Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog

Today, on this last day of 2009, it is with great enthusiasm and reverence that The Mountaineering Review hereby inaugurates a momentous year-end award.  The purpose of the award is to recognize the best mountaineering blog of the previous year.  We at The Mountaineering Review  felt it important to name the award after someone whose integrity and accomplishments exemplify the award's significance.  Accordingly, we have chosen to name the award the Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog.

Dr. Cook's infamous 1906 photo of Mt. McKinley's summit

Since The Mountaineering Review is itself a mountaineering blog, there has been some understandable concern regarding procedural impartiality.  To address these concerns, we have decided to publish the multi-step process which was followed to pick this year's winner.  The reader will notice that if these steps are followed, there is simply no room for subjective bias.  Here are the steps:

(1) Recall to mind some mountaineering blogs.
(2) Discuss those mountaineering blogs.
(3) Give the award to The Mountaineering Review.

As you can see, if the three steps above are followed, there is no way that the arbitrary whims of judges can affect the outcome.  It is a purely objective process of which Dr. Frederick Albert Cook would surely approve.

So, without further hesitation, it is a great privilege to announce this year's winner of the Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog.  The winner is . . . The Mountaineering Review!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Hair-Raising Day on Mt. Baldy

Wimping out low on Mt. Williamson on Sunday, December 20 left me with some unexpected free time. As a frequent (possibly obsessive) browser and sometime contributor to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board, I had been monitoring the growing enthusiasm surrounding a winter climb of Mt. Baldy being organized by MC Reinhardt. The outing was scheduled for Wednesday, December 23 and the weather forecast looked great. I posted some non-sense about The Mountaineering Review wanting me to cover the increasingly publicized climb, and MC said "come along". So I did.

I was looking forward to a relatively relaxed and sociable outing, though anything involving mountaineering boots, crampons, and an ice axe can only be so relaxed. At 3:30 AM my alarm sounded, and before too long I was motoring north toward the San Gabriel Mountains listening to Jon Krakauer's new book about Pat Tillman. At 5:30, I was the first to arrive at the blustery Manker Flat parking area. Shortly after 6:00, our scheduled start time, nine of us began plodding up the gated road toward the ski hut trail.

On the Ski Hut Trail

Chatting amiably with Shin, I suddenly had the feeling I was being ambushed by a bear. Turning around, I saw the tenth and final member of our party, Jeff Scofield, running up the trail in full winter attire. From that point, I pulled up the rear and met everyone at the ski hut. There we snacked and strapped on crampons, noted the windy and icy conditions in the bowl, and decided to follow the buried trail instead of climbing the bowl.
Traversing below the bowl

I was the first to set off across the bottom of the bowl and was promptly blasted in the face with spindrift. The snow on the steep forested slope rising from the bottom of the bowl to the south ridge was mostly consolidated, as it was on the rest of the route. Somewhere on that slope I crossed paths with Sara Berghoff, who, as it turns out, is a guide for Sierra Mountaineering International. Sara and I chatted for a while until strong winds on the upper stretch of the south ridge made walking, let alone talking, difficult. At that point on the ridge, everyone retreated to their own private worlds, cocooned inside balaclavas, hats, and hoods.
For the final few hundred yards, with the wind blowing at an estimated 30-40 mph, I followed a pattern. First, locate the next tree, which was not hard to do, because there was only ever one. Second, force my way to that tree through the wind trying to stay balanced. Third, take a few breaths at the tree and repeat.
At the last tree, I found Shin and Bob Masucci laying prostrate after returning from what they said was a considerably windier summit. Deciding that it would be more enjoyable to go to the summit with somebody else, I waited for the next hiker who happened to be Sara. Sara and I pushed our way up the final one hundred feet and upon reaching the summit plateau were blasted by a steady wind in the 50-60 mph range (according to my crude estimate).
Sara on the summit

They must have felt like they were missing out on something, because before too long Shin and Bob were back! And this time they brought Norma Ryan, Tracie, Blake Miller, and Ron. We stayed up there for about fifteen minutes, doing everything in our power to just remain upright.

Me on the summit

Trying to emulate Maurice Herzog on the first ascent of Annapurna, Norma let her glove blow away. Blake (I think) and I gave chase. After a few misses, Blake expertly lanced the glove with his ski pole, falling flat on his side in the process. With Blake out of commission, I unskewered the glove and triumphantly returned it to Norma, taking full credit while Blake brushed himself off. Alas, it was time to go, and just when I thought everyone was starting down, I turned in astonishment to see Sara striking her signature summit pose during a brief lapse in the wind.

