Friday, January 15, 2010

Review of K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain

Ed Viesturs reteams with David Roberts, coauthors of '06's No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks, for this study of the perilous climbing history of K2. Located in the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan, it is the second-highest mountain in the world and a harder climb than Everest. K2's death rate is nearly four times that of Everest. Most recently, in a single expedition in 2008, eleven people died.

Viesturs himself summited K2 in 1992, but he does not write about that experience at much length here. The 2008 tragedy is covered in the first part of the book, and then the author goes on to discuss the earliest attempts on the mountain; the 1938, 1939, 1953, and 1954 expeditions; and the deadly summer of 1986 during which a record thirteen people died on K2.

The dangers of K2 include a huge serac (overhanging ice ridge), crevasses hidden by the snow, whiteouts, and avalanches. Says Viesturs: "Everything depends on the weather, the snow conditions, and the relative strengths of different climbers, so up high you always have to be flexible and ready to improvise to meet the challenge thrown at you" (241). And while he would always sooner save someone's life than try to forge ahead in a summit attempt, he cautions: "It's an eternal and inevitable fact in mountaineering, as in most dangerous pursuits, that you can get sucked into exceeding the boundaries of your own best judgment of acceptable risk when you go to the rescue of someone else in trouble" (60). It must be an agonizing decision, but individuals have to look after themselves in that environment because it is all too easy to be claimed by the mountain.

Viesturs has never fallen into a crevasse in any of his climbs. He has fallen through to his waist before, but that is the extent. He notes: "The absence of crevasse falls on my mountaineering résumé is partly just sheer luck, but I like to think it's mainly the result of my healthy respect for those hidden death traps" (288). He admits that luck is a factor in his being alive today, gravely citing situations in which some of the best mountaineers met their deaths and saying that it could have been him had he been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is well worthwhile to read the perceptions of one of the greatest mountaineers. Viesturs does not shy away from expressing his admiration of some of his fellow climbers and his unfavorable opinions of others. This is a fascinating, spellbinding book and well-written as well. It is one of the best mountaineering books that I have read.

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