Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sheer Will, by Mike Groom

I've been looking forward to reading Mike Groom's Sheer Will for a long time, and my patience has paid off. Groom is the whipping boy of Australian high-altitude mountaineering, and he comes back for more after several close calls and tragedies that should have ended his quest to climb the world's five tallest mountains, including losing the front third of his feet to frostbite, being avalanched off the West Face of Lhotse, being struck by rock fall, and surviving the 1996 Everest disaster. His book is an honest, but at times reserved account that provides a personal perspective on a long list of Himalayan climbs, his recovery from major frostbite, and his life as a professional mountaineer. He generally did not keep climbing diaries, and the details are at times general, but the number of climbs he covers makes up for it, and he has vivid recollections of his most dramatic climbs. His 1994 climb of K2 is particularly impressive, climbing to within 30 meters of the summit via the South Pillar days after arrival in base camp, turning around, and then returning via the Abruzzi Ridge to finish the climb.

As a boy, Groom dreamed of climbing Mount Everest, even claiming to his school friends that his dad had climbed it. He had a difficult apprenticeship on his journey to Everest, not quite performing well enough on the White Limbo (by Lincoln Hall) team's climb of Annapurna II to join them on their famous climb of Everest's North Face, and then overreaching his safety margin in his summit climb on Kanchenjunga in 1987 (which he climbed with only a partner), losing all his toes and parts of his feet to frostbite. His recovery was long, painful, and against the odds. His subsequent climbing would border between painful and excruciating depending on the day's climb, but his need to climb drove him on. He returned to the fray in a 1989 attempt on Ama Dablam and a 1990 summit of Cho Oyu before organizing his own expedition to Everest for 1991.

Groom has a sordid history with the world's highest mountain. On his first trip in 1991, he was swept 900 meters, miraculously survived with only some broken ribs and a broken nose, and yet returned to attempt the summit at the end of the expedition. In 1993, he joined Tashi Tenzing's (Tenzing Norgay's grandson, see his Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest) expedition, in which he climbed to the summit without supplementary oxygen along with Harry Taylor (one of the first climbers to surmount Everest's infamous Pinnacles), but lost his friend an teammate, Lobsang Tschering, on the descent. Then, he returned in 1996 as a guide, only to be caught up in the tragedy of May 10 (an auspicious day for Groom, both good and bad!). Groom delayed publication of his book to add the 1996 Everest chapter, and it's a good thing he did. Groom was the only surviving guide from Hall's Adventure Consultants team, and his story contains many details that other accounts lack, such as a coherent perspective from the "huddle" that spent much of the night in the open on the South Col and details from the radio conversations during the summit climbers' descent. His account places Hall and Harris in different locations than other authors' and he, along with Boukreev (see his Above the Clouds), gives a professional climbers' witness to the tragedy.

Sheer Will is considerably more expensive currently than the average Everest book, with used copies going for around $40. If you'd like an inexpensive preview, Clint Willis includes material from the 1996 Everest chapter in his Epics on Everest. Sheer Will is a wonderful book, and if you have money to burn, I believe it's worth the outlay. Happy reading!


  1. In the book, Groom also covers his climb of Lhotse and an attempt on Makalu. In 1999, after publication of Sheer Will, Groom finished his quest for the five highest mountains in the world after summiting Makalu.

  2. A great read! I kept wondering whether this guy was very lucky or unlucky. I won't be attempting high altitude climbing any time soon, but it is interesting to see what motivates others.