Dark Summit, by Nick Heil (Hardcover, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
The story is captivating and well-told, but the text needs a serious
round of copy-editing.
You may recall books like "Into Thin Air," which recounted the 1996
disaster on Mount Everest. From those accounts, we know the weather was
a central factor in the horrific events that played out. In 2006,
the body count was just as bad, but the weather was fine. With the
weather not part of the death equation, why did so many people die on
Mount Everest in 2006?
Dark Summit holds many clues, because it provides a detailed
narrative of about the various tragedies of 2006 and what led up to them.
Given what went on, it's surprising that the body count wasn't even
In the ten years that followed the 1996 disaster, the two national
governments (Nepal and China) that control access to Everest failed to institute such basic
as limiting access to qualified personnel. In the industrial safety
arena, a "qualified person" is one who meets certain minimum competence
standards for the task at hand. This concept is conspicuously absent
from the management of access to Everest.
Another basic safety measure would be the
formation of permanent rescue teams, which would be present and on
standby during the climbing season. Nobody has set up a fund for this,
though the sheer number of people shelling out money to climb Everest
would easily make that possible.
Nor do we find any formal contingency plans or
evacuation plans. It seems that everyone involved is, every year, surprised
that people show up. And they appear to be surprised further still that
danger exists on Everest--gee, what a concept. Apparently, the
increasing number of corpses littering the mountain doesn't translate
into the idea that it's dangerous to be on the mountain.
Because of this failure to connect these really
huge dots, the death toll in 2006 was on par with that of 1996. Same
drill, different year.
Construction safety managers like to say, "Safety is no accident."
The thought behind this pithy saying is that safety occurs because you
plan for it and follow your plan. Safety doesn't happen by accident. It
happens because you follow a proper safety plan.
On Everest, however, we see that the
overall safety plan for 2006 wasn't even accidental--there wasn't one. Nor did all
of the Everest "climbers" make their safety their personal
responsibility. It seems clear (in hindsight) that most of the
expedition companies put summiting first and worried about safety
second. The high body count, then, is no surprise at all.
A couple of expedition companies, such as Himex,
put safety first and make a point of getting clients back alive. That's
part of their DNA. Their philosophy is a bit more complex than the idea
that real mountaineering is purely about summiting at any cost. Those
very companies have been pilloried for not doing enough to "save"
people whose own actions (or lack thereof) put them in their
predicaments to begin with. The "logic" is that those who have
planned are supposed to bail out those who gambled.
Climbers are a particularly safe bunch (I know because I are one!).
A climber follows certain rituals and procedures, period. For example,
climbers check each other's harnesses before each ascent, even if they
have already done so a dozen times that day. Except for a few
risk-seeking superstars, a real climber asks, "What are the dangers and
how do I protect myself?" A real climber is looking forward to climbing
many more times in the future rather than dying on this one climb. The
climbing culture involves layers of safety practices. The quickest way
for a climber to be ostracized by other climbers is to act cavalier
In many climbing settings, access is contingent
upon following safety protocols. Violate these, and you are permanently
banned. As we can tell from the bodies strewn on Everest, that isn't the
Everest is increasingly populated with climber wannabes who have
no business being there. They are climbing way beyond their
ability level, both figuratively and literally. In doing so, they endanger
not just themselves but others. They tend to compromise the expeditions of people who would otherwise have been able to
summit and descend safely. And, as we are seeing, many of these wannabes
go up but don't come down.
A few Everest-related Websites tell stories about the various
tragedies, near misses, and other consequences of the hubris that is now
standard for Mount Everest expeditions (not all, but most).
Unfortunately, many pundits blame a few specific people who, when you
look at the actual facts, and circumstances, are not
at fault. They weren't the ones who showed up unqualified, unprepared,
under-equipped, and out of shape.
Those sites, then, aren't helping prevent future
calamities. But, they have the
power to do so. They can post articles that point out the
system problems, and they can provide a means for people to collaborate on
on implementing the solutions. It seems a shame that they don't use that
Solutions to the major deficiencies are reasonable and achievable. For example, why haven't
the larger expedition companies formed an Everest Association that has
rules for participation? And that provides full-time rescue teams? If
there's one thing you can say about governments, it's that they like to
suck up money. So such
an association could kick a percentage of its membership fees to the two
national governments that control access to Everest. Those two
governments could then make
association membership a mandatory condition for access. Heil doesn't prescribe this in his
book, and given both his in-depth knowledge and and high credibility
that seems like a wasted opportunity.
