Bowley, Graham: No Way Down – Life and Death on K2

Winter had arrived early on the highest slopes of Edinburgh as the host introduced “No Way Down” (2010). He had bought the book because attracted by the tag “An ‘Into Thin Air’ for the new century”, and felt it would provide a change for the Group by offering a new book on a new subject.

The author Graham Bowley was – as noted on the dust jacket – a journalist for the New York Times. More surprising was that he was a financial journalist. He continued to write financial/economic articles, together with a smattering of mountaineering pieces. As Bowley acknowledged in his preface, he had no prior interest in mountaineering before being drawn into writing first an article and then a book about K2. His subject was the 1 August 2008 tragedy where eleven of the world’s top climbers had died.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. Bowley told a gripping and dramatic story. The drama was enhanced by the use of dialogue and of a time sequence for the successive “scenes”. The reader was drawn on by wondering which of the climbers would live and which would die. The sense of impending tragedy was heightened by the symbolism of the yak’s throat being slit and his head stuck outside the tent, plus the superstitions of the porters, eager to propitiate the gods of the mountain and avoid bad luck.

Because Bowley did not have a mountaineering background, and had not been present at the events, the book did not reach the literary heights of some mountaineering classics. The group particularly favoured Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (about the 1996 Everest disaster), Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void” (cutting the rope in the Andes) and Heinreich Harrer’s “The White Spider” (about the north face of Eiger).

However, simply because Bowley did not have such a background, he was able to give a dispassionate account of the human failings of organisation and personality which had contributed to the tragedy, in a way that a passionate mountaineer could not. That made the book both unusual and valuable.

Bowley, however – unlike Krakauer – was not able to give great insight into what motivated people to climb. He makes some attempt at the end of his “Epilogue”:

“K2 was terrifically beautiful…yet…why had they come? Why had I come? For me their story possessed an archetypal force…basic and timeless…They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years attracted like flies to the light to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement…Some had emerged from the ordeal; others had perished. All had burned brightly in their lives…”

 This passage tries hard but is conventional, vague and unconvincing. We suspected that Bowley’s real views were better recorded in his earlier statement:

The truth was that climbing attracted strong characters, egos, oddballs, and they rubbed up against one another

and in his summation “K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors”.

So what did we think motivated such climbers? Some suggested that risk-taking was a normal aspect of human life –  even in crossing the road. High-risk mountaineering was simply at the far end of this scale, exciting and fuelled by testosterone. Males were normally the risk-takers, but that monopoly was going in today’s society.

Others felt that K2 mountaineering was in a category all by itself. The pleasures of normal hill-walking were obvious enough, at least to people living in Scotland. The adrenalin rush of extreme rock-climbing could also be comprehended, even if few of us were attracted to it. However, tackling K2 – an activity with a one in four mortality rate – was something quite different, more akin to Russian roulette.

Was it fuelled by a compulsion to find value in one’s life by being part of a tiny group of high achieving heroes? Only 277 people had successfully climbed K2 so far. So was it a craving for status, even if only in the climbing community? If so, it must have been quite a blow to arrive on K2 in 2008 and find over twenty other climbers trying to reach the top on the same day (or trying to “summit”, in the ugly neologism picked up by Bowley).

One of the attractions of the book was that Bowley rightly resisted the temptation to be judgemental in his writing, given the scope for adding to the grief of the bereaved. He was convincing in arguing that a kind of “groupthink” had taken over and allowed them collectively to make the error of pressing on to the summit too late in the day. Similarly he was not dogmatic in trying to resolve some of the riddles of exactly who had done what in the descent, noting that he had expected to establish a clear narrative but instead found himself “in some post-modern fractured tale”.

Occasionally, however, Bowley’s cloven hoof of judgement peeped out from under his toga of objectivity. The South Koreans did not get a very good press, suggested one reader, who suspected Bowley bought into the view that their large-scale nationalistic expedition was one of the root causes of the tragedy. Comparatively little effort had gone into recording the Koreans’ perspective or differentiating them as individuals, although that might reflect cost constraints. That Bowley did not think too much of the Dutchman Van Rooijen was also not very hard to work out, felt another. He thought it confirmed by the superbly deadpan comment that – Bowley having crossed the Atlantic to record the Dutchman’s viewpoint – Van Rooijen then sold rather than gave him a copy of his book.

By contrast, one member felt that Gerard McDonnell was eulogised to an extent that seemed implausible, which perhaps reflected American sentimentality about the Irish. And, felt another, it was perhaps surprising that Cecilie Skog attracted praise for being pretty but no comment for pressing single-mindedly on to the summit despite having been instrumental in precipitating the first death.

There were clearly difficult moral judgements that the climbers had to make about the extent to which they were willing to compromise their own safety – and their own chance of “summiting” –  by trying to help others. It was perhaps unsurprising that some, having got this far, were very ruthless, and remarkable that others were altruistic to the point of losing their own life. However, the fact that we felt equipped to venture judgments that the author did not was a tribute to the extent his story had brought the individuals alive (and to our presumption).

The mistakes made by some of the climbers in terms of not taking basic survival kit such as a GPS or sufficient oxygen bottles to accommodate a delay (there were porters to carry them) struck us as extraordinary. Given the odds of dying on K2, you would need to be a reckless risk-taker to undertake the climb, and perhaps that trait – that conviction of your own immortality – would inevitably be associated with a degree of carelessness and lack of realism about safety requirements.

It was a savage irony, noted one member, that effective co-operation between individuals and groups was at a premium in the situation they faced. Yet the type of ego-driven personality attracted to such a climb was liable to be the least adept at such co-operative activity. It was perhaps surprising that the groups had achieved even their initial degree of agreement.

In the book we discussed in May (Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis) the author observed that obtaining a long sought goal does not give more than temporary happiness. Soon it is on to the next goal, and making the journey gives more happiness than reaching the destination.

The truth of this was demonstrated in the compulsion that the K2 climbers felt to set out to risk their lives again, despite the horrors they had encountered on 1 August 2008. Thus Cecilie Skog was ice-climbing in the Rockies sixteen weeks after the death of her husband on K2. And Go Mi-sun, the star-climber in the South Korean team (and also female), died a year later on another mountain in northern Pakistan.

Sobering stuff, noted your correspondent. Meanwhile he observed a bottle of Ledaig malt from Tobermory being steadily drained by a fellow member, who claimed to be using it as a cold remedy.

 Hmmm….he must have been born on the same day as me…..