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Climb Every Mountain

One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2, by Freddie Wilkinson, Broadway Books RRP$24.95, 336 pages

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, by Graham Bowley, Viking RRP£18.99, 341 pages

K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, Broadway Books RRP$14.99, 352 pages

The Mountains of My Life, by Walter Bonatti, translated by Robert Marshall, Penguin Modern Classics, RRP£12.99, 442 pages

As a freezing Himalayan night fell on July 31 2008, there were an astonishing 48 climbers attached with varying degrees of precariousness to the flanks of K2, on the border between Pakistan and China. At 8,611m, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, and the most notoriously lethal.



In the globalised spirit of the times, the climbers came from a host of nations: France, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Serbia, Singapore, Norway, Netherlands, US, South Korea, Pakistan and Nepal. Most were altitude and adrenaline junkies; 12 were Nepalese Sherpas and Pakistani high-altitude porters, lured less by the romance and addiction of mountaineering than by the prosaic need to make a decent, if dangerous, living.


Thirty-six hours later, after 18 climbers had reached the summit and following the deadliest event in the history of K2 mountaineering, 11 were dead, including two Sherpas and two Pakistanis. In a freak accident a giant serac, or overhanging block of ice, broke off the mountain, wiping out the fixed lines on which many of the climbers depended for their descent, leaving them stranded without ropes above the infamously steep, avalanche-prone Bottleneck section in the oxygen-starved “death-zone” above 8,000m. With a Babel-like confusion of languages at this hallucinatory high altitude, the grimly inevitable mistakes, misjudgments, miscommunication and panic wreaked havoc. The disaster made headlines around the world.

Extreme adventures and misadventures like these tend to result in a slew of books with similar titles. Among those published after the tumultuous 1986 season on K2, during which 13 climbers were killed, was Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy, a gripping tale of human drama, hubristic ambition and utter recklessness.

After reading Curran’s book and learning to climb, the young American mountaineer Freddie Wilkinson became a K2 obsessive: “K2 became a symbol of everything climbing meant to me. It represented what the addiction was all about, distilled down to its most basic, primal form.” He thrills to its “beguiling power not only to push climbers to the very brink of their capabilities, but also to sow confusion and disorder on its flanks”.



In the wake of K2’s single bloodiest harvest in 2008, three new books with similar titles home in from different perspectives on what climbers call the Savage Mountain. In One Mountain Thousand Summits, Wilkinson focuses on the generally unsung guides and porters employed by the ill-fated 2008 expeditions, including a potted history of the Sherpas. He describes the bleak career options they faced in the early 20th century: indentured servitude, life in a monastery or carrying loads up the valleys. An alternative was the three-week walk to Darjeeling to seek a fortune satisfying “the Englishman’s strange predilection for climbing mountains”.


In No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, Graham Bowley, a former FT journalist, uses his reporter’s investigative skills to weave together an unputdownable narrative, based on hundreds of interviews and a trip to K2 base camp. As he points out, early accounts of the 2008 disaster were contradictory: “It was clear that memory had been affected by the pulverising experience of high altitude, the violence of the climbers’ ordeals and, in a few instances, possibly by self-serving claims, of glory, blame and guilt.” His book is a portrait of extreme courage, folly and loss, leavened by a small dose of survival, as complete a version of the calamitous story as will probably ever emerge, including the tragic account of what may be “one of the most selfless rescue attempts in the history of high-altitude mountaineering”.



Both Wilkinson and Bowley tell a good story very well. Theirs are step-by-faltering-step recreations of the thin-air fight to survive, bristling with cinematic immediacy. Both describe the harrowing scene during the descent when shattered climbers come upon three Korean mountaineers in dire straits, two of them hanging upside down on a rope against a sheer face of ice, their faces battered and bloodied by a fall, slowly freezing to death, the third distraught and unable to respond. All three later died.


In K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, Ed Viesturs, the first American to reach the summit of all 14 of the world’s 8,000m peaks, and co-writer David Roberts look at the wider history of K2, a starkly pyramidal peak that is to a certain breed of high-altitude mountaineer what Homer’s Sirens were to passing sailors. Steep, storm-prone and fatally unforgiving, K2 regularly lures men and women to their destruction, claiming more than one life for every four attempts made to climb it. For Viesturs it is the “holy grail” of climbing. “I am neither the first nor the last of its many worshippers to travel to the ends of the earth for the chance to grasp it in my hands.”

With such impressive credentials in this vertiginous world, Viestur is worth listening to. The main reason he is alive today, one suspects, is because – with the sole exception of a lucky escape on K2, when he succumbed to summit fever and climbed into a worsening storm – he has always been guided by the mantra that summits are optional, descents mandatory, a wise line for would-be mountaineers.



A certain scepticism about mountaineering’s literary appeal to the general public seems reasonable. There are only so many descriptions of cols and couloirs, shoulders and summits, ridges, bivouacs and ex­hausted “brewing up” in wind-whipped tents one can take. Oversized egos, sensationalised dramas and a tendency towards solipsism can be self-defeating, as WE Bowman’s parody The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) makes hilariously clear. Mountaineers can’t necessarily write – hence Ed Viesturs “with David Roberts” – and writers can’t always climb. Three of the writers get away with it because they are relating genuinely extraordinary stories and one, a genuine climber, because he is also a maverick philosopher of the mountains.


