the closest I have gotten to mountaineering was to conquer Orla Perć, a difficult tourist hike in Polish Tatra Mountains. Yet since childhood I have had a love for mountains and have always enjoyed reading climbing books. K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain (2009) by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts is an important book for me for another reason. My wife and I used to be friends with Dobrosława "Mrufka" Wolf, one of the climbers who perished on K2 during the disastrous 1986 season, and the authors shed some additional light on the tragedy.

Mr. Viesturs is one of the very few people who managed to conquer K2, the "Savage Mountain", considered the hardest mountain on Earth to climb: he certainly is the right person to write about the history of K2 expeditions. He focuses on six most dramatic seasons in the K2 history, but also recounts his own successful ascent during the 1992 expedition. Of the perhaps 50 or so authors of mountaineering books I have read, Mr. Viesturs comes across as the most cautious. In fact he keeps insisting that his decision to continue the 1992 climb that resulted in reaching the summit had been wrong and that he is alive just because of luck. This was the only time that he violated the motto he used to live by:
Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.
The first two attempts to conquer K2 date back to the beginning of the 20th century: one of them involved the famous "occultist and egomaniac" Aleister Crowley. The other attempt, led by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi had been more serious: the climbers had found the now classic route. The members of the 1938 American expedition led by Charles Houston achieved the elevation over 7900 meters. One is unable to refrain from smiling when the authors quote Houston's enjoyment of a "restful cigarette, which seemed especially welcome at these high altitudes." I wonder which activities that we now consider as perfectly normal will be considered suicidal 79 years from now - eating chocolate?

The next American attempt turned into what the authors describe as "one of the most enigmatic expeditions of all time." The climbers reached the height of 8400 meters, but three team members died in a still not completely explained tragedy, with conflicting versions of critical events in existence. In deep contrast, yet another American attempt in 1953 was, in the authors' words, an "embodiment of team spirit and the standard to which all expeditions should aspire." Only an unusually brutal storm prevented the expedition from succeeding. It was finally in 1954 that an Italian team conquered K2: again there had been some controversial events during that attempt and the revelations that emerged fifty years after the climb justify the authors' viciously funny critique of the failed leadership in that successful endeavor.

My friend, Dobrosława Wolf, known as "Mrufka" (phonetic transcription of the Polish word for "ant"), died in August 1986. 13 climbers died on K2 that summer and the authors describe the tragedy and try to cast light on its reasons. Unusual crowding of the route, unequal technical skills of multi-national climbers, lack of permits and resulting haste all might have contributed to the drama.

K2 is one of the best mountaineering books I have ever read. I like the authors' serious, even-handed approach, their staying away from cheap sensationalism and "macabre delight in tragedy" while not avoiding sarcasm and humor when they are called for. And I truly appreciate Mr. Viestur's insistent emphasis on safety to the extent possible in the extreme conditions of high-altitude climbing. The book ends with a fragment about Mr. Viestur's family, sweet but incongruous with the entire work.

Four stars.

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