The summit of K2, 1 August 2008. An exhausted band of climbers pump their fists into the clear blue sky – joining the elite who have conquered the world’s most lethal mountain. But as they celebrate, far below them an ice shelf collapses and sweeps away their ropes. They don’t know it yet, but they will be forced to descend into the blackness with no lines. Of the thirty who set out, eleven will never make it back.
No Way Down weaves a tale of human courage, folly, survival and devastating loss. The stories are heart-wrenching: the young married couple whose rope was torn apart by an avalanche, sending the husband to his death; the 61-year-old Frenchman who called his family from near the summit to say he wouldn’t make it home. So what drove them to try to conquer this elusive peak? And what went wrong that fateful day?
Mountaineering and me: we have a bit of a thing.
We have a bit of a thing because my Dad has a bit of a thing, and I was a Daddy's boy all the way. Before I could even walk he was carting me up munroes like a front rucksack, and when I got a little older - when I came to find my legs were my own - the closest I ever felt to him was when we went climbing together. We'd clamber up gulleys while I poured my heart about about problems at school; between breaths as we ran headlong up scree slopes I'd moan about my exams or dream aloud how this girl or that girl would be my girl if I had my way.
My Dad and I, we bonded up Ben Nevis. And we still do - though on littler hills, admittedly, a little less often. So I've a whole lifetime of hill-climbing behind me, and a special place set aside for the pursuit in my heart.
But climbing Everest, or K2, or the North face of the Eiger... that all's a way beyond me. That kind of extreme sports mountaineering is a whole other ball game from the one I recall so fondly. It's about summitting the unsummittable; it's about testing the limits of human endurance, and going places we as a species have precious little business with, as evidenced by the utter dearth of oxygen in the atmosphere when you're above 26,000 ft.
One fateful day, thirty climbers set out to do just that. An international coalition of mountaineers joined forces, against the better judgement of some among them, to stand shoulder to shoulder with giants on the second-highest point on the planet. It's August 1st, 2008, and on the Traverse beneath the Balcony Serac - a colossal abutment of glacial ice overhanging the primary route to K2's summit - nature waits with baited breath. Of the thirty climbers, only nineteen return.
No Way Down is their story, albeit second-hand. It's an exhilarating, atmospheric, and emotional tale of real human tragedy and incredible endurance. And in the hands of Graham Bowley, it's a tale well told. From interviews with all but a few of the survivors and their families, as well as with the loved ones of those lost that day, the reporter who broke the story for the New York Times has put together as coherent and respectful a picture of the events which led to these eleven deaths as we're likely to see short a first-hand account; and even then, there's enough disagreement about that fateful day on K2 that such a thing would surely be refuted.
Now Bowley, unlike Joe Simpson and Jon Krakauer, who brought to Touching the Void and Into Thin Air such intimacy and experience as to render them amongst the finest real-life survival stories in any literature, is no mountaineer. He's just a journalist. And that's a double-edged sword. On the plus side, Bowley's credentials mean he has an eye accustomed to picking out the essential story: there is a clarity and a balance to the narrative of No Way Down as he presents it, a coherence - if you'll indulge me a moment - in terms of plot and character that is as gold dust in non-fiction from the pen of its own participants.
However Bowley admits to a certain disinterest in the pursuit of the thirty men and women whose stories he aims to tell, as best he can. In the Author's Note he recalls:
"When my editor suggested I write about their ordeal for the newspaper, I balked at the idea - mountaineering had never interested me - although the next morning my story appeared on page one of the paper." (p.xi)
And the line between disinterest and plain Jane disdain is a precious fine one; even with my limited experience of mountaineering, No Way Down left this reader feeling a mite slighted on occasion. Take, for instance, the fact that the author's only actual experience of K2 was a trip to Base Camp - so to the foot of the mountain - during which time his photographer fainted from exhaustion and the pair were forced to turn back. This he wears like a badge of honour in his mini-bio, as if it were a qualification.
In short, Bowley seems rather more invested in the potential audience an account of these climbers' many trials might reap than in presenting a tale particularly empathetic with their determined pursuit of the summit. But at least he's professional about it. Though coldly, he accounts for their respective rationales, and there are moments when the mist lifts and the clouds part and we see an ocean of mountains before us, staggering natural beauty captured just so: the very vistas one imagines the mountaineers in part strive so earnestly to see for themselves. No Way Down is at its finest at such times, and irrespective of its author's feelings for the subject, the devastating tale of ill-fated dreamers chronicled herein is one well worth the telling.
No Way Down
by Graham Bowley
UK Publication: July 2010, Penguin US Publication: August 2010, Harper