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Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs

Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs, by Robert W. Craig. Seattle: The Mountaineers, with the American Alpine Club, 1977. 176 pages, 56 color photos; maps and sketches, paperbound. $6.95.

This is a truly sad and chilling book. Grief and pathos burst from its covers. It is an account of the 1974 American Pamirs/USSR Expedition. So much death and fear and so concentrated in place and time has never been recorded in climbing history. Over a period of a few weeks, earthquakes set off avalanches that killed one American, nine of the finest women climbers in Russia and five Estonian mountaineers—truly a horror show that numbs the mind where it does not bring one close to tears; the bummer to end all bummers. Perhaps it comes to us so tardy because of the anguish of its creation, which probably required a dogged, not too “sensitive” type like Bob Craig to write.

Things went very wrong from the beginning: the Americans got paranoid about Russian bureaucracy, which had deceived them, and were appalled when they found that instead of being treated as an elite group of top-notch mountaineers (which most of the party were) they were corralled into an international jamboree along with dozens of mere hikers and amateurs of every nationality under the sun. They were regimented, they were jittery from the Kafkaesque mysteries of Russian officials and their endemic ambiguities, and they couldn’t bail out either. These early chapters of the book are lugubrious and often sluggish.

When the action takes us into the mountains, there’s a quickening sense of life and excitement. Suddenly the author and his friends aren’t wondering aloud what they are doing living in a nightmare. They’re climbing. Craig’s normally pedestrian prose drops away. He’s capable of a passage like this. “Good ice climbers on demanding leads, moving with grace and rhythm though heavily laden, encumbered by gear and exposure, are not unlike the best powder-snow skiers; pushing the limits of snow and slope in a sort of high-angle dance form, they seem to stop time in the transformation of steepness into a kind of sculpture that vanishes even as it is created.” But then the joy is snuffed out. The Western climber, Gary Ullin, dies in an avalanche that sweeps into his tent while he sleeps. More avalanches rattle and tumble and groan, hiss and roil throughout his narrative. The casualties mount up. The Estonians pass away. The last quavering, heartbreaking words over the radio from the last dying Russian woman: “Now we are two. And now we will all die. We are very sorry. We tried but we could not … Please forgive us. We love you. Goodbye.”

Something of the scale of this tragedy seems to have touched upon the memory of Gary Ullin. Unfortunately for the book that is in part a dedication to Ullin, the author did not know him at all well, although they climbed together before Ullin’s death. Very little of the character of the man comes through. Yet after enduring the storm and the sorrow —even second hand in the proverbial armchair—one begins to understand why the death of this one climber seemed, for a moment, to take on a special collective significance in the U.S.; as if in mourning him, we mourned and feared something larger, a nameless and yet terrible retribution that stalked the Pamir hills that summer.

Generally, failure in mountaineering is about as uninteresting as failure anywhere else. The failures on this voyage, more or less continuous, are only a little redeemed by a memorial U.S. ascent of Peak Nineteen. Massive politically inspired expeditions of this sort—climbers were picked, in part, for proportionate geographical representation—are seldom, one suspects, the catalysts of joy or the occasion for an individual sense of triumph. They should be judged by the friendship, the atmosphere they generate. And as Bob Craig’s account makes it bitterly clear, all that these climbers took back home with them were memories of fear and loathing. As you’ll have gathered, this is a tough book to read—emotionally demanding, sometimes tedious. But because of the freakish scale, the sheer awesomeness of the disaster, it would be read widely by any climber who wants to understand in his heart the true risks of the game he plays.

John Thackray