|Updated Nov 13, 2000||[an error occurred while processing this directive]|
Every time you thought the flood has ended for “I Was There” personal accounts of the fatal 1996 climbing season on Mt. Everest, the dam breaks and more spew forth from the publishing houses.
Left For Dead
By Beck Weathers
Villard, 2000, $24.95
By Goran Kropp
Discovery Books, 2000, $23.95.
Like the rest of the reading public, I confess to being a sucker for every new book about mountain climbing, though some are better than others.
Both of these recent books are “musts,” but my personal favorite is the Goran Kropp book, “Ultimate High,” written by a Swede who reveres the mountain, the culture that surrounds it, and is also a no-nonsense athlete who has the macho desire to climb the world’s highest peaks without oxygen, but doesn’t plan to continue doing it until he kills all his brain cells.
The Beck Weathers book is useful for self-examination. Weathers appears to be a very ordinary Texas physician who looked forward to the camaraderie, partying, and macho exhilaration of mountain climbing more than any spiritual experience. In fact, he exhibits a somewhat Babbitt-like set of prejudices in his narrative, though the fact he lost an arm below the elbow and all the fingers on one hand make him something of a sympathy case.
Kropp, who bicycled from his home all the way to the Himalayas to begin his ascent, supported finally only by his girlfriend, provides a breath of fresh air from the point of view of the dedicated, professional climber.
He assesses the behavior and honor of various key people during the two days in May 1996, when a total of eight people died climbing or descending from Everest, caught in a violent snowstorm.
Several didn’t belong on the mountain, and a couple of them were professionals whose judgment failed in attempting to help high-paying clients summit beyond all reason, and who died themselves because of it.
Kropp made a solo ascent but had contact with the climbers who lived and died that year. He continuously tries to maintain an upbeat attitude, and his book is fun to read. He’s something of a role model for the “can-do” but joyous approach you see in the very young, though he was in his early thirties when he made the ascent.
American journalist Jon Krakauer was one of those members of an expeditition, that Beck Weathers was with, led by New Zealander Rob Hall (himself a casualty). Krakauer’s book started it all when “Into Thin Air,” furnished an analysis of the growing popularity of commercial guide-led climbing groups to the top, causing grumbling among Sherpa guides and backpackers who feared the descecration of the mountain and possible revenge, as well as commercialization of what should be a pure sport.
Weathers’ book came out about the same time as Kropp’s. Weathers told his story to Stephen G. Michaud, a professional writer: The result is “Left for Dead.”
Weathers is one of those borderline qualified rookies, who had experience climbing high mountains but was definitely signed on as a paying customer in New Zealander Rob Hall’s group. Hall himself died on the mountain because he stayed up there too long, trying to help an obsessed postal worker who had demanded that Hall promise he’d help him make it to the top on his second try in 1996.
Another professional guide also died, named Scott Fischer, who also led a high-paying group. Fischer was physically debilitated by several demanding paying clients and a kidney condition that he kept secret from everyone.
Though both men were found by climbers who went back up from lower camps to try to help them down, they were beyond help and couldn’t climb down on their own.
People urged them on radios to move down, but part of the problem was cerebral edema, which in very high heights is swelling of the brain. The mind eventually shuts down and the will dies as the body freezes. Perception is affected and even madness ensues, so that the climber is doomed. Pulmonary edema is swelling of the lungs for the same reason, causing the climber to choke.
There is no way to get incapacitated climbers or dead ones down without jeopardizing the lives of the would-be rescuers, and so there they stay.
Weathers’ tale is one of personal angst and neurotic reasons for mountaineering, however. Weathers is a doctor with a prosperous practice in Dallas, Texas, who in retrospect decided he obsessively climbed the world’s highest peaks to push away a clinical depression that plagued him and at times caused him to think of suicide.
Weathers’ angle is his near-death experience where he was, in fact, considered a goner.
But Weathers survived against all odds, picked himself up, and wandered down to the camp looking like someone from a monster movie.
Weathers tells of an epiphany he had when left for dead, where he “saw” his wife and children, that presumably led him to the determination to survive when others died all around him.
His book carries the reader through to the aftermath of the Everest expedition, which left the Weathers’ family permanently altered since Beck lost part of an arm, all of the fingers on his left hand, his nose and much of his facial tissues, which had to undergo reconstructive surgery.
Weathers’ wife is still ambivalent about their future together even though he’s given up climbing.
Kropp wrote of his odyssey traveling from Sweden to Mt. Everest by bike, accompanied only by his girlfriend, and part of the way by a film crew. His grueling trip to the Himalayas through such backward countries as Pakistan, where urchins and hoodlums physically attacked him, and also on the way back through those areas, is interesting for its own sake.
Kropp also provides a useful historical overview of climbing Everest, which began in the 1920s, and carries the reader through to the most recent ascents and deaths.
His personal knowledge of the current “stars” of the climbing world is hard-hitting, and probably hasn’t won him any friends.
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