What do mountaineering and globalisation have in common? This rollicking read, by New York Times journalist, Graham Bowley, tells the story of Himalayan mountain K2’s deadliest day when 11 climbers died on its upper slopes. It’s a tale of extreme alpinism, big egos, unexpected survival and, surprisingly, fundamental inequality.
No Way Down: Life and Death on K2
by Graham Bowley, Harper Collins 2010
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for good adventure writing, and Bowley’s account of how ten international teams of climbers came to attempt the summit on 1 August 2008 had me reading into the wee hours of the morning.
Not everyone is familiar with K2, so I’ll quickly set the scene: it’s the world’s second-highest mountain at 8,611 metres, or 28,251 feet. While shorter than Everest it is technically much more difficult (or so I’m told) and has seen fewer ascents and, proportionally, more deaths in the process.
You can read the book, or even the Wikipedia entry, to get a better understanding of K2’s challenges. Suffice to say, Bowley paints a fairly terrifying picture of the place, especially the so-called death zone above 26,000 feet (8,000 metres) where your life span tends to be counted in hours, especially if you’re caught there overnight.
But that’s precisely where a number of the climbers end up after an avalanche wipes out the fixed ropes they had used to ascend the so-called ‘Bottleneck’, ‘a steep and dangerous gully’ of ice, snow and rock that leads up to the summit snow field. One hardy survivor even spends two nights, bivouacking there in the freezing wind. Bowley describes the second night of the ordeal:
He closed his eyes, but after a while he opened them again and concentrated on the line of the horizon, the dark shadows of the tops of the mountains and the huge blankness of the sky … He avoided looking at his watch. He didn’t want to be disappointed by how slowly the minutes passed.
You’ll have to read the book to find out who the protagonist is but anyone who has spent a cold night, tossing and turning in a tent will be able to feel a palpable shiver.
Bowley carefully assembles eye-witness accounts into a narrative that shifts between each of the real-life characters. The action doesn’t ease off and I was never certain of who would survive and who would not. K2 looms large like an ominous deity throughout but it is completely indifferent as people fall or freeze to death.
That said, the description of how a Pakistani high-altitude porter (HAP), Jahan Baig, succumbs to altitude sickness and literally slides off the mountain was gut wrenching, especially as he should never have ascended that day. Earlier, he had displayed obvious signs of sickness. By the time he slipped and fell while descending, he was so delirious he couldn’t even save himself: ‘Everyone was yelling, urging Baig to stop himself or pull to the right … But Baig kept on going. At the edge, he screamed. Then he was gone and silence engulfed them all.’
So why was he up there? Because he was being paid to get his team, and especially his team leader, to the summit. Baig, like many of the HAPs, was not a trained guide or an experienced mountaineer like Nepalese Sherpas. He was cheap labour, drawn from a village in Northern Pakistan by the promise of good money. Employing a relatively inexperienced worker and putting them in such obvious danger would be a crime in most developed countries.
It’s a question worth pausing on and is explored in detail by many others, like Rock and Ice editor Jeff Jackson who writes about the ethical dimensions thus:
But just because someone voluntarily signs up for a job, it doesn’t mean the job is good for him, or that the compensation is fair, or that the work is humane. The poorest people allow themselves to be exploited because their previous situation is untenable. They accept a shitty job because they have to.
Jackson is specifically discussing the aftermath of the catastrophic ice collapse that killed 16 Sherpas fixing ropes on Mount Everest but the analysis is applicable here. I don’t want to labour the point, since the flip side is that these expeditions provide a huge source of income to many impoverished people in the region. Globalisation is a complex beast. But it does take the gloss off the “glorious” summits of many alpine expeditions (including earlier attempts on K2 by European aristocracy who carted tonnes of equipment, food and luxuries up the mountain).
Each of the teams summiting K2 in the book employed dozens of cooks, porters, HAPs and Sherpas, and not always on equal terms. Many of the team leaders are so focused on their goal that they appear borderline egomaniacs – a quality, it appears, that is often necessary in the high stakes game of mountaineering. It’s a far cry from the romance of the wilderness and the simple idea of “getting out into nature”. I’d rather summit a modest mountain under my own steam than put so many others at risk.
Don’t get me wrong: Bowley depicts the camaraderie and selflessness that binds the teams together when things go wrong. Some of the Sherpas and mountaineers are downright heroic in their actions. I love reading these stories and I love that there are so many people pushing the boundaries of what we can do and where we can go. But amid all the hype, it’s not necessarily the fact of summiting a piece of rock that’s the most relevant part of these very human stories.
NOTE: the video below (from the expeditio is a bit of a spoiler but worth watching to get a sense of the majestic nature of the mountain).