Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season. Nick Heil. New York: Henry Holt, 2008. 271 pages. $26.00.
High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.
Michael Kodas. NY: Hyperion, 2008. 357pages. $24.95.
The 2006 season thrust Everest back into the public spotlight, in a way that was eerily reminiscent of a decade earlier. During spring 1996, so ably chronicled by Jon Krakauer, 12 climbers died; in 2006, 11 died, with the miraculous survival of Lincoln Hall preventing the equaling of a grisly record. In 2006 the drama took place on Everest’s north side and swirled around the ethics of mountaineering. Journalists labeled Everest a “circus,” populated by rich, spoiled pseudo-mountaineers obsessed with glory and unconcerned with its costs, financial or moral. Sir Edmund Hillary famously weighed in to castigate the state of climbing on the mountain.
Nick Heil, a freelance journalist, first covered the 2006 season in a piece for Mens Journal. He uses his article as a springboard to writing Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season. Michael Kodas, also a journalist, explores the 2006 season in his book High Crimes: the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed; yet for Kodas, 2006 was the postscript to an established pattern of poor behavior of climbers on the world’s highest peaks.
While Into Thin Air remains the benchmark for literature on Everest, Heil’s Dark Summit is an offering worthy of mention in the same sentence. Heil meticulously re-creates the events of 2006, piecing together his story from an extensive body of interviews with the climbers involved. Heil has a way with words, and his narrative moves smoothly and effortlessly. Dark Summit is split into two sections: Part One tells the story of David Sharp, a British climber attempting Everest for the third time. Sharp, climbing on an extremely low budget, ran into trouble on his descent from close to the summit. He hunkered down in “Green Boots Cave” above the Exit Cracks on the northeast ridge, where, close to death, he was passed by approximately 40 climbers the following morning. Heil weaves together Sharp’s story with that of Russell Brice’s Himalayan Experience guide service, whose two summit teams encountered Sharp at differing stages of his debilitation on 14-15 May. Part Two tells the stories of Lincoln Hall and Thomas Weber. Hall—given up for dead by his Sherpa companion—survived a night at 8,500 meters before miraculously walking down the following day [see the following review, Dead Lucky]. Weber—a semi-blind climber guided by Dutchman Harry Kikstra—died at the Second Step. The circumstances surrounding Weber’s death—and whether he should even have been climbing Everest in the first place—are somewhat unclear, and Heil tries to untangle differing recollections of the incident.
As Heil notes, “My intent… was not to try to render any final judgment… If anything, I set out to try to illustrate, explain and clarify a series of incidents about which so much judgment has already been issued.” For the most part, he achieves his goal, yet, while it would be wrong to regard Dark Summit as a defense of the ever-controversial Brice, Heil does end up sympathizing with the position in which Brice finds himself as the “main man” on the north side. That said, while gathering information for the book, Heil spent six weeks at Brice’s base camp on Everest in 2007 as part of a North Col trekking expedition; he also visited Brice at his homes in Kathmandu and Chamonix, a position from which it would have been difficult to be objective. But due to Heil’s carefully reasoned prose, the average reader ends up generally convinced by his conclusion that little could have been done to help Sharp: “The more I learned about the particulars surrounding Sharp’s death, the less controversial it seemed to be.”
Michael Kodas attempted Everest in 2004 (and again in 2006), and covered his 2004 expedition as a journalist for the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut newspaper. In High Crimes, he weaves together two stories: that of his own expedition in 2004, led by George Dijmarescu, and that of Nils Antezana, an American doctor of Bolivian origin whose death Kodas lays at the feet of his—according to Kodas—dishonest guide, Gustavo Lisi. Kodas’ argument for this charge is convincing. Describing scenes of corruption, theft, violence, and possible murder, Kodas lambastes the Everest “scene” and the way the mountain is climbed and guided today. Though his focus is Everest, he also seems to extend his attack to the wider community of high-altitude mountaineers; they appear as little more than a cadre of thieves and criminals, as Kodas provides a laundry list of every piece of dirt he could dredge up on the subject. Kodas’ qualifications to make these assertions, however—with his two abject failures on Everest, in 2004 and 2006, the only Himalayan peak he has attempted—is certainly open to debate.
Kodas has something of a “bee in his bonnet” about Everest, and indeed high-altitude mountaineering. He makes no attempt to produce a balanced work, preferring to repeatedly hammer home his single point, aiming for maximum shock value: “Prostitutes and pimps propositioned climbers walking through base camp” and “There is a growing tendency to use drugs to reach the summit of Everest.” These are examples of Kodas’ favored “method” of analysis: taking individual instances and conveying the impression that they are endemic. The problem with Kodas’ approach, as every good historian or lawyer knows, is that providing a thoroughly onesided story, and failing to suggest that actuality could be even slightly different, leads to a weak argument. One is left with the impression that Kodas was poorly equipped to be on Everest in the first place, had difficulty fitting in with his teammates, and has taken this opportunity to fire off his vitriol in print, where they can offer no defense. Describing the problems he faced on his own expedition, he is often petty and childish; this undercuts the gravitas of certain incidents which clearly were extremely serious.
Kodas’ writing style is somewhat graceless, and his prose lacks fluidity. At certain points, his sentences are downright cringe-inducing (“David [Sharp] knew that there was one disease that he could not provide medication for: summit fever”). High Crimes also feels disjointed; Kodas jumps from South America to the Himalaya to the United States and back, in different years. This is in striking contrast to Dark Summit, in which Heil moves seamlessly through his tale, elegantly interweaving his stories. Dark Summit is a carefully written, reasoned, skillfully told tale; I found myself savoring each chapter. Kodas’ High Crimes is an awkward, angry polemic; I rushed to get through it.