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Spirits of the Air

Spirits of the Air. Kurt Diemberger. Translated from the German by Audrey Salkeld. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1994. 304 pages, numerous photographs, maps and other drawings. Appendices: a metric conversion table, chronology of the author’s important climbs and expeditions, brief note on mountaineering terminology, and selected bibliography. $27.95.

Kurt Diemberger’s mountaineering and expedition filming accomplishments, spanning nearly 50 years, are a marvel to behold. His autobiographical Summits and Secrets, published in 1971 when Kurt was 39, established him as a mountaineering writer of considerable talent. By this time he had already participated in first ascents of two major peaks Broad Peak (8047 meters) and Dhaulagiri (8167 meters). The 1957 ascent of Broad Peak was accomplished in alpine-style, without either oxygen or high-altitude porters, quite an achievement for this 4-man team consisting of Diemberger, Hermann Buhl, Fritz Wintersteller and Markus Schmuck. Later, in 1978, he added Makalu (8463 meters) and Everest (8848 meters) to his 8000-meter peak list; and Gasherbrum II (8035 meters) a year later. It was on this French-led Everest expedition that Kurt made film history by producing a sync-sound film on the summit.

Diemberger became the cameraman of choice for many international expeditions and between 1982-86 journeyed several times to K2 with the Englishwoman Julie Tullis; together they established themselves as the only 8000-meter film team, Kurt with the camera, Julie in charge of sound. They climbed K2 in the summer of 1986, but as they retreated to high camp on the Abruzzi Spur they and five other mountaineers were imprisoned by a catastrophic week-long blizzard. Diemberger’s K2-Traum und Schicksal appeared in 1989. A major portion of this excellent book, later translated into English, also by Audrey Salkeld, as The Endless Knot, K2—Mountain of Dreams and Destiny, was the compelling description of events leading to the tragedy where all the trapped climbers on the spur perished, with the exception of Willi Bauer and Diemberger himself.

In the opening pages of Spirits of the Air, the author remains tormented by deep psychological as well as physical wounds from the K2 events. He sits at a Nanga Parbat Base Camp, nursing his discolored toes. “I am looking up at the dark blue trapezium [of Nanga Parbat],” he agonizes, “in shadow now: some day I’d love to go up there … will I ever stand on the top? And, if I do, will I come down again—or stay up there for ever?”

The title of the book is taken from an old Eskimo proverb: “Only the Spirits of the Air know what awaits me behind the mountains” … a fine metaphor for all that is uncertain and unknown in a mountaineering life. Spirits of the Air is similar in structure to Diemberger’s Summits and Secrets, but far more episodic, almost disjointed in some respects. Ascents of Makalu and Everest, exploration and climbing in the Hindu Kush (including some re-worked material from Summits and Secrets) and travels in Greenland interspersed with miscellaneous vignettes: filming arctic reindeer in Lapland and a 6-meter boa constrictor in the Amazon rain forest, spending a night on Stromboli, visiting with his mother-in-law in Porto Maggiore, flying in a private jet over the High Sierra and Grand Canyon, just to mention a few. Most of these vignettes are quite delightful digressions among Diemberger’s genuine mountaineering accomplishments, but some seem superfluous such as the author’s lengthy story concerning a visit to Atlanta on a filming assignment.

A notable facet of Diemberger’s writing is his fervent sensitivity to people, places, things. Nearing the summit of Makalu, he says “I … am deeply moved at the sight of this fierce, lonely, beautiful ice-covered structure, rising nakedly into the clear blue sky and wrapped around by the intermittent sparkle of thousands of tiny, floating ice crystals.” He creates this image of Death Valley’s sand dunes, “Bushes, once engulfed by the moving crests, have emerged years later on the opposite slope as wooden skeletons, spreading stiff branches, like fingers in hopeless defence.” During his expedition to Makalu, he retreated to a rhododendron forest to recuperate from a pernicious high-altitude cough, “Then I felt the forest around me, this magic forest with all its beauty. And only then did I begin to experience solace … as if love was streaming towards me from all sides.”

While Spirits of the Air has its faults, Diemberger’s passion for adventure and joy in companionship is as intense as ever. If his writing conveys such a richness of form and essence, it is due in no small measure to the translator. Though there are minor problems with translations that are too literal, Salkeld is basically this marvelous filter into which the German flows and from which the English appears, miraculously mirroring the original text in passion, cadence, and content.

If we must choose between Diemberger’s writings, then Summits and Secrets remains the most impressive collection of mountaineering writing. But then, for sheer drama concerning those fateful days in 1986, nothing can compare to K2-Traum und Schicksal. In the last analysis, though, Diemberger can be immensely proud of all three of his books.

Allen Steck