Friday, June 22, 2012

Dark Summit, by Nick Heil

Nick Heil sorts through the mess of the 2006 pre-monsoon North Ridge climbs in Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season. During the climbing, 12 people died on the mountain in a little over a month's time, matching the death toll of 1996, but without the killer storm. Heil explores the deaths of David Sharp and Thomas Weber and the near-death of Lincoln Hall (see his Dead Lucky) high on the Northeast Ridge and plumbs the culpability of fellow climbers in their abandonment. The author frames the story roughly around the Himex expedition under Russell Brice, establishing him as the "Big Boss" of the north side at the time. Brice has a motley assortment of climbers and responsibilities that year, with the double-amputee Mark Inglis (Legs on Everest) and his film and support crew, a number of clients, a first-time Everest guide, and a documentary team for the Discovery Channel (Everest: Beyond the Limit) covering the whole parade. A number of other expeditions are on the mountain, including Abramov's 7 Summits Club (under whom Hall and Weber climbed), Mazur's SummitClimb, and a conglomerate of climbers on a permit for Asian Trekking, including George Dijmarescu (see Kodas' High Crimes).

Heil divides the book into two sections, telling the story chronologically, with David Sharp's story followed by the other two. In addition, Heil works in a pretty good condensed history of Everest, including telling of earlier tales similar to Sharp's. He connects Sharp with Tsewang Paljor, "Green Boots," noting their unlikely shared resting place. Like Sharp, Paljor barely survived a night out on the Northeast Ridge (after the famous storm of 1996) only to have climbers from a different team and of a different nationality pass him up on the way to the summit even though they noted his condition. They both end up in a hollow near Mushroom Rock, and though climbers attempt to help them on the way down, it is too late to save them. Heil's description of the frighteningly bad condition of Sharp shows a grim reality. The author strikes a reserved stance in the controversy that I think is well-defended, highlighting both the hard-hearted morality of passing a distressed climber on the way to an ultimately unnecessary goal, and the stark realities of survival and rescue at such a height. He mentions attempts at body recovery and rescue, and shows that ultimately it is a climber's ability to place one foot in front of the other that is the only ticket off the Northeast Ridge. When an attempt to rescue Sharp was made, it was too late, but would it have been too late earlier in the day?

Hall's and Weber's experiences a few days later touch on many of the same subjects. While Sharp was climbing alone, Hall's teammates had to make the decision of self-preservation over loyalty beyond reason. His incredibly slow descent and lack of reasoning should have meant his death, but like Beck Weathers (another 1996 connection, see his Left for Dead), he defied all reason and lived to descend the next day. His descent was made harrowing more by the help than by the climber, as his rescuers became belligerent during the descent, even beating him with an ice ax. Weber ascended at the same time as Hall, led by Harry Kikstra. Though his death was the least noticed by the media at the time, Heil suggests that his death was the most controversial of the season, heavily implying that he was pushed towards the summit well above reason and offered little first aid before he was declared as good as dead and left lying face down in the snow.

I think Heil writes a pretty good book with this one. Though it's a bit Brice-centered, and doesn't always get the nitty-gritty details (such as quoting someone complaining about the weight of the Poisk oxygen bottles, the lightest available at the time), he writes with nuance about the important information, namely as he sorts through the morality and difficulty of the whole business. I think you're going to like it! 


  1. I've been working my way through a number of books on Everest and your site has been invaluable in deciding what to purchase. I just finished Dead Lucky followed by Dark Summit - loved both. Next up: The Climb and Lou Kassischke's After the Wind. Thanks again for your help/amazing site!

    1. I don't have an entry for it, but I found After he Wind to be a pretty good commentary on the troubles of 1996. Kassiscke covers a lot of ground that others avoid or gloss over in his critique. His personal story is an interesting read as well.