For the serious mountaineer, there is only one mountain. K2. After Everest, K2 is the second highest mountain peak in the world, standing some 28,251 feet. But whereas Everest has been “overrun by a circus of commercial expeditions” and thousands have had their picture snapped at its top, K2 retains its deadly attraction. Only 278 people have ever stood on its summit. Of those 278, only 254 have made it down to base camp alive.
On Friday August 1 2008 a series of international expeditions (Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Serbian, American, South Korean and French) began an attempt on the K2 summit. By Monday August 4, eleven mountaineers and high-altitude porters (HAPs) were dead. Many of those who made it down alive were suffering from severe frostbite or were emotionally bruised by the knowledge that friends and loved ones had been killed. This became one of the worst disasters in modern mountaineering history. K2 with its natural arsenal of ice, snow, avalanche and altitude sickness had defeated almost all those who had tried to scale its fearsome heights. The Sherpas were wary of “waking the fury of the mountain gods” that they believed lived in the glaciers, seracs and crevices of this cold mountain. That fateful weekend the mountain gods roared.
Graham Bowley’s No Way Down provides a meticulous account of the central events that culminated in this tragedy. But, above all, he tells with wonderful economy the human drama of courage, hubris, self-sacrifice and ultimately, loss and grief. It is a fascinating exploration of the existential pull that mountains exert on the lives of some people.
For these mountaineers, climbing is more than a physical challenge but it bears a metaphorical weight as they attempt to articulate through the climb what it means to be mortal. Every groan of the mountain, every careless footstep, the ice screw and line badly anchored makes the cold breath of death visible. These tough men and women remind us that when we are exposed to our human fragility in such a stark, uncompromising fashion, we are also provided with a simultaneous awareness of what we are capable of and of what we cannot achieve by our own powers. It is not mountains that are conquered, it is fear. In a Himalayan light, the illusions and armoury fall away and we find ourselves clinging to a new clarity about ourselves. For some, this is a touching of the void. For others, a touching of the transcendent. In both cases, the climbing of mountains like K2 are death-defying and self-defining experiences for those involved. Bowley observes:
They (the mountaineers) had broken out of comfortable lives to venture to a place few of us dare go in our lives. They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years, attracted like flies to the light, to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement.
In return, K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors.
Gerard McDonnell was one of those who came back to K2 after he had been caught in a rockfall in 2006 and had to be airlifted to hospital. Back to fitness, this time he successfully climbed K2, making him the first Irishman to do so. There is a photo of him triumphantly holding an Irish flag at the summit. Bowley explains that Gerard’s reasons for climbing were, in part, due to his personal history. His father, Denis, had died when he was just twenty. In 2003, when he climbed Everest, he took with him his father’s rosary beads and told his mother, “I felt close to my dad up there.” For those who knew Gerard this was a statement stamped with real conviction rather than sentiment.
Sadly, Gerard McDonnell never made it down alive from K2, probably succumbing to the devastating effects of altitude sickness. Yet, during his descent, he is believed to have selflessly tried to help three Korean climbers who had fallen and got trapped in their ropes. He did so in the knowledge that this would put his own life in grave danger. At his memorial service back in his home town of Kilcornan, County Limerick, the priest said, “We know we are here to honour Gerard, to praise him, and welcome Gerard to his heavenly home. Gerard, who died on the K2. That is his burial place and in a sense where he wished to die…It was on a mountain that Moses communicated with God. It was on a mountain that Jesus was transfigured. It was on a mountain that Gerard achieved one of his life’s ambitions. It was such a spiritual experience that he even referred to it as being an honour to die on a mountain.”
No Way Down could have been reduced to a boys own adventure yarn. Instead, Graham Bowley chooses a more complex, rigorous route through his material. He does not allow the bravery of the mountaineers to camouflage their flaws and vanities. He shows how the different memories of those forty eight hours reveal as much about those who are recalling the events as those who they are recalling. And at the centre of his story rises K2. With prose that is as spare and precise as anything in Hemmingway, Bowley provides a vivid sense of how this mountain inspires both jubilation and fear.
The photographer, Anselm Adams, famously said that “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being” No Way Down does not hesitate to explore these ontological intuitions and thus turns a tragic event into something with universal application. No Way Down is my favourite read of 2010...so far.
No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, Graham Bowley, Viking 2010