The Climb

By Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt

Reviewed May 2, 2017 on The Litt Review.

The Climb is a spectacular book about the 1996 Everest disaster, where eight people lost their lives in one day, most famously detailed in Into Thin Air. While it may be surprising, I have yet to read Krakauer’s book, and this was the first serious book I’ve read about Everest, as far as I can remember. I’ve seen some documentaries, and read many books on mountaineering as a whole, but somehow I’ve never read a book on Everest itself until this one.

I found it to be a delightful, quick, enjoyable read. I couldn’t put the book down, and read much of it while walking through Montréal. It is cowritten; DeWalt wrote the bulk of it, and used Boukreev’s, a Kazakh native, broken English to shore it up, and occasionally quoted him directly. It read at times like a travelogue; this thing happened here, and then this here. Roughly, the narrative follows Fischer’s group up the mountain, and how they planned their expedition and who went on it. Boukreev was one of the guides - a hardened, experienced mountaineer whose decision to not use oxygen drew the contempt of Krakauer. It was fascinating to read about the climb from his perspective.

I copiously underlined this book. The ascent itself, and the harrowing experiences on the top - as a friend of mine joked recently, Into Thin Air could more accurately be called Walking Past Dead People - was less interesting from a perspective of things I could take away than the psychological aspect of what makes a good mountaineer. It was interesting reading about a guided tour - isn’t it a devalued experience to be guided up the mountain, hand-held by seasoned veterans and by what is increasingly clear are often the real heroes, Sherpas - than to go up on your own? Boukreev raised this question, too:

Of course, each one of us has an ambition to reach the summit, to overcome obstacles and to do something that many consider impossible. But maybe, I thought, the price of climbing Everest is now being calculated in a different way. More and more people, it seems, are willing to pay a cash price for the opportunity, but not a physical price for preparedness: the gradual development of body and spirit as you climb lower-level peaks, moving from the simple to the complex and finally to the 8,000ers. Isn’t there accomplishment to be felt in such a process, I wondered, or has high-altitude climbing forever been changed by the use of oxygen, advances in technologies, and the proliferation of services that allow the marginally prepared to climb higher and higher?

The answer isn’t clear. There are different strategies towards guiding, as well, which make it difficult to use a thick brush on the entire expedition experience.

The differences between Hall’s and Fischer’s philosophies of guiding were emblematic of an ongoing debate between practitioners in the adventure travel industry. The camps of belief can be roughly divided between the “situationalists” and the “legalists”. The situationalists argue that in leading a risky adventure, no system of rules can adequately cover every situation that might arise, and they argue that rules on some occasions should be subordinated to unique demands that present themselves. The legalist, believing that rules can substantially reduce the possibility of bad decision making, ask that personal freedom take a backseat.”

This dichotomy could be applied elsewhere easily, but is clearly related to the hills. I wondered if this applied to my own methodologies for attacking the day - my routines, and guides, and written processes I try more and more to use to offload thinking. How important is it to give inspiration a backseat, so that I can get on with the work, versus being able to creatively perform at the drop of a hat?

Likewise interesting were the perspectives on the kind of people who do actually climb Everest. This quote comes from one of the members on the trip, which was sardonic enough to make me laugh while I was reading it.

I mean, I wanted to go to the summit of Everest. I mean, God, I wouldn’t have been there beating my brains out if I didn’t. But… I live in Detroit. I’d come back to Detroit and say, “I just climbed Mount Everest.” People round here would look at me and say, ‘Year, and did you hear about the Detroit Redwings?’ …I mean, nobody here cares, or for that matter even knows where Mount Everest is. ‘Oh, yeah, that’s that highest in the world, isn’t it?’ In fact, a number of people said, ‘I thought you already climbed that.’ So, to me, in my perspective of things, it wasn’t life-and-death to me, it wasn’t the most important thing in the world, and I wasn’t going to have newspapers writing stories about me.

Or, the more blatant:

It’s a fucking dangerous bit of climbing … but you’re a risk taker; you’re an adventurer; you’re fucked-up somewhat or otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it.

It was fun to watch this fanatic Westernism be placed directly against a backdrop not only of Everest, this great white death zone of a mountain, but also of the Tibetan valleys below it, and the people who live there.

On March 29, in his slate-roofed stone house in Pangboche (4,000 m), a village niched into a series of terraces overlooking the trekking trail that winds to the base of Mount Everest, Kami Noru Sherpa held a puja, a ritual thanks to the mountains and a prayer of blessing. At sunrise, in a large, second-floor room above a grain storage area, five Buddhist monks in maroon and saffron robes seated themselves in a circle. Encircling them were Kami Noru Sherpa and several other of the Sherpas from Pangboche who had been hired to work on Everest. A wavering, pale yellow glow from yak-butter lamps and a few stray beams of morning sun offered the only light, nicking here and there the weave of reds and blues in the Tibetan rugs on the handsawn plank floors. Spirals of smoke drifted from a cooking fire, and the rich, sweet smell of juniper branches escaped as they were burnt in offering.

To me, the valleys (at 4000m, if they can be called that) seem the more interesting. I’d rather be in Pangboche, I think, than on the South Summit. Boukreev made a point of descending down to the valleys after being at high altitudes, before making a final assault of the summit. The green and the thick air calm and restore a man’s health in a way that a lower descent simply couldn’t. He was the only one to do this, which, despite the survivorship bias, seems to suggest something.

It is worth noting that none of Boukreev’s clients died on the mountain, although his boss did. There were several poignant passages about Fischer, the most being the description of life back in Seattle afterwards.

A year after Fischer’s death, when you called his home and no one was there to answer the phone, you would hear his voice on the answering machine. When asked about this, his wife, Jeannie, said, “The kids like to call our number to hear their father’s voice.”

Boukreev’s opinion on the accident is clear. The book ends with a short description of an Indonesian attempt, later, which he lead. “The Indonesian expedition had an ending that does not burn in my heart,” he writes. And it is Boukreev’s own thoughts which I found most intriguing:

Honestly, I do not experience fear in the mountains. On the contrary, I feel my shoulders straightening, squaring, like the birds as they straighten their wings. I enjoy the freedom and the altitude. It is only when I return to life below that I feel the world’s weight on my shoulders.

It is a beautiful way of phrasing it. He also quotes Tartovsky at length:

I am interested above all in the character who is capable of sacrificing himself and his way of life — regardless of whether that sacrifice is made in the name of spiritual values, or the sake of someone else, or of his own salvation, or of all these things together. Such behavior precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a “normal” rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic world view. It is often absurd and impractical. And yet — or indeed for that very reason — the man who acts in this way brings about fundamental changes in people’s lives and in the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality — I would say — is all the more strongly present.

The quote reminds me, intensely, of Herzog, with his “I don’t want to live in a world without lions, and without people who are lions.”

Ultimately, for me, the book was less of a passing chapbook, and more of a view into the sublime, and into what I would like to do. Not Everest - a single summit, at this point in time, doesn’t hold my fascination very much. But, rather, feats of endurance. To quote Boukreev, who died shortly (and, like all deaths, tragically) after the book was written in an avalanche on another mountain: “Like any man who has a skill, I would like to explore the limits of my capability.”

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