Wednesday, June 1, 2011

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain, by Viesturs & Roberts

You may think I have the wrong mountain with K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain, but I guessed correctly that Ed Viesturs avoids talking about Everest about as much as he avoids climbing it! The book is principally a history and commentary on the expeditions to K2, but Viesturs draws many parallels to events on Mount Everest, including his own expeditions, and even talks about his 2009 climb of the Southeast Ridge (his seventh ascent) in the Epilogue. Viesturs focuses his writing on the most significant climbs on K2, namely the 1938, 1939, and 1953 American expeditions, the 1954 Italian ascent, the 1986 free-for-all, and the 2008 disaster. He discuses events from his own experienced viewpoint, and the book is considerably more level-headed than most K2 writers. Though Viesturs relies heavily on previously printed accounts, he includes some new material (such as Dee Molenaar's climbing diary), and he often reads between the lines to get to the facts and holds writers accountable when they are being biased or unfair.

Though I haven't read nearly as many books about K2 as Everest (196 and counting!), this has been my favorite so far. I'm a big fan of "Steady Ed," because he's more interested in climbing than politics, and he'd sooner lend a hand than put someone down. I trust his judgment of other climbers in this book, because time and again, he has put his "getting down in mandatory" mantra into practice, and yet he has had the skills and patience to climb all 14 8000ers (see No Shortcuts to the Top). I personally found the information on the 1939 and 1954 expeditions the most interesting, because these were the expeditions I knew the least about. I was amazed that Fritz Wiessner had made it so high on K2, even avoiding the faster and easier but more dangerous Bottleneck Couloir, and yet had turned around for the well-being of his rope-mate. I also found Viestur's analysis of Wiessner's character enlightening, and I appreciated his well-researched rebuttal of popular opinion. I admittedly knew very little about the 1954 ascent of K2 coming in to this book, and I appreciate the authors' research into finding out what happened rather than what was written about what happened. The 1954 expedition is frightening for many reasons, and Viesturs paints Compagnoni as perhaps the greatest villain to bag a first ascent on an 8000er. One small thing that I noticed: Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski did not buy onto Herrligkoffer's permit in 1986 (as purported by this book), but were invited as expedition climbers, according to Kukuczka's My Vertical World.

Viesturs draws many parallels between the climbs on K2 and Everest, both because Everest's history is more well-known, and (I believe) because it is a more important part of Viesturs' life. He contrasts the 1986 K2 season with the 1996 Everest season, he compares Walter Bonatti's frightening K2 bivouac with that of the 1963 American expedition to Everest, and he compares Charles Houston's mania with K2 to Mallory's attraction to Everest (to name a few). Regarding his own climbs, Viesturs discusses how his difficult relationships with his teammates on K2 led to his solo attempt on the North Face of Everest in 1993, writes about his role in the 1996 tragedy, and relates his return to Everest in 2009 to climb the Southeast Ridge (this time with supplemental oxygen).

Overall, this is a fun book, especially if you're looking for an introduction to K2 history, or you'd just like to read Viesturs' take on it. On a side note, does anyone else find it funny that Viesturs was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, AKA"Summit City"?

1 comment:

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