DARK SUMMIT: THE TRUE STORY OF EVEREST’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SEASON by Nick Heil
Pros: Covers the 2006 season – and its numerous tragedies – quite well
Cons: Not as commanding as some of the other books relating to this topic
Yet another book based around stories of triumph and ultimately tragedy set on the world’s highest mountain, Nick Heil’s 2008 Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season, like the 2007 documentary film , focuses on the 2006 climbing season in which eleven persons died. It was during this time that dozens of climbers passed stricken British climber David Sharp in the upper elevations without stopping to offer help. When word of Sharp’s death reached news outlets, a massive firestorm ignited: how could human beings – let alone those in the once-noble pursuit of mountain climbing – literally walk over another man in desperate need of aid? Had “summit fever” become so prevalent and overwhelming that actual human lives were of secondary concern?
Crowded conditions on Everest have been an underlying cause of many problems in recent years. Looking at this picture, it’s not hard to understand why.
Heil’s book doesn’t so much examine these tough questions as provide a journalistic examination of the whole of events from the north side of the mountain in 2006, starting with an introduction to the various major players in that year’s climbing season. As with most other years, this year saw a number of commercial expeditions on the mountain: these outfits operate as “for hire” treks in which clients (some of whom are woefully unequipped for the task of climbing a 29,000 foot mountain) pay for a guided ascent up the mountain in which all (or at least some) of the logistics are taken care of. Though signing up with a commercial operation doesn’t guarantee a summit for every individual climber, the chances of surviving the attempt are much higher when meals, shelter, oxygen, and tactical support are provided by an experienced organizer. Unfortunately, some of the commercial operations aren’t as thorough as others, and the one David Sharp signed up with in 2006 provided him with little more than a permit to climb and transportation from Kathmandu, Nepal to the Himalaya.
Mind you, having a “barebones” climb isn’t necessarily a fatal proposition. After all, Sharp was an experienced climber who had been to Everest twice before, and who had purposely signed up for a climb which tested his mettle and endurance. When things went wrong in the higher altitudes however, Sharp had precisely no one looking out for him – or anyone that was even aware that his life was in serious jeopardy. By the time he was found after spending the night exposed at 28,200 feet, there was little anyone could have done to save him or bring him down from the mountain.
The infamous “green boots” cave, named after the footwear on the dead body which sits outside it, is where David Sharp spent his last hours.
Along with the story of Sharp, Heil also chronicles some of the other tragic and near tragic events that occurred on the north side of the mountain that year. Among them was the story of German climber Thomas Weber, who had signed up with a better-equipped commercial expedition but was harboring a bit of a secret: he had an unusual medical condition in which high altitudes caused him to become blind. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is not a good proposition – not when one is already facing a rigorous, exhausting climb through terrain that’s confined and treacherous. Arguably the most baffling story chronicled in Dark Summit is the story of Australian climber Lincoln Hall: a very experienced mountaineer who nonetheless become disabled on the mountain (likely due to the debilitating effects high altitude has on the human body) and was left for dead. Only one of these tales has a “happy ending” of sorts, but both make for fascinating reading.
Thomas Weber on the way up. He wouldn’t come back down…
Compared to other books I’ve read about Everest, Dark Summit is a bit of a different animal. For one, this book is one of the few told from the perspective of an outsider – author Heil wasn’t actually on the mountain that year and isn’t telling his personal story in the text. This fact alone separates his book different from the likes of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into Thin Air, which told a first-hand account of the infamous and utterly disastrous 1996 Everest climbing season, and Michael Kodas’ , which related both the author’s personal experience on the mountain in 2004 as well as the story of an ill-fated elderly Bolivian-American climber who signed up with the wrong guide to lead him to the summit. Though there’s quite a bit of crossover between Heil’s book and Kodas’ (particularly in terms of the personnel involved), the tone of the two books is dissimilar: Heil’s is much more a blow-by-blow chronological third-person account of the 2006 season, while Kodas’ first-person account of his experience in 2004 is combined with an after-the-fact examination of what happened in 2006. I found that High Crimes ultimately had more of an explicit point to make (considering the book’s subtitle “The Fate of Everest in the Age of Greed,” this probably isn’t surprising), while Dark Summit leaves the reader to interpret its “message.”
The treacherous “Second Step” on the way to the summit.
As is the case with most books about mountaineering in general and Everest in particular, Heil devotes a decent amount of time in an early chapter to chronicling exploration of the Himalaya. This crash-course history of Everest mountaineering is very nicely done, discussing early geographical surveys and summit attempts. It’s always amazing to be reminded of the story of British eccentric (and highly inexperienced mountaineer and aviator) , who in 1933-34 illegally flew a plane into India, forced his way into Nepal, then attempted to scramble up Everest before succumbing to starvation and exhaustion at the frankly astonishing altitude of 22,000 feet. Many of these early expedition stories foreshadow the tragedies that the reader will find later on in the text. There’s a nice attention to detail throughout the book (which has more than a few disturbing elements – the story of climbers high on the mountain being sent up an oxygen rig with the nose of its previous user literally still stuck in the facemask is absolutely cringe-worthy), especially when Heil details the way in which high altitude affects the human body. This information makes the plight of the characters more real and is absolutely critical when trying to understand the situation regarding David Sharp’s death in particular: while high altitude rescue is feasible under certain conditions, it’s nearly impossible to lug someone who is essentially immobile down from above the 28,000 foot mark.
Sharp’s marker among other memorials at the base of the mountain.
On the downside, Dark Summit is never nearly as arresting as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and at least part of that is due to its more clinical and less personal nature. While Heil makes every attempt to get the reader into the minds of his characters – especially when detailing the situation faced by Lincoln Hall, who found himself delusional and alone high on the mountain, some of these descriptive attempts simply don’t work and there’s a sense of detachment throughout the book. I also have to say that Heil seems to assume that the reader has a basic, working knowledge of mountaineering. Some of the terminology used and references made are never adequate explained in my opinion, and this makes his book mostly unacceptable as an entry-level text for those interested in its subject. Finally, since memory is severely compromised when the human body finds itself at high altitudes, piecing together a genuinely accurate account of the events detailed in this book is positively impossible. Even if Heil made every attempt to corroborate stories, there are sections of this book in which a sort of personal agenda seems evident. To be fair, every book about mountaineering suffers from this same problem, but it’s still not a good thing.
Despite the handful of problems however, I thought Dark Summit was extremely well-organized and written capably. I liked the fact that, although it hinted at the author’s perspective regarding the events of 2006, it more or less left it up to the reader to determine his or her own opinion. This isn’t among the best books about mountaineering that I’ve read, but like High Crimes, it is a solid second-tier effort that should satisfy those who enjoy these sorts of stories. Running around 250 pages and containing a section of full-color photographs in its hardcover edition, Dark Summit is a fairly easy read that I’d have no problem recommending.
Is the view worth it? You be the judge…