Friday, February 11, 2011

Review of "The Last Man on the Mountain"

In 2002, Jennifer Jordan was wandering around near the base camp of K2 when she stumbled upon the remains of Dudley Wolfe. Wolfe, or what was left of him, had not been seen since 1939 when he was left for dead at nearly 25,000 feet on K2.

Nobody who survived the 1939 American K2 expedition saw Dudley Wolfe die. The three Sherpas who were positioned to rescue him never returned and subsequent attempts did not get close. The controversy surrounding Wolfe’s death persists to this day. Inspired by her discovery of Wolfe’s remains, Jordan published a book in 2010 about the controversy, entitled The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2.

Dudley Wolfe was rich. His father had married into one of the wealthiest families in America. Perhaps that is why Wolfe was recruited by Fritz Wiessner, the expedition leader. Unfortunately, the team Wiessner managed to assemble was relatively inexperienced and unprepared for the undertaking.

Some Himalayan expeditions are utterly miserable from start to finish, and this was no exception. Before even setting foot on the mountain, one of the team members nearly died from illness in base camp. And the group dynamics were atrocious, with nearly everyone seemingly despising Wiessner.

Though lacking experience, Wolfe proved to be one of the strongest climbers. Only two other climbers got higher than him, and he probably spent more time than anyone high on the mountain. But this is presumably what did him in.

After Wiessner and Pasang Lama got tantalizingly close to the summit, they were forced to descend. Wiessner and Lama reunited with Wolfe at one of the higher camps, but for reasons that may never be known, left him at the 25,000 foot camp. As Wiessner and Lama descended to resupply at a lower camp, they were mortified to discover that all of the precious camps above base camp had been inexplicably emptied. They were thus forced to descend all the way to base camp. By this point, some of the team members had started home. But poor Dudley Wolfe was stuck at 25,000 feet. The attempt to rescue him resulted in the disappearance of three Sherpas. Wolfe was not seen again for 63 years.

Some books about major expeditions are exceptionally well-written and even funny. This one is neither. But the writing is clear and the research thorough, with the possible exception of one factual error. Contrary to Jordan, I thought that Wiessner first saw the Gunks not from the Shawangunk Mountains (the Gunks are in the Shawangunk Mountains), but from Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands. But that is an exceedingly minor point.

Breakneck Ridge. A fun scramble on the Hudson.
This book will lack appeal for those seeking a heroic, romanticized, and inspiring account of a Himalayan expedition. But for those with a deeper interest in the genre, Jordan’s book is an engaging and realistic analysis of a low point in American mountaineering.

No comments: