5.31.2015

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt



The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by the late great Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt was, at its heart, a direct rebuttal of Jon Krakauer's assertions in Into Thin Air that Anatoli Boukreev abandoned the clients he was hired to guide up and down Everest on that fateful day, May 10, 1996, when five climbers from two different commercial expeditions perished in a surprise storm on their descent from the summit.

Amazing copy signed by Anatoli Boukreev on 11/14/97
just six weeks before he died
image from Walkabout Books  
The late Anatoli Boukreev was considered by many the best mountaineer in the world at the time the events documented in The Climb occurred, with nearly a dozen 8,000m peaks in his pocket, including ascents to the top of Everest and several other of the highest Himalayan mountains without oxygen.  His physical conditioning and acclimatization techniques for thriving in high altitudes remain arguably unsurpassed almost two decades since his untimely death on Christmas, 1997, in an avalanche on Annapurna.  And more importantly, they remain practical examples of what you need to do -- and how you need to do it -- in order to survive the insane Everest ordeal.

But did being an expert mountaineer necessarily preclude the possibility of Boukreev making a fatal mistake; namely, abandoning his clients high up on Everest in a death zone whiteout in order to save his own skin?  Depends on who you ask, though I would reply, based on reading The Climb and Into Thin Air, with a hearty "hardly." According to Boukreev, his swift descent from the summit ahead of the clients he was hired to protect and to guide was part of the plan determined beforehand by his expedition leader, Scott Fischer.  Unfortunately, Scott Fischer was one of the victims that horrific afternoon and evening on the mountain, and so he can obviously neither confirm nor deny Boukreev's claim.  Boukreev, after descending, did in fact go back out into the swirling whiteout and singlehandedly save several climbers, but could he have saved more -- saved everyone? -- had he not left the climbers in the first place?  Pure conjecture.  Who knows?  Who could definitively say?  Not Krakauer, although he apparently thought he could.  Funny how what Krakauer alleged Boukreev of doing he did himself: swiftly descending from the summit of Everest in order to save his own foolhardy ass.  Granted, Krakauer was just a journalist with some lesser climbing experience who by his own accounts in Into Thin Air probably never should have attempted Everest in the first place (ya think?), while Boukreev was a mountaineering professional.  But regardless, Krakauer can't legitimately claim to know the outcomes of every what-if scenario culled from what would've had to have been an exponential number of unpredictable contingencies that day, unless he were God.  And I seriously doubt God's last name is Krakauer.

Incredibly, even almost twenty years after Boukreev's death, the controversy -- did Boukreev behave appropriately or not as a guide, did he? didn't he? -- still rages.  It's ludicrous. The bickering that's gone on back-and-forth in this-mountaineering-magazine or that-online-climbing-forum between Krakauer's adherents and Boukreev's staunch defenders amounts to arguably more than all the accumulated literature ever written about Mt. Everest, and yet it all amounts to nothing, to so much redundant rhetoric of he-said she-said regarding facts that can never be known. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Horrell's observation that sometimes, no one is to blame when climbers die on Everest. After reading and reflecting upon Boukreev's side of the controversy in The Climb, I'm convinced this was also the case in the dire sequence of events that transpired May 10th, 1996, on Mt. Everest.  The Climb is a riveting and painstakingly detailed remembrance recorded within days of the disaster by Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt.  Among mountaineering memoirs, it ranks right up there with the best ever written about Everest.

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