About 500 vertical feet below the summit, we encountered MC and Jeff, who had ascended a chute in the bowl. Somewhere around there, I also caught up with Bob. Our conversation quickly jumped from climbing, to Kilimanjaro, to Amsterdam, to me alluding to things I did in Amsterdam, to me quickly regretting those allusions when moments later I learned that Bob was a retired police officer. But as irony would have it, it was Bob who was being arrested seconds later – self-arrested, that is, with his ice axe after a sudden slip.

By the time I reached the bottom of the bowl, I was really looking forward to having a snack at the ski hut. Because of the high winds, we had kept putting off our food break. But the food break would have to wait even longer. A little earlier I had thought I heard some yelling, but chocked it up to the wind playing tricks on me. Crossing the bottom of the wind-blasted bowl, Sara and I saw three guys standing about fifty feet uphill. Yelling above the wind, one of the hikers asked a question which surprised me:

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["Seltzer?! Why can't they just get water out of the stream?"] "What?"

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["What the hell is wrong with these guys?"] "Seltzer?!"

Hiker: "Do you have a cell phone? A climber just tumbled all the way down the bowl and she is injured."

Me: ["Oh.  He said 'cell phone', not 'seltzer'."]

It was about 1:30 PM. Sara immediately began ascending the slope. As I was dropping my pack, I noted that our fun day in the snow had now transitioned into something serious. Fishing out my cell phone, I made repeated attempts to call 911 without success. Leaving my pack on the ground, I too began heading up the slope. After a few steps, I saw Sara and a guy assisting a woman down the slope. They were moving very slowly. As I approached the woman, I saw that her face was covered with abrasions and the skin showing through her ripped clothing was all red. She seemed self-conscious about her exposed hips, so I averted my eyes. I later learned that she had tumbled like a rag doll down the entire face of Baldy bowl – roughly 1,000 vertical feet.

Baldy Bowl

The ski hut was only one hundred yards away, but it was locked. The injured woman, Natalie, was laid down in the doorway. Her friend Ian and a solo climber named Mike, who had descended the bowl to help, were making Natalie comfortable. Meanwhile, Sara began very sweetly, but deliberately and thoroughly, checking Natalie's condition. [You'll recall that Sara is a professional mountain guide.] Bob arrived a few minutes later and immediately began helping Sara perform first aid. Within a short time, Sara had emerged as Natalie's primary caregiver and confidant, while Bob had begun thinking about everything that needed to happen and initiating those things that were not already happening. [You'll recall that Bob is a retired police officer. I didn't mention that he worked in the homicide division for ten years.]

All told, there were probably twenty people in the vicinity of the ski hut. Since there was no cell phone reception at or near the ski hut, about six people headed down to get cell phone reception or initiate a rescue in some other way. In the meantime, Natalie had become very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. She also was unable to walk and looked quite scared. I offered her my down jacket and foot warmers. Other people contributed a variety of items. After Ian and Mike were unable to block a strong draft coming from below the doorway, Natalie was moved to the flat ground behind the ski hut. At that point, I handed over the emergency bivouac bag that I had carried with me on every hike for the past several years but never used.

After a dozen failed attempts to call 911, I blurted out that we should start blowing whistles. Sara immediately started blowing hers. As I worked my way through ten long whistles, I remembered the last time I had blown that whistle. It was ten years ago. My father had just taken a fatal fall on Long's Peak. Starting to choke up, I suppressed the distracting thought and focused on helping Natalie. Bob approached and looked me in the eye. Did he not like my whistling? Was it disturbing Natalie? Bob wasn't sure that the people descending the mountain would reach the search and rescue people in a timely manner. He explained that there needed to be absolute certainty that a rescue would be mounted. He asked me to run down the mountain, drive to the fire station in Baldy Village, and explain the situation to someone there. I was descending within one minute. The time was roughly 3:00 PM.

I ran as much and as fast as I could. My main motivating thought was, "I don't want Natalie to end up like my father". The one thing I could do at that point was to get down the mountain as fast as possible, so that is what I focused on doing. Once the snow and ice petered out, I took my crampons, jacket and hat off as fast as possible and kept running. When I got to the dirt road, I stuffed my glasses, which kept slipping down my nose, in a pocket and took off running even faster. Near the waterfall, I confronted three guys wearing large yellow jackets. They were either tourists in extremely unfashionable raingear or first responders. Thankfully, they were the latter. Someone had contacted 911. I relayed some info Bob had asked me to pass on, and they told me to convey it to the guys in the trucks near the waterfall. One piece of news that seemed to surprise some of the personnel was that the ski hut was locked. I volunteered to help, but they simply, and understandably, wanted the professionals to take over.

