Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Other Side of Everest, by Matt Dickinson

Matt Dickinson writes a first-person account of the 1996 Everest disaster from the north in The Other Side of Everest: Climbing the North Face Through the Killer Storm (AKA The Death Zone). The book covers his expedition to Everest to film Brian Blessed's attempt in 1996 to climb the classic Mallory route, as well as telling the story of the 1996 tragedy as it unfolded in Tibet. As a novice high-altitude climber and paid observer on Everest witnessing an extreme season, he comes to fresh insights on the act and business of climbing Everest, analyzing many of the things Everest climbers and readers take for granted, such as the true depth of meaning within the phrase "death zone" and the level of physical degradation that is accepted as normal while on the mountain. He is especially concerned with climbers' morality, as two Japanese and their high-altitude porters pass dying Indian climbers the morning after the storm, and his team is faced with a similar situation on their own climb. Is the death zone a place for morals? Is it possible to save a climber at the brink of consciousness high on the Northeast Ridge?

His team climbs under the leadership of Simon Lowe with Himalayan Kingdoms. Dickinson and his film crew (including mountaineer Alan Hinkes as the high-altitude cameraman) are there to focus on Brian Blessed's climb, an against-the-odds third attempt at the age of 60. Dickinson needs this climb to go well for Blessed, as Blessed had already starred in a film, Galahad of Everest, in which he climbed high on the North Ridge. Based on Blessed's reaching 8300 meters on his last try, via the South Col, Dickinson believes there's a pretty good chance with good weather and excellent support he'll make it. They happen to be in Camp III when the storm of May 10th arrives, as the pros on their team decide to stay put based on unstable weather seen to the north on an otherwise beautiful day (a view climbers from the south would not have the luxury of seeing until they were high on the Southeast Ridge, if they were paying attention). The storm is incredibly violent at Camp III, and Dickinson is loathe to think what the climbers higher on the mountain are facing. In addition to the tragedy of the three Indian climbers that he and his fellow climbers witness, they hear over the radio of the terrible events also taking place on the Southeast Ridge. They continue on with their expedition, largely unaware of the media frenzy over the southern climbers, making what they can of already being set up for a summit climb. Things don't go quite as planned, though Dickinson reaches the summit. His analysis of the events of his summit climb was a welcome change from the cut-and-dry how-I-made-the-summit narrative of the average Everest book.

This is a great book for veteran Everest readers. Admittedly, I didn't appreciate it much the first time I read it soon after its release. After reading hundreds of Everest books, however, and coming back to this one, I realize that Dickinson has a more sober perspective than most Everest writers, especially those who have bothered to climb it.

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