Dark Shadows Falling and Everest

By Joe Simpson
By Broughton Coburn

Following on a proven success is as much a part of the publishing world as it is in film. Interest in mountaineering, and especially climbing Mt. Everest, has been at a peak since the phenomenal success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which has stayed near the top of the best-seller lists for several months and even been made into a television movie.

Krakauer’s book, which is one of the best reads of the year, is an account of the disastrous Everest expeditions of 1996. Those who have read Krakauer will recall that the team that led the rescue operation was an expedition filming the mountain for an Imax film. Everest: Mountain Without Mercy is a beautifully photographed account of the IMAX expedition, and ends up covering a lot of the same ground as Into Thin Air.

The book has been published under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, so while the text is virtually unreadable, the pictures are spectacular. If you buy it as a visual companion to Krakauer’s book, you won’t be disappointed.

A different kind of mountain book is Joe Simpson’s Dark Shadows Falling. Simpson is a veteran climber who was left for dead after a fall from Siula Grande in Peru (an experience recounted in an earlier book entitled Touching the Void). His own near-death experience gives him a special empathy for climbers who have been left in similar situations. Thus he is outraged by a Dutch expedition that filmed a dying man on Everest without doing anything to help him, and the two Japanese climbers who blithely passed by three dying Indians on their way to the summit in 1996.

Simpson takes on the role of moralist of the mountains while telling his own story of an attempt on Pumori. Mountain climbing for him is a religion – at one with the “ethos of the ancient Olympians.” Part of this code means climbing mountains the hard way: without oxygen and taking original routes wherever possible. But while it is bad enough that many mountains today are being “conquered” by tourists without the slightest competence in mountaineering, it is the breakdown in human feeling that bothers him the most.

Taking the moral high road always has the risk of making the author seem arrogant, but Simpson manages to avoid this. His concern for the lowering of ethical standards at high altitude is grounded in a deeply felt personal experience: “I shall never forget the horror of dying alone – the awful empty loneliness of it.”

In Simpson’s world, “We have no need of codes by which to judge our ethical response to situations. We know intuitively what is the correct way to behave.” Passing by a dying man without even stopping to hold his hand is a terrible violation of this universal standard of humane conduct, and undercuts the very foundation of society.

Recently, the high cost of mountain climbing (as much as $65,000 US to be guided up Everest) has come in for a good deal of criticism. Somehow, we feel, the commercialization of such an experience can only degrade it. What Joe Simpson lets us know is that there may be an even higher price to pay.

Review first published November 15, 1997.


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