I lingered near the waterfall for about one hour, gazing up toward the ski hut wondering how things were going. During that time, a helicopter made several passes of the ski hut, but eventually flew off. As it turns out, Blake, Bob, Ian, Mike, and Sara constructed a makeshift litter and hauled Natalie part of the way down the trail. The search and rescue people arrived in small waves, and it was not until around 8:00 PM that Blake, Bob, and Sara were relieved of duty. At around 8:30 PM, Natalie was airlifted to a hospital.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: Natalie is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Friday, December 25. Merry Christmas.

Sara, Bob, and Blake: the three members of our group who stayed with Natalie until she was in safe hands

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Successful Winter Ascent of Mt. Williamson?

Ed Viesturs is fond of saying that his biggest failure as a mountaineer was summitting K2. His instincts were telling him that conditions were too dangerous, but he continued climbing regardless. Though Viesturs failed on K2, by his logic we succeeded on Mt. Williamson by listening to our instincts and turning around far, far below the summit.

At 14,375 feet, Mt. Williamson is the second highest peak in California and the sixth highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. Unlike the slightly higher Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson does not have a paved road ascending its lower flanks. Instead, climbers must make do with a dirt road that skirts the bottom of the mountain, roughly 8,500 feet below the summit. Complicating matters further, Mt. Williamson is "closed" for much of the year to protect its Bighorn Sheep population.

Mt. Williamson

Browsing around aimlessly for something to climb in late December, I was contacted by Ryan Griswold. Ryan had seen some of my posts on the Whitney Portal Store Message Board. Though he didn't show his hand immediately, Ryan, as it turns out, has a mild obsession with trying to climb Mt. Williamson in wintry conditions. He had already made three attempts (though he doesn't count one of them because it was so futile). Ryan was particularly keen on trying to climb the East Ridge, which splits the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek. That portion of the mountain is only "open" from December 15-January 1 and April 15-May 15.

Having never attempted Mt. Williamson, I busied myself with researching the eastern routes. I found descriptions and reports documenting the routes up the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek, including lots of complaining about the lower sections thereof, but nothing about the East Ridge. Having twice attempted the East Ridge, Ryan was optimistic about its feasibility. So I went back to studying photos and satellite images until I was sufficiently confident that we could traverse the ridge to a particular saddle and then cross into the cirque above the South Fork of Bairs Creek. Committing to the trip, we settled on an itinerary: camp at the trailhead on Saturday (December 19), ascend and traverse the East Ridge on Sunday, summit on Monday (the first day of winter), and return to the cars on Tuesday (or Monday if possible).

After driving my wife and kids to the Santa Ana airport on Wednesday, I began three full days of preparing for Mt. Williamson. The first order of business was to procure a pair of snowshoes. Having moved to Orange County from New York a few months ago, I didn't know where to start. After groping around on the internet for awhile, I landed at REI Santa Ana. Discouraged by the price of new snowshoes, I bought some other odds and ends instead, including some freeze-dried Mountain House meals.

Ryan was planning to eat his freeze-dried camp dinners right out of the bag, and I thought that sounded like a good idea. However, I had never done that before, so a test run was in order. But first, there was the matter of the stove, which had lain dormant in its stuff sack for far too long. Truth be told, the last time I went backpacking was 2002. After locating my MSR Whisperlite stove and fuel bottles, I discovered that it didn't work. Unfolding the manual, which was thoroughly smeared with black soot, I found the troubleshooting section and began disassembling the pump. One hour later, after cleaning the filthy pump, the stove roared to life and quickly boiled a pot of water. The Mountain House Mac'n'Cheese in a bag was a little crunchy, but not bad. At least I knew that my cooking system worked. The next two days of preparations are a blur, but the highlights were (1) renting MSR Denali snowshoes from REI and (2) spending hours preparing my three-season tent to be anchored securely to a barren, wind-blasted snowfield.

