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Book Review: Near Death In The Mountains – True Stories Of Disaster And Survival Edited By Cecil Kuhne

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Editor Cecil Kuhne’s second entry in his Near Death true-adventure series is set In The Mountains. It presents excerpts from stories of climbers in different parts and altitudes around the globe risking life and limbs to follow their passions.

While the motivation behind the drive and desire of the men On The High Seas may not, and possibly could not, have been clearly clarified in their writing, at least the accomplishment of traveling from point A to point B by boat made some logical sense. The mountaineers really have nothing to offer for their rationale that equals the sailor. Maybe if they were trying to get over or through the mountain, but there’s no need to traverse up and back down it other than George Mallory’s famous quote about why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” Felice Benuzzi’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya exemplifies that sentiment. He and two fellow Italian soldiers escaped a British POW camp in which they were imprisoned for two years during WWII, made the climb, and then returned until the war ended.

Walter Bonatti may offer the best explanation from the contributors in The Mountains Of My Life when he writes about conquering the impossible. In 1955 he made attempts with others to climb France’s Aguille du Dru, which at the time was “the last, great unattainable legendary challenge of the Alps.” He was repeatedly turned away by the elements until his third try when he went solo, which would be tough enough, but he rejected the use of spits, a type of piton that was rising in popularity but which he saw as a form of cheating against traditional alpinism.

The drive to be the first, to be an historical figure in the field, must compel these men as well. What else would explain Maurice Herzog’s trade-off in June 1950 of being part of the first team to successfully reach a peak over 8,000 meters, the crest of Annapurna in the Himalayas, in exchange for the amputation of frostbitten toes and fingers “in the field, and without the use of an anesthetic.”

Injury and death are accepted aspects of the endeavor. Peter Potterfield’s vivid description from In The Zone of his 150-ft fall in Washington’s North Cascades in 1988 and the results of “several compound fractures which protruded grotesquely from his body” may have the reader squirming in his seat. Others aren’t as lucky and it can end in a moment’s notice. In David Roberts’ The Mountain Of My Fear, an account of his 1965 climb of Mount Huntington in Alaska, he had the misfortune to see his friend die. “Suddenly, Ed was flying backward through the air," he wrote. "I could see him fall, wordless, fifty feet free, then strike the steep ice below.” Yet, Roberts continued climbing and became a prolific chronicler of his adventures.

Art Davidson’s account of his group’s 1967 winter ascent of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley in Minus 148° is breathtaking, figuratively for the reader and literally for one of the participants. Many veteran climbers refused the offer of Davidson and his friend Shiro Nishimae because “chances of success were zero” and “the combination of cold, winter, wind, darkness, and altitude could be the harshest ever encountered.” By the second full day on Kahiltna Glacier, Jacques “Farine” Batkin fell to his death in a crevasse because rather than being filled in “the wind-driven snow had covered [it] with a crust that concealed [its] presence.” This event understandably fractured the party moving forward; some persevered, but their return to the camp was threatened. They stayed in a snow cave as they waited days to maker their descent, which led to dire declarations, such as “Pieces are coming off my bad ear!” Different members of the expedition kept diaries, allowing for a more complete version of the events for the reader.

Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void was very controversial in the climbing community because his partner, Simon Yates, cut their rope to save himself as a severely injured Simpson hung helplessly over a crevasse in the Peruvian Andes and could have pulled them both in. The excerpt takes place before that crucial point in their story, which was later made into a film.

Near Death In The Mountains is a gripping collection for those who climb up mountains and those who climb into comfortable chairs to read. It will change the perspective of the latter the next time they gaze upon a mountain, and no matter what the color, its majesty will be better appreciated.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://www.jakenorton.com Jake Norton

    Good review of what sounds like an interesting anthology of near death climbing stories. As a professional climber, guide, and mountain photographer (and speaker), I do, however, disagree quite strongly with your assertion that “at least the accomplishment of traveling from point A to point B by boat made some logical sense. The mountaineers really have nothing to offer for their rationale that equals the sailor.”

    Climbers, like sailors, explorers, and any other person who goes into a relative (or absolute) unknown does indeed have a rationale for their endeavor. And, climbers have been in fact quite eloquent about their reasons for climbing.

    George Mallory, while he did indeed quip “because it’s there” in response to the question of why he wanted to return to Everest for the third time, was actually quite philosophical on the subject:

    “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

    The urge to sail the seas goes far beyond going from “point A to point B” as I’m quite certain many sailors would argue, and likewise the desire to climb mountains is not rooted in a simple desire to reach the top and return back down again. Rather, exploration and the urge to do it is a physical manifestation of many people’s desire to push themselves, to overcome challenges, to see if they can indeed do something which at first seems undoable.

    It is, I’d argue, a physical manifestation of something that is innately human – to push further, to explore the boundaries of what is possible.

    You can read some additional thoughts on the mountains and why we choose to climb them on my blog.

    Thanks,

    Jake Norton