Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Coming down the mountain

In 2006, 11 people died while trying to summit Mt. Everest. One death, that of David Sharp, made headlines because forty climbers passed him as he was clearly in distress and many noted he was dying. Nick Heil's book Dark Summit explores the question of why this happened.

He begins with a lengthy, and engaging, discussion of how Everest was initially explored and conquered and how the commercial climbing industry grew over time. Heil keeps the pace moving, but clearly demonstrates the extreme physical toll and inherent danger of climbing the mountain. Temporary blindness, frostbite, and the loss of appendages are reasonably frequent outcomes of a climb. Everyone's blood thickens, slowing them down mentally and physically. The experiences fever dreams of Lincoln Hall, who came quite close to death but eventually made it down, are frightening.

Heil makes clear that it isn't just altitude that is difficult, the actual climb has its challenges as well. For some reason, I had pictured a basic trail winding its way up the mountain. Silly I know, but I don't climb mountains. While they are mentally and physically impaired that have to navigate a series of steps that require technical rock climbing.

After presenting the general experience of the climb, Heil eventually comes to argue that Sharp probably could not have been saved. He collapsed in an area where the climbers were already weak and they still had some treacherous terrain to navigate in order to return to safety. He notes that people could barely move themselves let alone a partially frozen one hundred and eighty pound man. This is quite convincing, although Heil also more disturbingly notes that people might not want to help because they would be giving their own chance to get to the top.

The point of the book is not to condemn or defend the commercialization of Everest, and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough to argue either way. People want to climb it and going with a commercial group is probably safer than going alone. The bigger mystery, which Heil, a climber himself, cannot explain, is why people put themselves through so much misery for such a goal.

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