At 10:30 AM on Saturday, I began driving toward the Sierras while listening to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (which, by the way, is an amazing book). In Adelanto, home of the dangerous Brown Pride Gang, I stopped at Carl's Jr. for a sandwich and fries. About an hour later, the Coke I had consumed wanted out, so I pulled off highway 395 in the middle of nowhere. Standing there contemplating the desolation, I was surprised by several dirt bikes that suddenly popped over a hill and came screaming toward me. I walked briskly to my car, locked the door, and peeled back onto the 395.

When I pulled into the parking lot of the evocatively named Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at 3:00 PM, Ryan was standing there waving at me. After a quick introduction, we both agreed there was no time to waste and promptly proceeded to the dirt road below Mt. Williamson. I parked my mini-van at the snowy Shepherd's Pass trailhead and loaded all of my stuff into Ryan's big-wheeled Land Rover. A few miles of bumpy, snow-covered road and one stream crossing put us on the south side of the North Fork of Bairs Creek. Before too long, it was dark, we were fed, alarms were set, and both headlamps were turned off in the tent.

At 4:15 AM on Sunday morning, I was awakened by Ryan's alarm. My alarm, set for 4:00 AM, had failed to go off. By 5:45 AM, we were shouldering heavy packs over consolidated snow in the pitch black, and I had taken a risk: my snowshoes remained in the car. I had several reasons for leaving my rented snowshoes behind. First, I probably wouldn't need snowshoes for much of the long East Ridge traverse. Second, my pack was too damn heavy for the task ahead with the snowshoes on it. Third, I had read a recent report that the snow on the western side of the Sierras was surprisingly consolidated. Fourth, the snow near the road was hard. After one hour of hiking, I realized that leaving the snowshoes behind was a bad decision.

Ryan Griswold in his element
It took us about five hours to gain 2,000 feet of elevation. Though we wasted about thirty minutes on a route-finding snafu, the main problem was the snow. With almost every step, I broke through the crust immediately after weighting my boot and plunged one or two feet into soft snow. On the steeper sections, I resorted to hunching over, laying my trekking poles horizontally on the snow, and using them as handrails. Progress was extremely slow and exhausting. Every ten steps I had to stop for ten breaths. Ryan certainly moved faster and less laboriously, but not too much faster. Over five hours, he probably spent thirty minutes waiting for me.

At the 8,000 foot level, we reached a difficult section that Ryan had negotiated once before in much drier conditions. We needed to make exposed moves onto a steep couloir, which then had to be ascended for a few hundred vertical feet to a notch. This was a good place for a break. It was also a good place to assess our prospects. We had gained about 2,000 vertical feet in five hours, and had to ascend about 2,500 more in the remaining six hours of daylight. However, much of the remaining elevation gain was going to occur on a complex ridge traverse, which would involve lots of ups and downs, thus adding to the elevation gain. We definitely wanted to avoid getting benighted on the ridge and doubted we could. The decision to turn around was easy, though demoralizing. It took one hour to descend ground that had taken five hours to ascend.

Me at our highpoint below the couloir
Throughout the day, we wondered how a party of nine was doing in the South Fork of Bairs Creek. They had started up the day before and were planning to summit today. The party included Rick Kent, who I have written about on this blog. This fall, Rick climbed Mt. Whitney twice in one day from Whitney Portal (12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss) and the Cactus to Clouds trail on Mt. San Jacinto three times in one day (25,000 feet of elevation gain). Considering the nice weather, we assumed that Rick would make the summit. However, due to freezing cold and blasting spindrift, the party was forced to turn around at roughly 13,000 feet. Though I sincerely wish they could have made the summit after all that effort, I was somewhat relieved to hear that they didn't: it somehow made my stupid decision to leave the snowshoes in the car less significant.

Partially because of the climbing disaster on Mt. Hood last week, my wife was delighted to hear that my three-day expedition had ended after half a day. For the first time in a long time, she was genuinely enthused to hear all about my outing. I am sure Ed Viesturs will be similarly enthused.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Really Happened to Mallory and Irvine

Today is International Mountain Day.  There could hardly be a better time to reflect on why you climb mountains.  And when contemplating the question "Why do you climb?", you may find yourself distracted by the infamous answer attributed to George Mallory: "Because it is there."  But what exactly did Mallory mean by this cryptic quip?  Theories about his meaning are as various as theories explaining his disappearance high on Mt. Everest in 1924.

