Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eiger Dreams, by Jon Krakauer

Well before Jon Krakauer became a household name through his bestseller, Into Thin Air, he had written a series of mountaineering articles published under the title Eiger Dreams. The articles cover a number of topics, including the Alps, Alaska, famous mountaineers, and the Himalaya. This book seemed a bit premature to me: though he frames his subjects well and is good at leading the reader down the page, his style and perspective, especially in the earlier articles, seem somewhat immature and isolated to me, especially compared to his later writing. That's not to say the book isn't fun, though! Krakauer includes two articles with plenty of Everest exposure, one about a recent survey that had measured K2 to be higher than Everest, and another about the Burgess twins. Also, in the title piece, he attempts the North Face of the Eiger with future Everest climber Mark Twight.

In the first article, Krakauer turns the news of K2's fast and dirty survey in 1986 into a history lesson of the search for and survey of the world's highest peak. He explains the methods of surveying, both vintage and modern, as well as their advantages and disadvantages. He tells of the survey of Everest and relates the search for the mountains that might be higher than Everest, including Minya Konka and Anye Machin. An American party surveyed and climbed Minya Konka in 1932 as war broke out in eastern China, finding it to be 25,600 feet in elevation, rather than its supposed 30,000 feet. (You can read about their adventure in the jointly-written Men Against the Clouds.) Additionally, though Anye Machin was also claimed to be 30,000 feet, it was later surveyed as a disappointing 20,610. Later surveys of K2 by an Italian party (with vested interest in its being the world's highest, as Italians were the first to summit K2), showed fairly conclusively that the 1986 survey was in error, and Everest remains on top. Kudos for their honesty!

The Burgess boys, Adrian and Alan, are a late holdover from the Bonington crew of rowdy, hard-drinking and hard-climbing mountaineers. Everest readers may remember them from Joe Tasker's Everest: The Cruel Way or Alan Burgess' Everest Canada. Krakauer tells of the controversial pair's exploits on and off the mountain, discussing both their struggles to make a living as climbers and their difficult, but often unsuccessful climbs, including an alpine attempt of Lhotse Shar, a winter attempt of Everest, and an attempt at the Pinnacles of Everest's Northeast Ridge. They also now have an autobiography out, The Burgess Book of Lies, that I plan to cover sometime in April.

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