Broad Peak. Richard Sale. Translations from German text by Michaela Gigerl and John Hirst. Ross on Wye (UK):
Carreg Ltd. 2004. 208 pages. £22.50. $45.00.
Broad Peak was short-listed for the Banff Prize for Mountain Literature in 2005; one can only surmise that this was based not on the book itself, but on its admirable premise. In 1957 four Austri- ans, Marcus Schmuck, Fritz Winterstellar, Herman Buhl, and Kurt Diemberger made the first ascent of Broad Peak, an 8,000-meter summit, the twelfth highest in the world. Further, they did so in groundbreaking style: unsupported by high-altitude porters, without bottled oxygen, lightweight, and fast-moving. The climb may not have been recognized as it ought to have been because after Broad Peak the climbers went off in ropes of two: Schmuck and Winterstellar to climb Skil Brum, and Buhl and Diemberger to climb Chogolisa. On the descent Buhl walked over a cornice in a whiteout, and the only man to accomplish first ascents of two 8,000-meter peaks was lost. Buhl’s death took some of the well-deserved publicity from the Broad Peak ascent, and a chapter in Diemberger’s Summits and Secrets became the best-known version of events. This beautifully written impressionistic account never sets out to tell the full story of the expedition, but tells a very personal story by a young climber, focusing mostly on the tale of Buhl and himself.
Sale claims that he wishes to tell the full story here and to give Schmuck and Winterstellar their long overdue credit. Fine, who would wish to deny them credit? Diemberger would, if you believe Sale. I don’t.
I recommend Diemberger’s original essay to you. Diemberger never says anything negative about Schmuck and Winterstellar. And even though Sale clearly has an axe to grind, he never really disputes anything of substance in Diemberger account, either. Instead Sale fills his book with petty speculation, much of it seemingly intended to demonize Diemberger. By “petty” I mean, for example, notes from Diemberger’s diaries accusing others of not doing their share of camp chores. By “speculation” I mean statements that assume the language of speculation but in fact are judgments, for example: “Perhaps Buhl was already distancing himself from someone he considered a rival who had won the first exchange.” There are dozens of such instances herein.
In the end, I felt that while Sale may have set out to be objective, somehow in the process the opposite happened: he lost sight of his goal of praising Schmuck and Winterstellar and became intent on critiquing Buhl and Diemberger. The result is that he puts forth a single point of view, one that assumes that Diemberger and Buhl were essentially dishonest, lazy, and/or unfit. I simply didn’t believe it; Sale’s account seemed to deconstruct itself.
It is indeed regrettable that Buhl’s death diverted the spotlight from Schmuck and Wintersteller’s achievements, but not so regrettable as the fact of his death. Honor those achievements by remembering what Sale says in his introduction: “It must never be forgotten that the Austrian climb was one of the landmarks of mountaineering history and that, whatever friction there was between the four men during the climb and after it, the ascent of Broad Peak stands as a monumental achievement.” That line appears in the last paragraph of the introduction; avoid the muck that follows it.