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The Endless Knot: K2, Mountain of Dreams and Destiny

The Endless Knot: K2, Mountain of Dreams and Destiny. Kurt Diemberger. Translated by Audrey Salkeld. Grafton Books, London, 1991. 308 pages, profusely illustrated; diagrams and tables, necrology and bibliography. $32. This is not so much a mountaineering book as a love story. A story of the love between a man and a woman and their passion for mountains. A soliloquy rather than a narrative, a story of death and disaster with few heroes.

At 60, Kurt Diemberger is a grand veteran of climbs around the world. Mountains are not the main part of his life—they are, he writes, “what we are living for”. Since his youth he has been devoted to mountains as climber, photographer, writer and lecturer. Julie Tullis became his acolyte and partner and her memory permeates this entire book. She was 47 when she died. Both were happily married—she in Britain, he in Italy—and both had children.

They met in 1975 but climbed together for only five years. The Karakoram became their dream, and the summit of K2 their obsession. It is consoling to know they had reached their goal before Julie died, overcome on the descent. Most of the book is devoted to K2 but Diemberger tells brief, taut stories of Herman Buhl and himself on Chogolisa, and of how Julie and he almost died during their climb of Broad Peak. Many vivid flashbacks illuminate the central figure—Julie.

In June, 1986, the encampment of the world’s greatest climbers from nine countries was happy and convivial; there was friendship without much competition. Then the weather window narrowed. The deaths began. The mood changed. The struggle for the summit was on. The book focuses on the polyglot team which Kurt and Julie of necessity had joined.

Exactly what happened to Julie and others who died high on K2 in the awful weeks can never be fully known. In this book the horror has been softened by time and the search for healing, as it was at the time by lack of oxygen, food and water and by the sapping cold. Many others have recounted the triumphs and tragedies of that summer and the deaths of 13 of the 90 men and women who watched and yearned for the great mountain. It is easy to find inconsistencies and discrepancies. Many facts are disputed. Memories have faded. There have been sharp disagreements and bitter recriminations. To his credit Diemberger points no finger, assesses little blame except on himself.

There’s no stiff upper lip here, emotions are laid out and wept over. One feels that the author is seeking absolution, relief by catharsis for intolerably sad memories. Yet through his pain comes the awe and wonder which envelop the greatest peaks. It is an enthralling book, and beautifully illustrated.

Still, I found the book hard reading. Many flashbacks and digressions disorder the course of the mountaineering narrative. I found it difficult to keep track of who was where and what was happening much of the summer, especially during the climactic week. For those who need the chronology, the long list of the dead is helpful.

It was hard for me too because 33 years before, to the very week, my friends and I lived through a similar storm in the same place; we also lost our friend. Diemberger opened memories I thought safely locked away.

It is saddening, too, to realize how few of the lessons of the past had been remembered in 1986—or have been learned today. The sharp thrust of ambition, the quest for fame and fortune continue to spur some climbers. The mind- numbing effect of too little oxygen which blunts judgment, even will, high on these great and beautiful and deadly mountains was surely a major cause of most of the deaths.

Is this what mountaineering has become? Must great risks be taken for great rewards? Does death somehow enlarge and render heroic the venture, flawed though it may have been? Are the great mountains a battlefield—or a shrine?

Charles S. Houston, M.D.