Near Death in the Mountains:
True Stories of Disaster and Survival
Edited by Cecil Kuhne

Reviewed by Beth Cole

“I climb to be in the mountains… for the joy of the wind, the sun, and the cold. All of the joy of this climb left me with Farine’s death” explains climber Greg Blomberg shortly after a member of his group fell into a crevasse. The author Art Davidson responds, “None of us climb for this… But we have to accept the risk that someone, maybe ourself, might be injured or killed” (81).

I enjoy a tough hike as much as the next person, but I can only dream of the drive, determination, and sheer insanity I would need to even consider putting my life and my friends’ lives at risk to climb the mountains described in Near Death in the Mountains. Following Near Death on the High Seas, Cecil Kuhne has compiled excerpts from some of the most famous and unnerving climbing stories and books of the past eight decades to create Near Death in the Mountains. Kuhne has brought together twelve stories, twelve authors, and twelve of the most awe-inducing mountains.

Each excerpt grapples with the unanswered question of what draws humans to defy their limits and summit seemingly impossible peaks. Extremely high altitudes mean extremely high risk, and many of the authors and characters succumb to frostbite, broken limbs, or even death. The climbers’ reactions to disaster display an emotional range from chillingly pragmatic to debilitatingly depressed. All the climbers are pushed on by an internal pulse that calls them to climb.

Most of the authors are not writers, and the technical language (e.g. bivouac, pitons) may send you to the dictionary, but it adds an authenticity that climbers and couch potatoes can both enjoy.

Since these stories are only excerpts, each includes an abstract in the beginning and often a postscript. The abstracts effectively hype the stories and most include warnings of what is to come. Walter Bonatti’s “The Mountains of My Life” directly warns, “Beware: his description of the experience is not for the faint of heart” (45).

The postscripts often contain the most chilling parts of the story. Author Joe Simpson shatters his leg, and, without a way to evacuate, he is left for dead by his friend. The story ends with his companion cutting the rope, and the postscript reveals that he drags himself down from over 20,000 feet to base camp.

These climbers are forced to make life and death decisions for their friends and for themselves. Maurice Herzog leads a successful 1950 ascent of Annapurna, but he is forced to amputate his frostbite destroyed toes and most of his fingers without anesthesia.

The earlier stories address the tension between the invention of new technology (e.g. spits, nylon ropes) and climbers who want to maintain the integrity of man facing nature. A 1938 story, “The White Spider,” bemoans how technology has taken away a valuable human element from climbing.  Many of the later stories would be impossible without the use of oxygen, ice screws, or helicopters.

From the Uruguayan rugby team whose planed crashed in the Andes to the WWII POW’s who willingly chose to climb Mt. Kenya, readers can address why they are drawn to these peaks from the safety of their armchairs, and, perhaps, can start to enter the psyche of a climber.

After his friend Ed is inexplicably blown 4,000 feet down Mount Kenya, David Roberts remarks, “We had spent forty days alone there, only to come back one man less, it seemed.  We found no answers to life: perhaps only the room to look for them (368)”. Even the climbers do not know what drives them, but the force behind their determination provides for incredible stories.

Cecil Kuhne, ed.
Near Death in the Mountains: True Stories of Disaster and Survival
(Random House, 2008).
0307279359 $14.95 495 pp.

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