While I mostly read fiction, I occasionally take a break to read non-fiction and the subjects are all over the map. I’m intrigued by a lot of different things. In this case, the title of the book is “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2”. Prior to reading the book, I think I knew that K2 was the second highest mountain on Earth after Everest, but that was it.
Now that I’ve finished, I can say I know a lot more about K2 and mountaineering in general. And my question remains: Why?
The book is about a particularly disastrous expedition in 2008 which resulted in the death of 11 people. By the end, you think you know everything that happened. You know who’s dead and who isn’t, and mostly why and how it happened that some survived and some didn’t. It’s all tied up into a neat bow–until it isn’t. Because in the Epilogue, the author drops a bombshell.
To condense, careful planning falls apart. Some people who depended on others found out they could not. In most cases, the survivors were just lucky, and survived not through any efforts of their own. So much for being superior.
So, why? Here is a quote from the last page of the book:
“They had broken out of comfortable lives to venture to a place few of us dare to 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.”
Having finished the book, I am more convinced than ever that the fatal flaw is going to K2 in the first place. So…why? I think that thrill-seeking behavior is genetic. I think if these people weren’t climbing mountains they would be heroin addicts, and that they can’t help it.
As for the end, as I said, you think you know what happened. But the eyewitness accounts of what happened are from people who have been above 20,000 feet for a day or two. Your brain does not work right at that altitude, no matter how in-control and rational you think you are. You don’t have control over the physical processes in your body, no matter how much you may wish it were so. Some things you “saw” or “remember” may have been hallucinations. And you can’t know the difference.
Some of the people on this expedition gave it up; some are still out there. There were two women climbers on this expedition–one, a South Korean named Go Mi-Sun, who died the following year on a mountain called Nanga Parbat. The other was a Norweigian woman named Cecilie Skog, whose husband died more or less right before her eyes on K2. When the author caught up with her, she was in Antarctica. Cecilie is the only woman to have climbed all seven of the highest mountains in the world and also to have been to both Poles. Now I guess she has to start over.
Was it worth it? I guess Cecilie would say “Yes”.