Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain"

This book is the second collaborative work by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts.  Viesturs was the first American to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks (and he did them all without supplemental oxygen) and Roberts is a prolific author of mountaineering literature, in addition to being the author of several harrowing first ascents in Alaska.  The book was prompted, or at least made more relevant, by the disaster high on K2 in 2008, in which eleven climbers were killed after the partial collapse of the notorious serac above the crux "bottleneck" section.  The dangerous traverse below this serac is featured on the front cover of the book.  When this incident was first reported, I remember thinking that someone would write a book about it.  This is that book.  Well, sort of.

K2 (the book) switches back and forth between first-hand account/analysis of climbing "the savage mountain" and scholarly history of the many disasters that have unfolded on its flanks in the last century.  The rigorous historical narrative ends, seemingly prematurely, at 1986.  Even though Viesturs is listed as the primary author (the book is by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts), it seems obvious which author wrote which section.  Having read several of Roberts' books, I recognized his characteristic style throughout: lots of quotations (especially from personal journals), dense and careful prose, and the occasional sesquipedalian.  Roberts' style is epitomized in his eye-opening, myth-busting True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna.  Almost by default, I assumed that the sections in the book that were more casual and conversational were penned by Viesturs.

Given Roberts' strong presence in the book, I kept forgetting that Viesturs was the primary author.  Thus, when the writing was in the first person, I imagined Roberts' doing the talking -- that is, until the person talking would mention climbing K2 or some other Himalayan peak, and then I would realize that Viesturs was the one talking.  Another problem with the book is that I experienced deja vu several times, most notably in the chapters on the 1939 and 1954 expeditions.  The writing about the respective American and Italian expeditions sounded too familiar.  I couldn't help but think that I had read something very similar in one of Roberts' other books.  He does seem to have a habit of repeating himself from one book to the next.

Despite the aforementioned problems, K2 is a captivating and enlightening read.  Viestur's unparalleled analyis of the perils of high altitude climbing is educational.  For instance, throughout the book Viestur's extols the virtues of "wanding" routes -- that is, placing lightweight, bamboo gardening wands at regular intervals through sections where routefinding could be difficult in a whiteout -- and provides several studies of cases in which climbers could probably have avoided fatalities had they bothered to wand the route.  Having read this book, I will be much more inclined to visit a lawn & garden center before venturing onto a big, glaciated mountain.     

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