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Dark Summit — The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season

Review of Nick Heil’s New Climbing Book

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Cover of Dark Summit — The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil

In May, 2006 a disaster unfolded on Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Eleven people died that disastrous month, including one British climber that over 40 people walked past. Another climber eluded fate after being left for dead just below the summit. After spending the night outside, he rose Lazarus-like and was rescued from death by cold. Dark Summit by Nick Heil investigates this latest Everest disaster in a riveting and harrowing account of death, survival, and transformation on the roof of the world.

The 1996 Everest Disaster

A disaster unfolded on Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, on May 10, 1996. Guides and guided climbers pushed to the summit, some arriving perilously late and long past their scheduled turn-around times. The good weather changed abruptly as evening came, with ferocious winds, blowing snow, and frigid temperatures. Three Indian climbers perished on the North Ridge, while five others from Japan, the United States, and New Zealand died on the opposite south side of the mountain.

Another Everest Catastrope in 2006

The aftermath was a bunch of firsthand accounts, including the best-selling book Into Thin Air, and a raft of criticism that Everest was over-commercialized, unregulated, and too many inexperienced climbers were dragged to the roof of the world. Fast forward ten years to 2006 and not much has changed. The situation is worse. More climbers. More incompetency. More potential for another catastrophe.

David Sharp Left to Die

The Dark Summit by Nick Heil, released in spring 2008, tells a harrowing new story of death, controversy, and human callousness on Everest’s rocky slopes in May, 2006. On May 15 that year, David Sharp, a young British mountaineer, lay dying from exposure and high-altitude sickness high on the North Ridge of Mount Everest. Over 40 other climbers, heading to the nearby summit or descending, passed him by, leaving him to die alone.

Hall Left to Die…but Found Alive

A week later the same scenario repeated itself when Australian climber Lincoln Hall, after reaching the summit, was abandoned near the same place as Sharp on his descent. Hall was left for dead at 28,300 feet—snowblind, hypothermic, hypoxic, unresponsive, and unable to move. Others in his guided party, including Sherpas who tried for almost nine hours to bring him down, descended to safety, feeling that Hall was basically a dead man. His wife was called in Australia and his death reported to news agencies.

Resurrected from Cold Death

The next day a guided party with SummitClimb went for the top. At 5:30 in the morning, just before the crux Second Step, they found a man sitting above a 10,000 foot drop. One later wrote, “Not dead, not sleeping, but sitting cross-legged, in the process of changing his shirt. He had his down suit unzipped to the waist, his arms out of the sleeves, was wearing no hat, no gloves, no sunglasses…. ‘I imagine you’re surprised to see me here,’ he said.” They were. The man, Lincoln Hall, had survived the perilous night. Risen from the dead like Lazarus, he was awake and lucid, but badly frostbitten. To their humane credit, four of the party ceded their summit attempt to help Hall. Calls were made to Base Camp, a team of Sherpas were dispatched, and Hall was brought down from Everest alive.

The Dark Summit

Lincoln Hall was the lucky one. In that deadly year, eleven other climbers died on Mount Everest. Nick Heil, a former senior editor at Outside, climber, and skier wrote Dark Summit, a compelling account of the series of devastating events on Everest that Mayof 2006. The book is well-researched and authoritative, with lots of information acquired from those who were there. Heil raises, without bias or judgment, many of the moral questions that surrounded those events. Should Sharp have been left there? Could he have been rescued? Is there a moral imperative for passing climbers to try to not only sustain that life but save it? Heil also asks the tough questions about Everest’s commercialism; about its perils; about the safety of ill-prepared clients; about the responsibilities of guides and Sherpas; and about the ambiguities of moral choices and dilemmas at 28,000 feet.

There are no easy answers to any of those questions, but this book raises those questions objectively. I recommend it for anyone interested in mountaineering, the 8,000-meter summits of the world, and the trials of climbing Mount Everest. Dark Summit’s story is riveting, interesting, and compelling. It’s a great sequel to Into Thin Air.

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