Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fragile Edge, by Maria Coffey

In Fragile Edge: A Personal Portrait of Loss on Everest, Maria Coffey writes about her relationship with Joe Tasker, both before and after his death. Her book is a stark reminder of the people left behind in high risk activities such as high altitude mountaineering. Her thoughtful prose grinds out the emotional details of the difficult love of another who is often far away, out of touch, and in dangerous places. Because of the tight social scene of the climbing community in Britain, her story also documents the loss of several other high altitude climbers, including Nick Estcourt, Alex MacIntyre, and of course Peter Boardman. After Boardman and Tasker's deaths among the Pinnacles on the Northeast Ridge of Mount Everest in 1982, Hilary Boardman convinces Coffey to accompany her to the base of the mountain for some closure. During the trek, Coffey makes it clear that the two women handle the loss quite differently and had very different relationships with their loves. Coffey, even after Tasker's death, has ups and downs in her emotional ties to him, and she seems lost at times. Hilary Boardman holds an even keel on the outside, perhaps more secure in her love with Peter, but still feels a deep emotional loss.

Their trek is still fairly early in the opening of Tibet to outsiders that would be enviable to Everest fans if not for their great loss. They visit the Kangshung Face via the Kharta Valley, only the fourth group to do so since the early British expeditions before heading to the Rongbuk Valley. They arrive while a Dutch expedition is trying the traditional north side route, and hike to the British Advanced Base Camp below the North Col over three days. They pay respect to the cairn erected by Boardman and Tasker's teammates before heading out. Throughout their trip in Tibet, they travel in the shadow of their recently deceased spouse / boyfriend, with Hilary often consulting her husband's expedition diary. Though not exactly happy high adventure, I found their trip and Coffey's writing engrossing, as they were and covered a macabre rite and a pilgrimage of love. I can't say I enjoyed this book, but I certainly recommend it!

Thinking back over the literature, it seems that their death, or at least Tasker's was inevitable when they left for their last attempt. In both Savage Arena and Everest: The Cruel Way, Tasker documents his pushing himself beyond his perceived limits. Excepting his Mount Kongur climb, he returns from his trips physically and emotionally wasted. Before their attempt on Everest's Northeast Ridge, the highest Tasker had been was his camp on the Shoulder of K2 at 26,900 feet, which is about where the difficult climbing starts on their Everest route. His three nights in a snow cave at 25,000 feet during his winter attempt of Everest seriously sapped his strength, but he was still conditionally willing to continue on. I can only imagine what an open bivouac did to him two thousand feet higher after a hard day's technical climb, and even then, I can imagine him continuing on. For the narrative from the survivors of their climb, see Bonington and Clarke's Everest: The Unclimbed Ridge.


  1. In 1978 Tasker had climbed the Kangchenjunga (8598m).

    1. You're right! Thanks for the correction!