What I Thought Of… NO WAY DOWN: LIFE AND DEATH ON K2 by Graham Bowley

I first started reading mountaineering books in March 2008, when a tattered copy of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer I happened upon in a cafe in Guatemala gripped me so tightly that I dropped out of Spanish school so I could finish reading it, uninterrupted. (Had I been looking for an excuse to drop out of Spanish school anyway? Um, YES! But it was gripping.) I had never read anything like it before and despite my love of the Discovery Channel and its friends, I’d managed to avoid all Everest-based documentaries and movies. The only thing I knew about people climbing the world’s tallest mountains was that I didn’t understand why they did it, why these climbers risked their lives to indulge in a sport that seemed to have no respect for human life at all.

(And yes, I do see the irony of me reading mountaineering books. But anyway.)

“NO WAY DOWN: Life and Death on K2 is a dramatic account of the 2008 climbing tragedy on K2, the worst disaster in the mountain’s history. K2 may be second to Mount Everest in height but it is considered the most difficult mountain to climb on Earth. For this reason it’s known as The Climbers Mountain that only the very best climbers even attempt to conquer. Historically, one fourth of those who have attempted the summit have not made it down alive. August 1st, 2008 was the deadliest day ever on K2. On that fateful day, no fewer than ten climbing teams, 30 climbers from around the world, converged for an assault on the summit… it was one of the largest gatherings ever on those dangerous slopes. Working in loose coordination, each group left the final camp in the pre-dawn darkness… They had spent weeks on the mountain waiting, and finally the weather had cleared. Yet over the course of the next 24 hours, seemingly in slow motion punctuated by violent outbursts, the worst disaster in K2’s history unfolded, step by step… What unfolded that night remains one of history’s most dramatic and harrowing climbing stories. Heroism mixed with darkness, sanity with hallucination, tragedy with survival. Based on in-depth interviews with nearly every surviving climber and many sherpas and porters, the full depths of the drama can at last be told.”

No Way Down is one of the first climbing books I’ve read that isn’t about Everest (the only other one was the harrowing Touching the Void) and the only one that wasn’t written by or with someone who was involved in the climb in question, but I found it an absorbing read. Everest may be the world’s tallest mountain, but relatively speaking it’s not difficult to climb. (This has contributed to the commercialization of it and in turn, controversy; it seems if you have money to cover the price of the ticket, guides and sherpas will get you to the summit. No climbing experience required.) K2 is the second tallest, part of the Karakoram Range which sits on the border of China and Pakistan. It’s known as the Savage Mountain, and has killed one climber for every four who have made it to the summit.

Limerick man Gerard McDonnell on the summit of K2, August 2008.

I wanted to read No Way Down because one of the fatalities of the tragedy was Gerard McDonnell, a young Irish climber from Limerick who by all accounts was a bright light of a human being. I heard the news in August 2008 that McDonnell had summited K2, becoming the first Irishman to do so. He was reportedly in tears as held a tricolor aloft at the top (picture above), all the training, the effort and the risk suddenly worth it.

The following morning, he was missing and presumed dead. He’d been caught – it seemed – by  ice and snowfalls that had battered the mountain’s faces overnight, when McDonnell and his team had been attempting their late descent. Although the exact sequence of events that led to his death is contested, there is evidence to suggest that McDonnell died while trying to save the lives of three of his fellow climbers who having been caught in an avalanche, were hanging off the mountain and off each other, tangled upside down in their own ropes.

Unlike one of Everest’s darkest seasons – 1996, the subject of Into Thin Air – death on K2 seems to arise not out of bad planning or commercialization, or politics, or inexperienced climbers, but mostly out of sheer bad luck. Wrong place, wrong time. The mountain is a monster and those who try to climb her must battle her to reach the top, and then war with themselves to get back down – above 28,000 feet or “The Death Zone”, altitude starts to strip the body and the brain of function. Thus reading K2 stories is a different experience. Whereas Into Thin Air frustrated me, No Way Down terrified me.

The problem I have with this book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the cast of characters, but this is the case with most climbing books, as on a mountain like K2 or Everest there are generally crowds during summit season. You also find that many of the sherpas (high altitude porters) have similar names and people end up moving with teams they were perhaps not originally part of, which confuses the issue further. And there was one other thing: I found it extremely upsetting to read about how in a horrific incident a climber came upon the remains of what might well have been McDonnell, and I wonder how his friends and family feel reading about such awful details. I’m not sure that in that instance the author had to go quite so far, but then I supposed we are talking about an absolutely harrowing experience, and there’s little point in telling the story without telling the whole thing.

As for Bowley’s removal from events – he wasn’t on the mountain and is not a climber – I felt this benefited the book in that it enabled him to present an even and balanced account of what happened, taking into account everyone’s contributions and objections. (When altitude sickness strikes, so can logic and reason. People say and do things they never would otherwise and if they survive this, their memory of what happened to themselves and those around them can be unreliable. When they don’t make it down, their families contest the stories of what seems like uncharacteristic and impossible behavior. For this reason there are conflicting reports of nearly all mountaineering tragedies.) It may have stripped the text of some emotion though; the most moving part was, for me, the epilogue where Bowley describes meeting the climbers involved and even attending McDonnell’s wake, which was his introduction to this story.

I started reading these books because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to risk their life climbing a mountain. I actually felt, if I’m being honest, that their actions were disrespectful to life. Why, when you are lucky enough to be alive and healthy, would you go and do something that on a good day means you lose some toes or go blind and, on a bad, can result in a sudden ghastly death or even worse, a slow quiet one?

But what I’ve learned is that they do it because to them, it is the heights of living. They think it is us who are disrespectful to our lives, wasting them away on the mundane and the unchallenging.

At the top of the world they feel closest to nature, closest to the world, closest to what they might call God, and I, for one, am in awe of them.

The Gerard McDonnell Memorial Fund supports the children of the Pakistani and Nepalese sherpas who died during the same K2 tragedy that took Gerard’s life. Find out more about it and how to donate here.

Click here to buy No Way Down: Life on Death on K2 from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read all my book reviews.