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.