One Mountain Thousand Summits, The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2. Freddie Wilkinson. New American Library, 2010. 342 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
If you’re a reader of this journal, you know that K2 has some of the most storied literature in the canon of mountaineering. So why would anyone write another book on K2? Is there anything new to be told? We certainly don’t need another pompous rehashing full of self-aggrandizement. Let me say right away, then, that this is a fantastic book Freddie Wilkinson takes on an audacious objective and creates a truly engaging work. This book is in the top five of books written about K2, and is the best book I’ve seen about the current state of 8,000m climbing. That Wilkinson is a world class climber and conscientious working reporter adds tremendously When he writes about hypoxia, exposure, knots, and cold fingers, he knows the ropes.
On the surface this book is about one of the deadliest events in Himalayan climbing. On August 1,2008, more than three dozen climbers from 13 different countries left high camp for the summit. By the end of the next day 11 had perished. The author deciphers the tragic developments with the precision of an investigative detective. I can only imagine the volume of notes Wilkinson had to take, and I envision him trying to fit an oversized white board into his tiny New England cabin.
The tragic events of August 2,2008, played out in living rooms around the world in almost real time, as satellite calls were made and web pages updated. There was a frenzy of Internet-driven media attention that ended up in major magazines and networks around the globe. Unfortunately, and predictably, no one could see the whole picture or know all the details. It’s like when you’re climbing in the dark and your world is only the jumping shadows in your headlamp’s beam. Piecing together disparate reports from hasty reporting and foggy recollections is the author’s greatest challenge. This quest consumed him for more than a year, as he pored through documentation and visited the survivors in order to ferret out what really happened.
The narrative includes captivating, sweaty-palm-inducing descriptions of serac falls, open bivouacs, black toes, and the angst of personal loss. But this book is much more than that. Wilkinson takes the sharp end and honestly, truthfully, and accurately describes the complex relationships between professional climbers, amateurs, clients, high-altitude porters, and climbing Sherpas. Beside the dynamics of current-era climbing expeditions, we also learn a diverse set of facts from Korean history to the workings of the Nepali school system to cognitive science. These are not distracting but lend credence, context, and depth to the discussion at hand.
But primarily this is a story that delves deeply into the hubris, ethics, and racism that is consuming modern mountaineering. One of the thorniest questions is, what is a hero? Who were the heroes of that tragic event—were there any true heroes at all? As Wilkinson states, history is written by the white guys with the sat phones and the blogs.
Like a good climbing route, this book is honest, fearless, passionate, relentless, direct, and fully captivating.