The Wildest Dream, a movie scheduled for release in 2010, promises to shed light on the enduring conundrum of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance.  However, given that the mountain featured prominently on the movie's website is not Mt. Everest, but a reversed image of Mont Blanc du Tacul in France, I wouldn't hold your breath. [Editor's note: the image was eventually switched to Mt. Everest, perhaps as a result of this article!]  In fact, you may want to take this opportunity to draw a few deep breaths, because there is a brand new theory that simultaneously deciphers Mallory's cryptic quip and explains his disappearance.  And it is a theory that The Mountaineering Review is now proud to unveil on this International Mountain Day eighty five years after Mallory and Irvine vanished.

Solving complex problems often involves challenging assumptions that have been left unchallenged.  Consider again Mallory's retort, "Because it is there".  For too long, scholars and laypersons alike have assumed that by "it" Mallory was referring to Mt. Everest.  But on this day -- a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly as "an opportunity to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life" -- it is the distinct pleasure of The Mountaineering Review to lay bare what Mallory was referring to with the word "it".  When Mallory said that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there, he did not mean that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because Mt. Everest is there.  Rather, George Herbert Leigh Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there.  Yes, that's right.  Call it what you like: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, or my personal favorite, Kangchenjunga Rachyyas.   

To reiterate what has been suggested thus far, Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because he believed (or knew?) the Yeti was there.  But what light does that shed on his disappearance, you ask?  Well, if you don't want to get snow blindness, you had better put on your mountaineering goggles.  But first, a refresher on the nature and history of science is in order.  Scientific theories endeavor to explain phenomena -- that is, they try to determine what causes what.  Sometimes, when a scientist finally stumbles on the correct theory, its accuracy seems so obvious in retrospect as to render all rival theories laughably preposterous.  (Incidentally, I know all of this stuff about science because my daughter's brother's grandmother's husband's daughter is a scientist.) 

With a clearer understanding of the nature and history of science, we are now positioned to account for the heretofore mysterious disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.  As with many good scientific theories, as soon as you hear this one, it will seem so obviously correct that all other competing theories (such as the one that will no doubt be presented in The Wildest Dream) will seem, well, wild.  Ok, here it is.  You may want to take a few deep breaths.  George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew "Sandy" Comyn Irvine (1902-1924) were killed high on the northeast ridge of Mt. Everest (also known as "Sagarmatha" by the Nepalese and "Chomolungma" by the Chinese) by something that I will discuss in a forthcoming blog entry.  I actually lost track of time and ought to be getting ready for bed.  Oh, what the hell, let's do this now: They were killed by a yeti!  That's it, you read that right.  Mallory and Irvine were killed by a yeti.  Have a look at this picture.

Having clearly articulated this intoxicating new theory about what really happened to Mallory and Irvine, a sober evaluation is required.  The history of science demonstrates that the best theories have sweeping explanatory efficacy -- that is, they not only explain the main thing you want to explain, but every other related significant detail as well.  The Yeti theory can obviously explain how Mallory and Irvine died (a yeti killed them).  But can it explain why Mallory's body was found, while Irvine's body was not found?  Yes.  The Yeti ate Irvine (because he was much younger than Mallory), but was too full to eat Mallory.  And now for the explanatory hurdle -- that one little fact that the rival theories just cannot explain.  Why was Mallory's body found with all of his personal effects intact, with one glaring exception: the photograph of his wife that Mallory planned to leave on the summit?  Quite simply, the Yeti stole it.  That is what you call explanatory efficacy.

So, there you have it.  Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it -- namely, the Yeti -- is there, and Mallory and Irvine were subsequently killed by that selfsame Yeti.  It should go without saying that the timing of the publication of this Yeti "theory" (one is now tempted to say Yeti "fact") could not be any worse for the producers of The Wildest Dream.  Although I'm sure the scenery will be pretty, in light of the Yeti theory, watching the movie will be like watching two teams who failed to make the playoffs in their final regular season game: ultimately, it just won't matter.

Curiously, though not surprisingly, representatives of The Wildest Dream could not be reached for comment.*

* I didn't try to reach them.   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Arbitrariness of Lists

Many mountaineers are obsessed with completing lists -- for instance, summitting every peak above a certain elevation in a particular region.  Peakbaggers aspire to climb all 12 peaks above 14,000 feet in California, all 53 peaks above 14,000 feet in Colorado, and many have died trying to summit all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters in the Himalayas.  But to me, these lists are extremely arbitrary.  What, for instance, is so important about 14,000 feet?  Why not 13,900 feet?  Or 14,100 feet?  Being cleanly divisible by 1,000 does not seem especially significant. 

