Friday, August 27, 2010

#41 - No Way Down

Perhaps I should follow up my furious Franzen rant with another post about the state of publishing or some other issue floating around (and, believe me, if I was still remotely anonymous, I would). But, instead, I'm going to go back to basics: a book review. This week I took a break from guilty pleasure reading and read, well, more guilty pleasure stuff. Most people imagine armchair travel to be lovely, pretty memoirs like Eat, Pray, Yawn or the like. Instead, what I love is a truly good horror story incurred by a natural disaster happening at the top of a mountain. Yes, I love climbing disasters -- I don't know what it is about it, maybe the time I spent in Banff during my formative years scrambling up mountains, maybe it's the sheer Titanic-ness of it all -- the knowledge that the weather's about to turn, something's about to crack, someone's about to fall, and no one will ever be the same again.

In 2008, eleven climbers died on K2, the world's second-highest mountain. NY Times reporter Graham Bowley first saw the story flash across his screen as an assignment (I think) for the paper. He wrote so convincingly about it that it appeared on the front page and then he went on to realize that the story was so much larger than the paper could accommodate. The resulting effort, his book No Way Down, couples a little bit of the climbing history of K2 (it's deathly grip!) alongside a detailed, poignant and utterly captivating look at what went wrong.

The weather was seemingly perfect on the assent. A record number of climbers advanced to the summit despite some epic problems getting up through a bottleneck of people who were having trouble at one particular point on the mountain. But as the aptly titled book suggests, the descent was problematic for many. Between glaciers breaking, avalanches, snapped ropes and leaving the summit simply too late, many of the climbers were trapped at high altitudes, which had disastrous consequences -- deaths, frostbitten limbs, climbers getting lost coming down, bad weather, accidents -- all contributed to the high toll the mountain took on that day.

It's hard to explain what I find so fascinating about these kinds of stories. I'm hugely attracted to the idea of climbing to the top of a mountain even if health- and lifestyle-wise I'd never be able to do it. I'm also consistently amazed at the propensity for things to go wrong and that, still, hundreds of athletes still push themselves to the limits and then put their lives at risk in a very classic human versus nature scenario. Bowley's careful to explain, both in his preface and his epilogue, how much research went into constructing the narrative. In his words, he tells the story as well as he could, but there's always room for conjecture. It's a sad, captivating story and even though it's a terrible tragedy, it makes for one hell of a good read.

No Way Down coverage on NPR
Bowley's original NY Times piece

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