Joe Simpson, author of the phenomenally successful Touching the Void (1988), an epic of survival in the Peruvian Andes, handsomely republished in a new Folio edition, says that 90 per cent of his readers are not climbers, evidence of how mountaineering literature can attract a wider audience.

This is key. Mountains do not just appeal to mountaineers; they speak to an elemental instinct within us all. Viewed with fear and loathing in the west a couple of centuries ago, as Robert Macfarlane explains in his magnificent Mountains of the Mind (2003), today these cathedrals of snow, rock and ice arouse admiration from the increasingly comfortable, cossetted and keyboarded lives we lead today.

Mountains represent the untamed beauty and otherworldliness of nature, its splendid lack of sentimentality and a wildness from which the modern age has retreated. They ignite the inherently human need to explore, even if for most of us this appetite can only be satisfied at a literary level.

Extreme expeditions – and the deaths they invariably involve – have always generated mass interest. The conquests of the North Pole, South Pole and Everest were all major news events, with rival newspapers bidding spectacular sums for exclusives. As Wilkinson remarks, “stories of life-and-death survival sell papers”. And books.

In other words, just as we are instinctively inspired by mountains, so do we respond to stirring accounts of human endeavour pitched high in the heavens. Such stories rarely get more dramatic than the wreckage on K2 in 2008. Bowley writes about the husband and wife team tragically ripped apart by an avalanche, and describes a courageous Irishman staggering off in “a hypoxic haze” to his death, having done his best to save the dying Koreans. K2 is uniquely lethal, Wilkinson explains, because it forces climbers to negotiate stomach-churning gradients while under “extreme psychological and cognitive duress” brought on by high altitude.

If the trio of K2 books are distinctly modern, The Mountains of My Life evokes a more heroic age. Born in 1930, the Italian Walter Bonatti is widely considered one of the greatest mountaineers of the 20th century. He was a member of the expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in 1954.

Although instrumental to its success – he and a Pakistani high-altitude porter hauled up heavy oxygen tanks that allowed his team-mates to reach the top, enduring a tortuous overnight bivouac on a tiny ice shelf at more than 8,000m – Bonatti did not make the summit and became embroiled in increasingly bitter controversies with the Italian climbing establishment.

There were accusations that he had abandoned the Pakistani porter to the elements, resulting in severe frostbite and emergency amputations; had tucked into the oxygen supplies intended for his colleagues and plotted with the porter to strike out for the summit ahead of them. Despite a successful libel suit to clear his name, the controversy never went away, propelling him into the darker world of the solo climber. “My disappointments came from people, not the mountains,” he writes.

Bonatti surveys – as if from the summit – an extraordinary life scaling some of the most formidable faces of rock and ice on the planet. There is something of the classical composer about this complicated man. Instead of a string of symphonies, concertos and operas to his name, he lists a series of stunning climbs and summits, each one a remarkable feat of grace, elegance and stamina, laced with sheer bloody nerve: in 1949, at the age of 19, the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, regarded as one of the three hardest climbs in the world; the solo ascent of the “impossible” south-west pillar of the Dru in 1955; and then, most audacious of all, to mark his retirement from mountaineering and the centenary of Edward Whymper’s first ascent, a solo ascent, in winter, of the unclimbed direct line – the direttissima – up the north face of the Matterhorn in 1965.

For Bonatti the value of any climb, the heart of his concept of alpinism, is the sum of three inseparable elements: “aesthetics, history and ethics”. The real essence of mountaineering is not escape, he writes, underplaying his own escape from everyday life, but “victory over human frailty”. He believes that “courage makes a man master of his own fate. It is a civilised, responsible determination not to succumb to impending moral collapse.”

These days it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether much Himalayan mountaineering is less a voyage of discovery than a heavily sponsored ego trip. There was precious little heroism in evidence when numerous climbers filed past a dying British climber on Everest in 2006, when 12 lost their lives on the mountain. Mutual responsibility and shared endeavour appear to have given way to individualism and self-preservation at all costs, Wilkinson notes, despite the acts of courage that both he and Bowley record. One might as well lament modern footballers berating referees, or batsmen refusing to walk, but many will share Bonatti’s preference for a simpler and less commercial approach to the highest mountains.

As for the great “why?”, which for many people lurks beneath these epic mountaineering stories and which these books valiantly pose and attempt to answer, the British climber George Mallory’s uniquely pithy response, “Because it’s there,” still serves as well as any.

Many of the criticisms levelled at today’s high-altitude mountaineers may be justified, but it is surely missing the mark to dismiss this sort of life-endangering climbing as pointless in the post-heroic age of exploration. There will always be those, like Bonatti, for whom the adventurous life is “the true measure of a man”. We should celebrate and applaud them. After all, mountaineering is no more pointless than working in a bank.

Justin Marozzi is a travel writer and historian. His latest book is ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ (John Murray)