The irony of high altitude mountaineering by A-type non-climbers has never been more apparent to me than while reading No Way Down during one of the greatest free climbing ascents in history the Dawn Wall going free by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson. The book became more frustrating and emotional for me than it should have for reasons I will get into later but by the end I had been whisked away into the death zone calling out in all directions for someone to help.
I had to read No Way Down in two phases. The first covering the stupid mistakes, ego clashes, nationalistic pride, and arrogance of mountaineers. The second is a story of survival in terrifying conditions (albeit largely self imposed) human selflessness and selfishness, being stranded, lost, peppered with death and heroic and/or lucky rescues.
We live in an age of fast and light alpinism, where the less time spent on the mountain means less time in the danger zone. Pushing at constant speed rather than power followed by waiting is the key to success. Or so I thought. No Way Down describes a disastrous day on K2 in the Himalaya in the spring of 2008. The decisions that people face are not all that different than what would be faced in 2015 and yet the risks are disregarded and success is pinned to the summit, not your home where your family lives.
Throughout the first phase of No Way Down, failure is described as having to turn around, having to go home without the summit, often by people who never make it home. This for me was truly frustrating as every chance these people had to turn around (at various pre-established turn around times through out the day, during obvious bottlenecks that put them far behind their schedules) was answered with a resounding ‘I spent too much money and traveled too far to turn around now.’ As if the mountain wouldn’t be there in a year and your life is worth increasing the danger on an already dangerous ascent on one of the most dangerous mountains in the world.
You consider yourself a climber?
Far be it from me to judge these people. I have never attempted a Himalayan ascent. I have never been to Nepal. But there is a disconnect (which is evident in the high altitude ‘pay for a summit’ game) between what a climber is, what a great climber is, and what paying for a summit means. To me, paying for a summit means nothing. There are a handful of vastly experienced and hugely talented climbers in this book, and they end up turning around and saving most everyone else who pushed so far they descended at night and bivied / froze / died. For me the best climbers up there are the sherpas, who not only are far more capable of climbing these mountains, they do it regularly while carrying someone else’s equipment. When the sherpas go and set fixed lines for “climbers” to jumar up how can the ascent be considered yours? How can you consider you have conquered one of the deadliest mountains in the world? How are you a climber when someone has hauled you up? I submit that you are a danger hiker.
The ultimate irony is watching Tommy and Kevin send the Dawn Wall free. Watching Kevin give 11 burns on pitch 15 giving his fingers and mind hell in the process to be sure the ascent was free and was his. Reading about a line up of paying face-to-ass customers hauling themselves through the bottleneck while Korean climbers figure out what carabiners do is in all rights sad. We are all insanely impressed with Tommy and Kevins efforts, their ethics, and their patience. Working for 7 years on a true ascent rather than tarnishing the FFA with a cheater aid dab.
Once you forget that most of these people knowingly got themselves in the situation – it is time to read Phase 2 the Decent and Rescue. The selflessness and strength portrayed in the stories is actually quite amazing. Making bad decisions that risk your life for a summit is stupid, but making them to save a stranded or injured climber at altitude is nothing less than heroic. When totally depleted after bivying in the death zone you decide to stop to help climbers who will likely die anyway I tip my hat to you. This portion of the book is hard to put down as peoples lives hang in the balance and its all you can do to not put yourself in their frozen boots.
Overall, this book is a quick read and worth the time. If nothing more than to appreciate what a turn around time is intended for. It is a well-known story that was actually turned into a movie. So if you don’t have 5 days to read a book (or have trouble focusing) watch Summit on Netflix, (though the book is better).
Also special thanks to the brand new Halifax Public Library where I borrowed this book from and will enjoy many epic tales in the future!
Have you read this book? What do you think of paying for high altitude summits? Was Alex MacIntyre right?