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K2: Mountain of Mountains

K2: Mountain of Mountains. Reinhold Messner and Alessandro Gogna. Kaye & Ward, London and Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. 177 pages, 31 black and white photographs, 109 color photographs, 6 sketches, 4 maps. $35.00

This is principally a photographic essay for a small coffee table—ninety-six pages of color photographs and sixty-eight pages of text, of which one-third covers previous climbs and explorations of K2. The text presents personalized but limited views of the 1979 Italian-German ascent, with most of the writing by Gogna and the introduction and account of the summit ascent by Messner. Joachim Hoelsgen, a joumalist-tumed-climber contributes a worthwhile summary of the history of the peak.

The photographs are first rate and include grouped views of the approach march, reconnoiterings and establishment of camps on the Abruzzi Ridge and the summit climb. Broad panoramic views obtained with an extreme wide-angle lens provide a better aspect of the ridge and surrounding countryside. In many cases, however, the fine photography suffers from inadequate captions with respect to locales and personnel; some of them are erroneous as well and others are not always applicable to the adjacent text.

With text and photo groups isolated from each other, the book provides a rambling, uncoordinated story which causes the reader to jump back and forth to ascertain his whereabouts (and whenabouts) on the peak and in time. Shifting authors creates even more confusion; only in the table of contents are we informed as to who authored what. Apart from the introspective writings of Messner and Gogna, we learn little about the other members of the team who end up simply as colorless names in the text.

It does not seem to have been a happy expedition, at least for Gogna whose account is overly subjective. One wonders why he signed on, unless it was to ascertain whether he could measure up to his companions in ability and determination. In fairness to Gogna, perhaps this is an unspoken characteristic of many climbers who challenge the big ones. However, he seldom expresses delight in his surroundings and the experience. At one point he writes: “When will this accursed expedition come to an end, so I don’t continually have to be faced with these people?” He shows only a superficial, detached interest in the village people en route to the mountain and is depressed by their culture, poverty and illnesses. He does have his good days; after having scouted part of the route and established a high camp, he enjoys the congratulations he receives on having completed this important task. He makes note of the effect (probably not uncommon) on his tentmate: “Glowing from their praise, I glance at Renato who is very discouraged, hardly eating and not drinking much either. Every success, it seems, is at the psychological cost of someone else!”

There are some interesting comparisons to be made between the techniques used during the early exploratory climbs and those done alpine style in recent years. Ski poles seemed to be much more in evidence as hiking aids but short-shafted axes were only occasionally used. However, the fixed-rope, jümaring style of ascent lacks the camaraderie that formerly characterized roped teams. Once the fixed rope is placed, each climber is on his (her) own while ascending during carries between camps. Gogna reveals the isolation of the modem climber, caught in his own world of introspection as he mechanically moves along the fixed line. (Willi Unsoeld described the same feeling of isolation from the group during a solo Jümar climb to the 24,000-foot level on Nanda Devi in 1976.)

Messner’s account of the summit day, with deep, soft snow much of the way, reveals how alone in spirit the unroped high-altitude climber can be, even when with a companion. There is much inward observation of oneself, as in a dream world, and only infrequent, unspeaking, nodding acknowledgements of another’s presence. Messner notes that during the brief radio contact with Base Camp from the summit, fellow climber Michl Dacher ordered flowers for his wife.

A few last nit-pickings: poor grammar and an inaccurate summary of some of the peak’s climbing history. Some of the maps contain notable errors—on page 105, the Abruzzi Ridge and route are placed too far to the east.

Dee Molenaar