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.


Five Vintage, Appropriately Lurid, Mass Market Paperbacks (# 1.0)

Up first is a newer, appropriately lurid, vintage book cover favorite: BIBLIOBIMBO. I haven't researched it to be 100% positive that it's a loving parody — homage — to mass market pulp covers, but regardless, even if Bibliobimbo isn't a real dime store novel authored by a real bona fide author of the nom de guerre, "John Thomas," the cover blurbs and cover image itself are all clever and brilliant, and I wish I owned a copy whether it exists in reality or not. Surely it exists somewhere in the unreality of Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel"!


BLONDE ON THE ROCKS is an old favorite by a master of lurid detective noir, Carter Brown.  My sole complaint with the otherwise perfect cover artwork:  Where are the damn ice cubes? Is this vixen truly served on the rocks or is she served up?  If this book cover were a real ad for a real drink Carter Brown could be legitimately sued for illegitimate advertising!


Bantam Giant's edition of Pulitzer Prize winning author's John P. Marquand's H.M. PULHAM, ESQ., proves lurid covers don't absolutely have to be limited to the leering glances of brazen women with robust, partially exposed bosoms, who've no doubt been up to indecency, to no recent good. . . .


. . . but lurid, tantalizing, almost-bare-busted, voluptuous book covers, nevertheless, are always best! Wet your lips for KISS OR KILL by John B. Thompson.  Damn seaweed.


Ooh-la-la!  . . .  Such unwholesome, such naughty ladies of perdition make the most swell, the most fabulous, the most devilishly delightful and appropriately lurid book covers, don't they?  Case in point: LADIES IN HADES by Frederic Arnold Kummer. Have one hell of a good time, Reader, with these "gay lovelies" confessing all among "the smart-set in Hell". . .


Asylum Piece and Other Stories by Anna Kavan

Reading Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940) is a visceral experience.  Picture yourself staring into a full body-and-mind mirror that Anna Kavan intentionally cracked so that you could feel and see yourself thoroughly shattered, and if you're empathetically bent at all, you may acquire an inkling of what it was like being one of Anna Kavan's unnamed isolated characters suffering from mental illness, looking into that mirror.  Or catch a glimpse, in the least, of what it was like being a young and alienated and misunderstood and suicidal Anna Kavan.  Contorted realities reflected back out of that impossible mirror come sneaking up on you, quietly shrieking.  Background scenarios are terse and incomplete; we do not know how so and so ended up here in this asylum or there in that asylum; we only know that they are here or there, trapped inside, and perceive themselves incarcerated and persecuted unjustly by a real or imaginary litany of unknown "Enemies": jailers, nurses, husbands, advisors, and, in one stranger case, "Patrons".  Don't assume, however, that these asylum occupants without proper identities are all unreliable narrators, or that they're all deluded, deranged, purely paranoid -- in a word -- insane.  Some are; some aren't.  Some are estranged from reality only some of the time; others, most of the time.  Sometimes those labelled "mad" are in fact the most sane, as Kavan astutely noted elsewhere, in her next story collection I Am Lazarus (1945), I believe.  Kavan crowned ambiguity king page after exquisite page with opaque clarity in Asylum Piece and Other Stories.

In "The Birds," for instance, one of Kavan's unnamed narrator's (or is every story narrated by the same unnerved, come-undone-narrator?, hard to say exactly, but it's likely the many narrators) notices two brightly colored birds outside her window.  Her window where, exactly?  Kavan either leaves the window's ill-defined whereabouts unknown, or the narrator doesn't know.  Asylums, after all, in Kavan's captivating hands, can just as soon be houses, schools, churches, museums, as they can be literal institutional asylums.  Her "servant" (i.e., a person of unspecified title who keeps a constant eye on her, a "shadow"), however, does not see the birds.  Is it another hallucination?

What conclusion was I to draw from this?  It seemed incredible that anyone could fail to observe those twin spots of color, more striking than jewels on the gray January background.  No, I could only presume that the birds were visible to me alone.  That is the conclusion to which I have held ever since: for my ethereal visitors have not deserted me.

We've all seen things, haven't we, from time to time; or at least thought we've seen things (and seen them whether we've ever been inside an asylum of one kind or another or not, if we're honest) that others have failed to see, right?  Are we mad for seeing such things?  Seeing things levitate?  Seeing ghosts?  Should we have been locked up indefinitely for what we've seen like so many of Kavan's unnamed narrators?  Notice, also, the subtle implication in that last sentence italicized in the paragraph above: that even while the birds (i.e., the symbols now of the narrator's only means of expressing her hope for freedom or escape -- and that, too, even if they are just chirping hallucinations -- have not deserted her; whom then, we may wonder, perhaps already has "deserted her"?  History is replete with misunderstood, or vilified, human beings, being abandoned to asylums.

"The Birds" and another of the few fully formed stories, such as "The Birthmark" -- my favorite in this collection, in fact, and one, with its crux of incarceration and climax pivoting off the curious birthmark, the image of a "rose", makes me wonder if maybe Jean Genet derived any inspiration from it a few years later when he sat down to write his second novel, The Miracle of the Rose? -- and the many more multifaceted vignettes, make up the individual shards of Anna Kavan's complex shattering in Asylum Pieces.

Some shards are sharper than others, like "At Night" or the devastating "Just Another Failure", but they're all keen enough to cut you to the bone, so be careful turning Asylum Pieces' pages, lest your eyes begin bleeding: An iron band has been clamped round my head, and just at this moment the jailer strikes the cold metal a ringing blow which sends needles of pain into my eye sockets. . .; or your imagination begins reeling, and you find yourself trapped in her peculiar prisms, within the haunting "eternal fog" of some dark subterranean chamber filled with rats and roaches and little hope of escape, comrade of shut-in and shut-out characters voicing their confused consensus of victimized outrage from various obscure "asylums" they've had the misfortune to inhabit, these yes diagnosable "deranged" but somehow, even if for only a moment, still sane, still dignified, Underground Women of Anna Kavan's; all of whom, I'm positive, would've made Dostoyevski proud.