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Stories From The 'Savage Mountain': Death On K2

Nick Heil at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Nick Heil at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

For high-altitude climbers, the "holy grail of mountaineering" sits on the border of China and Pakistan. The peak is called K2, and it is the second-highest mountain on Earth.

K2 is just 800 feet shorter than Mount Everest, but it's considered a far more dangerous climb. Just over 300 people have reached the summit, but 80 climbers have died on K2, making the death rate about 25 percent.

Nick Heil has written extensively about climbing for Outside Magazine and in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, he reviews three new books about the so-called Savage Mountain.


No Way Down: Life and Death on K2

By Graham Bowley, hardcover, 288 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99

Graham Bowley is a reporter with The New York Times who wrote one of the initial stories about the deadly 2008 season on K2. That story became the basis for the book, which, says Heil, was necessary to really clarify what had happened on the mountain that year.

Unlike Mount Everest, which has a window of calm weather, K2 only receives little breaks in what is typically very turbulent weather. So on Aug. 1, 2008, there were close to 30 people from several different expeditions all trying to reach the summit at once. The crux of the climb passes through a dangerous area known as the Bottleneck, which funnels all the climbers into a very exposed and steep part of the mountain.

"The scariest part of that part of the climb is this massive 300-foot ice cliff that just towers over you for hours while you're on the route," says Heil. "It's prone to calving off building-sized chunks of ice and flushing down through the couloir. If you're there at the wrong time, you're in big trouble."


One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2

By Freddie Wilkinson, hardcover, 352 pages, NAL Hardcover, list price: $24.95

Freddie Wilkinson, who is himself an experienced climber, also writes a detailed analysis of what transpired during the 2008 season. He offers a different perspective, though, in that he makes a concerted effort to tell the story from the Sherpas' point of view.

In one of the most dramatic scenes in Wilkinson's book, the collapsing ice cliff rips out the guide ropes, leaving climbers stranded high up on the mountain. One of the lead Sherpas climbs down without any protection through a steep, exposed section of ice. He returns safely to the high camp, where he's able to jump-start a rescue operation for the climbers stranded on the mountain.

Heil says he appreciates that Wilkinson took the Sherpas' version of the story into account. "They're a very big part of Himalayan mountaineering," he points out. "Very often they get short shrift in media accounts of what transpired."


The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2

By Jennifer Jordan, hardcover, 302 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, list price: $26.95

Jennifer Jordan's book tells the story of Dudley Francis Wolfe, a wealthy American who came from a well-established New England family. Wolfe was invited to join the second U.S. attempt to climb K2 in 1939. Heil explains that Fritz Wiessner, the expedition's leader, needed someone to help bankroll the expedition. So while Wolfe was an inexperienced climber, he did have a lot of financial resources at his disposal.

In the end, Wolfe and Wiessner were the only two members of the team to get above 25,000 feet. At that point, Wolfe became too exhausted to go on and stayed at a high camp while Wiessner continued the ascent.

When he came down, just short of the summit, he found Wolfe in a debilitated state and realized they wouldn't be able to get him down the mountain. They left him in a high camp but, according to Jordan's story, when a team of Sherpas later attempted to rescue Wolfe, he refused to come back down the mountain.

"It's hard to know what the reasons were," says Heil. "He'd been at this extraordinary altitude for more than a month. He must have been in such a debilitated state. Who knows if he was even aware of what he was telling the Sherpas."

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