The length of one foot is itself an arbitrary convention.  For whatever reason, people agreed that one foot is 12 inches, but there would have been nothing unnatural with setting it at 13 inches.  In which case, no peaks in California would reach 14,000 feet.  To make matters worse, in order for a peak to "count" as a 14er, it has to rise a certain distance above the saddle connecting it to a higher 14er.  In California, if this distance (the peak's prominence) is set at 200 feet, then Thunderbolt Peak "counts", but not if it is set at 300 feet. 

Climbing a mountain, or a lot of mountains, can be valuable in its own right.  For some reason having to do with human nature, climbing mountains that fulfill certain numerical thresholds seems to add a layer of value to the experience.  Why that is the case is a topic for further reflection.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Carlos Soria is my new mountaineering role model

Since turning 50, the Spaniard Carlos Soria has summitted nine 8,000 meter peaks.  More impressively, he climbed five of them, including K2, after turning 65, and one of them (Gasherbrum I) at age 70.  He plans to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks by age 75.  But Soria is not just obsessed with peaks rising above the arbitrary 8,000 meter threshold.  Earlier this year, he made the first ascent of Dome Kang (~7,200 meters) in the Kangchenjunga Massif.  Soria worked as a carpenter until "retiring" at 65. 

Part 1 and part 2 of the ExplorersWeb interviews

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review of "Dark Summit"

In spring 1996, over ten climbers died in a storm while climbing Mt. Everest, including the accomplished leaders of two commercial expeditions, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. The story of that terrible season was told, not without controversy, by Jon Krakauer in his best-selling book Into Thin Air. In spring 2006, over ten climbers again died climbing Mt. Everest, but this time in relatively fine weather. Nick Heil explains what went wrong in his book Dark Summit: The True Story of Mt. Everest's Most Controversial Season, published in 2008.

Though most of the action in 1996 took place on the south side of Mt. Everest, it was the north side that stole the show in 2006. There are two main reasons why climbing from the north side became more popular. First, the standard route on the south side passes through the extremely dangerous Khumbu Icefall, which is located immediately above base camp. In order to establish higher camps and acclimatize, climbers are required to play Russian roulette with the precariously balanced ice blocks in the aptly named Icefall many times over the course of an expedition. Dozens of climbers have died in the Icefall. However, there is nothing akin to the Khumbu Icefall on the north side. Second, the permit fees on the northern Chinese side are significantly lower than those on the southern Nepalese side.

After 1996, new commercial operators took root on the north side of Mt. Everest, most notably Himalayan Experience (a.k.a. Himex), run by Russell Brice. Dark Summit is in part a biography of this major player on the world's highest mountain. The achievement that catapulted Brice into the ranks of elite climbers was the first traverse, along with Harry Taylor, of the notorious pinnacles on the northeast ridge of Mt. Everest. Though they were unable to follow the relatively easy ground above the pinnacles all the way to the summit, they had negotiated terrain that killed two of the world's foremost alpinists, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker. Now, almost two decades after his groundbreaking traverse of the pinnacles, Brice was making a living guiding clients up the easier section of the northeast ridge above the pinnacles.

The world was horrified to learn that on May 15, 2006, roughly forty climbers walked by David Sharp on their way to the summit as he lay dying in the snow. Hearing that Brice had told his guides and clients to let Sharp die, much of the world was outraged. But of course, the story is much more complicated than that, and it is a merit of Heil's book that he carefully and thoroughly describes that complexity. Once that complexity is understood, one gets the sense that fingers were pointed at Brice not because he was guilty, but because aside from Mt. Everest, he was simply the biggest thing around.

For anyone interested in Mt. Everest, especially the recent commercialization thereof, this is a must read. The descriptions and analyses of the various fatalities in 2006 are illuminating, and the biographical sketch of Brice is, for me, the most engaging part of the book. The book is well-written and the opining is kept at reasonable level. The author's professionalism is evident throughout the book, as is his passion for the topic.

Addendum: Interestingly, the following note now appears on the Himex website: "As we are unable to get guaranteed access to Tibet, Himalayan Experience is currently not operating expeditions to Everest North Side. Our alternative is Everest South Side."

Another outstanding book in this genre is High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, written by Michael Kodas and published in 2008. Though it has been a year since I read this book, what I remember most is the sustained and shocking harangue against George Dijmarescu (9-time Everest summitter) and the guiding company that his Sherpa wife nominally leads.