on 25 May 2010
America's first mountaineer to climb the 14 8000m peaks, Viesturs describes the major events on K2 along with his personal views. Ed examines "the questions of risk, ambition, loyalty to one's teammates, self-sacrifice, and the price of glory", sharing his direct honest opinions, like: "jerk", "I just don't buy it", "why didn't he get out and do something", and "that directive strikes me as questionable at best". I myself firmly believe in Ed's approach - getting into great physical shape with a thoroughness and intensity of preparation and planning, being a clock watcher and on time, non confrontational, carrying your own weight, and being patient.
You should buy this book first and foremost for Viesturs account of his own summit of K2 in 1992, second for his opinions of the controversial 1939 U.S. expedition led by Fritz Weissner, third for his critique of the August 2008 season where 11 climbers died in a 36-hour period, and finally as a history of the main events in K2's history, including 1938 U.S. reconnaissance expedition, the 1953 U.S. expedition, the controversial first ascent by the Italians in 1954, and the terrifying 1986 season that left 12 dead. There are 8 pages of colour photos (4 from Viesturs K2 ascent in 1992), 8 pages of b/w photos, a 2-page map, and one b/w sketch..
The book starts with Ed critiquing the 2008 tragedy where 11 climbers died in a 36-hour period. He clarifies the misconception that they were all killed when pieces of the frightening large ice serac above the bottleneck fell off. He also states that the real heroes were the Sherpas, unselfishly going back up the mountain to rescue climbers. Ed critiques the dependency on fixed ropes, the lateness of leaving Camp 4 and reaching the summit, and the fact there were no wands to help people find the route.
My favourite chapter is when Ed tells the true story of what happened on his ascent of K2 with Scott Fischer and Charley Mace on August 16, 1992. I was disappointed with No Shortcuts To The Top because the stories were too short and too 'perfect'. Not in this book. Ed uses his diaries to share his innermost raw, blunt, and critical feelings and opinions, highlighting his problems with his teammates and other teams, and lack of leadership. It is tight, entertaining, tense, emotional, an epic! This chapter could have been the whole book and I would have been happy.
Ed and Scott had to put off their own attempt to rescue two climbers. Although Ed is normally risk averse, he and Scott accepted danger to try and rescue two climbers. They were caught in an avalanche, but Ed was able to self arrest and stop their fall. Ed comments on once again accepting too much risk on summit day: "As we got closer to the summit and the falling snow showed no signs of letting up, I knew I was making the greatest mistake of my climbing life. And yet I kept going. ... Scott, Charley, and I broke free of the clouds just short of the summit. We saw it shining in the sun ahead of us. At noon, we stood on top, hugging each other and gasping in the thin air. ... After only thirty minutes on top, we headed down. ... Soon we were stumbling downward in a thickening whiteout." After reaching Camp 4 at 5pm, he wrote in his diary: "We'd pushed our luck beyond the max. I hope I never do that again! No summit is worth dying for. You can always come back." When they reached Camp 4, they found Rob Hall dealing with a very sick Gary Ball suffering from cerebral edema. They now had to help Gary down in bad weather and terrible avalanche danger. They found Ed's wands in the deep snow, which saved their lives by showing them the correct route down. "I don't think I've ever been more physically or emotionally exhausted in my life after that climb and descent."
After a brief history of the 1902 attempt by Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley and the 1909 attempt by the Duke of Abruzzi with Vittorio Sella, Ed describes in straightforward detail the 1938 US reconnaissance expedition led by Charlie Houston, quoting sections from "Five Miles High". After reconnoitering the Northeast and Northwest sides, the team decided that the Abruzzi was the best choice. After setting up camps on the ridge, Bill House climbed a great slanting gash in an almost vertical rock now called House's Chimney, and Charlie Houston and Paul Petzoldt reached 7920m feet before turning back due to not enough food and equipment at the highest camp.
My second favourite chapter is when Ed's writing is once again opinionated and enlightening as he describes the controversial 1939 US expedition led by Fritz Wiessner, who had recently emigrated to the US from Germany. After the best climbers dropped out, Fritz had to lead an inexperienced and weak team. Fritz led all the way, breaking trail, and turned back at 8380m just below the easy summit snowfield when Pasang Lama wouldn't go on. After a second attempt failed because Pasang had lost his crampons, Wiessner and Pasang descended to Camp VIII, only occupied by Dudley Wolfe. On the descent the three climbers fell, but Wiessner was able to self arrest, stopping their fall. Viesturs thinks that "only Pete Schoening's 'miracle belay' in 1953 is more legendary than Wiessner's self arrest." Unknown to Wiessner, all camps below camp VIII had been stripped supposedly because they thought that the summit party had been killed. The attempt to rescue Wolfe failed, with Wolfe and three Sherpas perishing on the K2 Shoulder. Ed thinks that "any climber has to be in complete awe of Wiessner's performance on K2." and considers his logistical plan "brilliant" Viesturs calls much of the criticism in the 1992 book K2: The 1939 Tragedy by Andy Kaufman and William L. Putnam "cockeyed", especially the fact that Wiessner led from the front, leaving Wolfe at camp VII on the descent, and what he considers the racial profiling of Wiessner.
Next, Ed describes the 1953 U.S. expedition led by Charlie Houston, calling it "the high point of American mountaineering", and "The courage, devotion and team spirit of that expedition have yet to be surpassed." He quotes from "K2: The Savage Mountain" and from Dee Molenaar's never released diary. A storm hits and they have to remain at Camp VIII for seven days, with Art Gilkey developing thrombophlebitis. In very bad weather and high avalanche danger, the rest of the team attempt to lower Gilkey down the mountain. Pete Schoening performed "the most famous belay in mountaineering history" when he singlehandedly stopped the fall of six teammates with "a single axe and a grip of steel." But the rescue ended in tragedy a few minutes later when Gilkey was avalanched to his death.
The camaraderie and teamwork of the 1953 U.S. team fades into intrigue and back-stabbing on the first ascent of K2 in 1954 by Italians Lino Lacadelli and Achille Campagnoni, with Walter Bonatti becoming a very convenient villain and an ideal sacrificial goat. Walter Bonatti and Pakistani Mahdi carried oxygen bottles to Camp IX, but had to suffer a bivouac at 8100m when Campagnoni intentionally moved the camp from the planned site so Bonatti could not try for the summit. Once back home, Bonatti was silently and later publicly accused of treachery, trying to steal the summit, and using their oxygen. Ed describes it as "a feud so sordid, bitter, and long-lasting that it has few parallels in mountaineering history." Vindication came in 2004 when Lacadelli agrees with most of Bonatti's views in his book K2: The Price of Conquest.
Finally, Ed describes in straightforward detail the tragic 1986 climbing season when 13 people were killed, quoting from Kurt Diemberger's The Endless Knot and Jim Curran's K2: Triumph and Tragedy. After eight unrelated deaths, a snowstorm with excessive wind and cold temperatures hit seven climbers, keeping them tent bound at Camp 4. Julie Tullis died in her sleep. After several days, in a break in the storm, Kurt Diemberger, Dobroslawa Wolf, Alfred Imitzer, Willi Bauer, and Hannes Weiser immediately started down, leaving a delirious Al Rouse at Camp 4. Within a few hundred feet of leaving camp, Imitzer and Wieser collapsed and were left where they lay. With Bauer breaking trail, the other three kept fighting their way down. A few hours later Wolf dropped behind and did not reappear, and the team was down to two. Bauer and Diemberger staggered and stumbled their way down the mountain.