Dead Lucky: My Journey Home from Everest. Lincoln Hall. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. 309pages. $24.95.
Dead Lucky enters into the already very crowded field of Everest disaster stories. In many ways the book follows the typical narrative arc so familiar to readers of these works: the invitation to climb, the training, the preparations, the walk in, the questioning, and then the climb itself with the ensuing success or disaster. Hall, however, is an experienced writer—this is his eighth book—and Dead Lucky exerts a narrative pull on the reader that makes it a valuable contribution to the genre.
Hall’s troubles on his 2006 Everest climb began when he suffered a cerebral edema about an hour after leaving the summit. Hall noticed his own erratic behavior: He wanted “to climb up the mountain, not down it.” He wanted to jump off the Kangshung Face. He “continually rejected” his oxygen mask. Eventually, after losing consciousness and having been pronounced dead, he was left by his Sherpas at Mushroom Rock, 8,600 meters up the northeast ridge.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Dead Lucky is the way in which Hall describes his hallucinations of that night. At one point he believed that “three women were camped in a little space amongst the rocks.” He could hear them “chattering and laughing” but “couldn’t be bothered visiting them.” Later, a climber appeared to Hall from the direction of the Second Step, and Hall “gestured for him to follow me down the narrow path, which now ran alongside a wall built from rough-cut but well-fitted stones.” The women, the climber, the path, and the wall are all the products of Hall’s oxygen-starved imagination. Hall incorporates these moments into the narrative without introduction or explanation, which is disorientating for the reader until we realize that we are in his hypoxia. It is a deft and disturbing way to convey his mental state.
Miraculously, Hall survived the night. The following morning, as the news of his supposed death filtered to the media and his family in Sydney, he was found by climbers and a Sherpa. His first words to them—“I imagine you are surprised to see me here”—are strikingly straightforward and indicative of the understated tone of the whole book. Hall then recounts his rescue, including shocking verbal and physical abuse from two Sherpas who were unwilling participants.
Hall places his story within the wider controversies of Everest in 2006, especially the death of David Sharp, the British climber who was also thought to be dead, then seen alive, but was not rescued and did not survive. Instead, as Hall writes, “forty people had walked past David Sharp ... as he lay alive but unmoving on the trail,” and the circumstances of his death prompted a media outcry. Sharp’s story becomes an affecting background to Hall’s, and Hall explores the two very different outcomes, the “simplistic” attitude of the media to these events, and the bigger question of why some live, but others die. Another touchstone here is the death of Sue Fear, another well-known Australian alpinist and a good friend of Hall’s, who died on Manaslu while Hall was on his way down to base camp. The First thing Hall does after arriving home in Australia is to attend her memorial service.
Dead Lucky is in many ways as much a story of tragedy as it is of survival. Indeed, “It is the tragedies more than the triumphs that maintain Everest’s aura,” writes Hall. This is certainly true of Everest publishing, but it is a credit to Hall’s talents as a writer that Dead Lucky contributes to that aura of Everest in such a singular and arresting way.