Unlike most commentators, Heil avoids finger-pointing as he brings us
his account of the 2006 fiasco. He focuses on accurately portraying the
events. What emerges is a dark tale of the dark summit, with details
that allow the reader to have a clear picture of what transpired. Unlike
some others who have told the story, Heil does very solid reporting. Reading his
account, I could not help but feel the tagline under the title means
just what it says--the true story.
And what a story it is. When you look at some of the people who were
there, it's small wonder that this particular season was so tragic. Some
- A double amputee.
- A guy whose bones had been screwed together
following a motorcycle accident.
- An out of shape guy with a condition that renders him blind at
- A guide with only one previous 8,000 meter
ascent (and that one didn't go well).
During climbing season, Everest is so crowded that
people pile up dangerously at points all along the climbing routes. Unqualified "climbers" are struggling, due to a lack of
expertise, a lack of preparation, a lack of fitness, a lack of
experience, or some combination thereof.
Increasingly (as Heil shows), the population
on Everest represents a slice of upper middle class dreamers and
thrill-seekers rather than real climbers. When these dilettantes get in
trouble, they can't just snap their fingers for assistance. Which is why
so many of them suffer profound disfigurement or even die. Whose fault is that? Who should assist them?
Heil brings up some interesting questions, regarding responsibility
for others on Everest. Here's one to ponder. Suppose you spent several
years to prepare to summit Everest. You've climbed several 8,000 meter
peaks, thus earning your stripes. Now you've trained especially hard for
the past several months and spent $50,000 in expedition fees for this
one climb. It's your fourth attempt.
Another person, who has only negligible
mountaineering experience, shows up with little preparation and even less
equipment. This person paid a no-name expedition company $7500 for a
no-frills package and that means pretty much no support.
You have a one-day window to summit before a storm hits, and you know
you can make it. But as you start out on your final day, you encounter Mr. No
Frills. He's catatonic and can't move. Do you stop to help
The short answer is no. Not because you will blow $50,000 that this
person probably can't pay back, but because you are barely surviving
at that altitude yourself. At 29,000 feet, your body is eating itself up
and you have the most dangerous part--the descent--ahead of you. Your
coordination, strength, and mental focus are all way below par. Nobody
carries a dead body or a non-moving person down from the higher
altitudes, because they can't. Which is why the dead are just left
So you can choose to do what you came to do, or you can choose to
give it up for a rescue effort that has almost no hope of succeeding.
You know that the attempt could cost you your fingers, even if you
manage to survive. The other person, who shouldn't be there, will
probably die anyhow.
By understanding the challenges facing people on Everest, you better
understand those whose behavior might otherwise seem as cold and
unfeeling as the mountain itself. Heil tells the story as it happened,
giving the reader a sense of actually being there. He provides plenty of
detail about what happens to the human body and the mind at the higher
elevations, so that you get a sense of just how incapacitating it is to
be there. Everest is not a test of climbing skill so much as it is a
test of endurance at the outer limits of possibility.
I found the book engrossing and highly informative. The author didn't
take any cheap shots at anyone or push his personal agenda. Nor did he sensationalize--given what really went on, he didn't need to. The
reality was sensational enough. Heil provided rich
detail and told the story in a way that kept me turning the pages.
Dark Summit could have been an excellent book, but it misses the mark
due to mechanical errors in the text. I close this review with an
explanation of my opening remark about the need for copyediting. I
encountered mistakes like:
- "Sharp" used in place of "sherpa" (capitalized as shown).
- "marshall artists" instead of "martial artists"
- A large number of misspellings.
- Some parallel sentence structure, which is confusing.
- Some composition errors that rendered a few sentences
- Miscellaneous scraps of text appearing completely out of place (copy and paste errors?).
Heil worked as a magazine editor. In the enthusiast magazine
industry, the title "editor" doesn't mean "one who edits." It means
"subject matter expert who writes articles that someone else must edit."
That editing work should have been done on this manuscript before
publishing it. Heil comes across as a great verbal story teller
and a solid researcher with high standards of editorial integrity. But a
good copyeditor should have cleaned up this text to prevent the mental
gymnastics that interrupted the flow of this intriguing story.