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The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1997. 256 pages. $24.95

After all that has been written about the 1996 Everest tragedy, why should we care to read yet another account? The media avalanched us with an unprecedented depth of raw facts, yet left us with the escalating controversy that drew head guide Anatoli Boukreev of Kazakhstan to publish his side of the story with a co-writer, G. Weston DeWalt. In The Climb, Boukreev describes how he single-handedly performed one of the most amazing rescues in Himalayan history a few hours after climbing Everest without oxygen.

Depending on your source, Boukreev was either the villain or the hero of the unfortunate events on Everest. Just a month after The Climb was published in November 1997, he died in an avalanche on a winter ascent of the South Face of Annapurna. When DeWalt was called for a national news quote, he learned that they planned to say Boukreev would be best remembered as the villain of Jon Krakauer’s best seller, Into Thin Air. DeWalt cautioned that the American Alpine Club had just given Boukreev a major award for heroism and would be remembered by his peers as one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineers of all time.

When Boukreev disappeared on Annapurna, his newly published book and AAC award were fanning the flames of controversy to new heights. The New York Times included the following in a report of Boukreev’s death: “Krakauer accuses Boukreev … of compromising his client’s safety to achieve his own ambitions … and endangered them by making the exhausting climb without the aid of bottled oxygen.… However, Krakauer credits Boukreev with bravely saving the lives of two [sic] climbers.” Here is the controversy reduced to a sound byte.

The Climb presents a much-needed breath of fresh air, written from a guide’s point of view, that dissipates some of the intriguing thin air surrounding the media-created search for blame. We learn, for example, that every one of Boukreev’s clients survived the tragedy without major injuries, while those who did die or incurred major injuries were members of Krakauer’s party. The leaders of both teams, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, also did not live to tell their story.

The question of why these two competing leaders stayed so high so long, pushing clients toward the summit beyond a reasonable turn-around time, is never directly answered. Between the lines, however, the spotlight shines on those who have asked for it most forcefully. The extreme pressure Fischer and Hall felt to get the most positive free ink in Outside that would lure more high-dollar clients comes across as clearly as if the words were penned in blood. The reader senses that the presence of an Outside journalist as a client on the most fatal commercial Everest venture was no coincidence.

Far from trying “to achieve his own ambitions” that day, Boukreev fixed the Hillary Step for clients after Sherpas failed to do so, foresaw problems with clients nearing camp too late, noted five other guides on the peak, and descended to the South Col to be rested and hydrated enough to respond to an emergency. Boukreev now had climbed Everest three times without oxygen. His high-altitude performance, often alone and in extreme conditions, was unparalleled. He had climbed Manaslu in winter, Dhaulagiri in 17 hours, Makalu in 46 hours, and had traversed all four 8000-meter summits of Kanchenjunga in a single push, to select just a few here. When he learned that climbers were lost in a blizzard in the dark, he made several solo forays late into the night to rescue three people near death. No other client, guide, or Sherpa could muster the necessary strength and courage to accompany Boukreev as he went from tent to tent, asking for help.

Late the next day, Boukreev climbed alone back up to 8350 meters on the slim chance he could save Scott Fischer, last seen by Sherpas lying comatose in the snow. Meanwhile, Time magazine was preparing a sensational three-page story about the tragedy, based on satellite phone and fax reports from the mountain, that failed even to mention Boukreev’s name.

On May 16, after just two days’ rest in the Western Cwm, as helicopters, Sherpas, and other expeditions helped evacuate the survivors, Boukreev set off to solo Lhotse in the record time of 21 hours, climbing on a permit Fischer had obtained to guide the peak after Everest. Had Fischer survived unscathed, he almost certainly would have passed on Lhotse and accompanied his clients back to Kathmandu.

In The Climb, Boukreev reveals his thoughts as a professional guide, but holds the iron curtain over his own persona. With classic Russian reticence, he doesn’t brag, mention his degree in physics, or apologize for actions on the mountain that others judged to be self-cen- tered and uncaring. He counters a strong rebuke from Scott Fischer by saying that it had not been made clear to him that “chatting and keeping the clients pleased by focusing on their personal happiness” was equally important to focusing on the details that would bring safety and success. Unlike Krakauer, he is afraid to admit human failings that could help endear him to his audience and his climbing companions. He lets down his armor only far enough to admit to sometimes being a difficult person.

Even with DeWalt’s impassioned prose and editing of Boukreev’s transcribed interviews, The Climb fails to sustain the superb narrative quality that brought Into Thin Air to the pinnacle of literary success atop the New York Times best seller list. But while it lacks the carefully choreographed structure and characterizations that make Into Thin Air impossible to put down, it forces the reader to think, rather than to accept armchair answers passively.

Boukreev avoids Krakauer’s penchant for focusing on the idiosyncrasies of his companions by simply accepting fellow climbers at face value for who they are on the mountain. He succeeds without more complete characterizations because most readers already are very familiar with the players and the basic setting from Into Thin Air and a plethora of media stories.

Writing about a person invariably honors them or devalues them. Both Boukreev and DeWalt err on the side of honoring those attempting Everest, while Krakauer draws his reader toward tabloid-style assumptions that erase heroism from the Himalaya as surely as modem journalism erases greatness from the presidency.

A vastly experienced guide told me over dinner that he loved Into Thin Air and felt somewhat chagrined never to have paused to question its conclusions until he read Boukreev speaking his own language, thinking his own thoughts. He strongly related to the behind-the- scenes guide talk and the dilemma of being a nice guy attending to a client’s every need versus nursing that person up into the Death Zone, where their survival would be dependent on their ability to keep going under their own power. DeWalt includes an especially fascinating three-page, first-person account of client Lou Kasischke’s inner thoughts as he made an agonizing personal decision to turn around on the summit day.

The media circus surrounding the Everest tragedy appears to be a post-modern American phenomena. Single tragedies have claimed the lives of more climbers in the Himalaya many times before, but not Americans, not clients paying up to $65,000 each, not with daily reports on the Internet, not with a journalist climbing on assignment, and not with a broadcast phone call from a dying man to his wife. Thus the regrettable deaths of five climbers on Everest on May 10 degenerated from a real-life tragedy involving heroism and compassion into a veritable O.J. trial in which no participant is left unscathed. With Outside indirectly pulling media strings (as live television influenced Judge Ito’s court), it is little wonder that justice and dignity took a back seat to the entertainment value of the sufferings of well-intentioned climbers. To much of the public, high-altitude mountaineering itself has been on trial. It is to this end that The Climb may have its most lasting significance.

Motivations are all important. If, as Krakauer suggests, the people who now climb Everest (graciously including himself) do it for questionable reasons, then our avocation is indeed in trouble. As Eric Shipton wrote in 1938 after several attempts on the mountain, “The ascent of Everest, like any other human endeavor, is only to be judged by the spirit in which it is attempted. … Let us climb peaks … not because others have failed, nor because the summits stand 28,000 feet above the sea, nor in patriotic fervor for the honor of the nation, nor for cheap publicity. … Let us not attack them with an army, announcing on the wireless to a sensation-loving world the news of our departure and the progress of our subsequent advance.”

The mass appeal of the 1996 Everest story relates to the clear violation of every one of Shipton’s tenets of more than a half-century ago in a new era in which blame is God.

Galen Rowell