In recent years, mountaineering’s grand prize has begun to shift from the world’s highest summit to its riskiest: K2. Even after a serac collapse took the lives of 11 experienced climbers there in 2008, this year saw the vaunted peak’s first ever commercial expedition. Which makes K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain a particularly timely read. Co-writing with adventure contributor David Roberts, renowned alpinist Ed Viesturs relays a history of the mountain through tales of those who’ve climbed it, including his own.
As the first American to scale all 14 8,000-meter peaks, Viesturs is famous for the meticulousness of his preparation, and for his caution. The historic climbs he most admires—like the 1938 trek led by Charles Houston that pioneered the eventual route to K2’s summit—are not those on which the climbers overcame hazardous conditions and managed with great good luck to make it. Rather, Viesturs favors stories in which climbers faced with similar conditions opted to turn back. Houston’s small group of four decided that the remainder of their supplies would last long enough for two of them to scout a route to 26,000 feet—2,250 feet below the summit—and then all must turn back to avoid descending in bad weather. “Reaching the top is optional,” Viesturs writes. “Getting down is mandatory.”
In the wake of last year’s tragedy, Viesturs received a letter of thanks from climber Chris Klinke, who had been on the mountain that day. Klinke said he had turned around just before reaching the Motivator (Viesturs’s name for the overhanging serac) because he remembered Viesturs’s own regrets about summiting in a whiteout. The weather was fine, Klinke wrote. Twenty-four other people were heading to the peak. But, he said, “I felt my gut telling me something entirely different.” He trusted his gut, and he lived—a true success story in Viesturs’s book.--Anthony Brandt