18 October 2018

Dark Summit by Nick Heil


I am obsessed with like three things: Joan Didion, athletes who dope, and Mt. Everest. And Lebron. So four things. I know a few people who are obsessed/fascinated with the highest mountain on Earth, many who have read John Krakauer's first-person account of the 1996 tragedy that killed eight.

My obsession came from my good friend Katie who easily knows more about Everest, especially the '96 events, than anyone I know. It's easy for me to become obsessed with any topic Katie is interested in at the moment of conversation. She is one of the best story tellers I know, taking her time with the events and including all kinds of details you wouldn't normally think to include. Any time she tells me what book she's reading I write it down. I would say 15% of my bookshelf is stuff I have heard her talk about.

I've always seen her as a topical reader who will plow through like six books on one subject matter, and I envy her dedication to learning everything about whatever she sets her mind on. She has read pretty much every personal account of the '96 expedition and I love going over and over what happened with her, recalling these strangers' first and last names without blinking.

So when she told me there was a book by Nick Heil called Dark Summit, and that it was about a climber who lay dying on the mountain as a dozen others climbed past, I knew I had to read it. How twisted I thought, another example of the gross compulsion to summit Everest at any cost. I ordered the book immediately and am only now getting around to reviewing it.

Dark Summit works really hard to inform its readers that while the 1996 Everest Disaster will always remain in the spotlight, it doesn't necessarily show us all the problems with Everest. He seems to believe that it overshadows the more disturbing elements of human obsession and what climbing Everest can lead to:

More specifically, the cavalcade of deaths during 2006 raised the highly uncomfortable possibility that, in fact, we are not all in this together - that we are simply the latest edition of a complex species tenuously drawn together into social systems that mask our genetic predilection toward selfishness and competition. The argument, followed to its logical conclusion, had less and less to do with climbing mountains and more to do with the foundations of human sociology, and it challenged some of our most cherished assumptions about the roots of compassion and altruism."

Mount Everest
The book opens strong with Heil summarizing everything that's wrong with Everest:

What had once stood as a symbol of what was best in mankind - determination, tenacity, teamwork - now represented something much darker: ego, hubris, greed."

What I loved so much about Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, was that he spends the first quarter of the book breaking down the commercialization of Everest. How it is such a money-driven endeavour that it puts those who work as guides and sherpas under a ton of pressure to get their clients to the top no matter what. And to me this pressure is one of the most dangerous elements of the mountain.

What I've always found unclear in these books is why people risk such likely death and put themselves through literal hell to summit Everest. Heil says this in his intro and it really stuck with me:

It is our effort to toil through these hazardous and inhospitable landscapes that culminates with such potent effect, what humanistic psychologists have described as the attainment of self-actualization, a pinnacle of personal expression that dissolves the constraints of our ordinary lives and allows us, even if fleeting, to 'become what we are capable of becoming.'"

That's an amazing explanation and I'm going to leave it at that and get into actually reviewing Dark Summit. So let's start:

Heil peppered in some quick points about Everest that I've already recited to Meg and my boyfriend:

  • A typical expedition lasts two months but only 11 days are spent actually climbing. I love this point because it really shows how long you need just to sit your ass and acclimate to Everest, and how just doing that is a massive challenge
  • Eighty per cent of Everest deaths happen when the climber is coming down. Imagine?! You somehow make it up there and you die coming DOWN???
  • Sir Edmund Hillary (the first to successfully summit Everest for all you non-obsessed weirdos) is very against what Everest has become and wants the permits sliced more than in half
  • That people have literally froze to death and then somehow they came back to life. Which is best said in the book as: "'In our world, we don't declare somebody dead until they're warm and dead,' - Dr. Peter Cox, director of the critical care unit at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto

There are little nuggets like that in this book that I loved but overall I found this to be a really dull read. I don't mean dense, I like dense when it has to do with subject matter I love. It was just that large parts of this book dealt with stuff I found completely useless, like describing the backgrounds of the mountaineers that climbed past dying David Sharp.

David Sharp - the focal point of Dark Summit
I was hoping for more of an overview of why this likely happened. Why would one person after another leave this man alone? Or is it impossible for us to pass judgement when we haven't experienced anything like Everest before in our lives. I have a lot of opinions about both of these questions, but honestly the author never really dives into them. The only thing he hints at - and it's something I completely believe in - is that when you're on Everest it is really and truly a "looking out for number one" situation.

'I never feel euphoric or elated when I'm up there,' said veteran guide and expedition leader Eric Simonson. 'Just anxious. It's like swimming as far out into the ocean as you can, then turning around and wondering if you can make it back.'"

The whole point of this book is how David Sharp was passed by over and over again. Heil talks about "Green Boots" and how he is sort of a symbol of the many deaths on the mountain. Green Boots is an unknown deceased climber whose body remains close to the summit, perfectly preserved. It's as if Green Boots is one of the many landmarks in getting to the top, kind of like the Hillary Step. Some move quickly past him, others get a little caught up in the fact that they are standing next to a dead body, and that he is far from the only one up there.

Heil does do a good job in acknowledging how prevalent death is on Everest. Whether you get close to it yourself or you are walking past it, it's there.

Plenty of climbers have plunged to their deaths on Everest, but dozens of others have simply sat down and faded away."

He also wrestles with what everyone else who doesn't climb is thinking: is it fucking worth it?

The summit was a sacred place, the tallest anywhere, but it was also just another frozen perch littered with human detritus and urine-speckled snow. In the end, standing here, did it mean anything at all?"

Essentially Heil starts strong and he finishes strong, and usually this is enough for me to forget what I didn't like about the middle. But there's just too much literature out there about Everest for me not to look to something better.

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