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Book Reviews

Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea

by Clint Willis, ed.

Into Thin Air: The Illustrated Edition

by Jon Krakauer

High: Stories of Survival from Everest and K2

by Clint Willis, ed.

K2: Dreams and Reality

by Jim Haberl

Sometimes simple demographics make it possible to predict what books are going to top the non-fiction bestseller lists. In recent years, baby boomers hoping to live long and prosper have fuelled prolific sales of books about health, diet, and personal finance. In May 1997, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm appeared on bookstore shelves and rekindled interest in a genre that had lain dormant since 1974. That year, Alive, Piers Paul Read’s account of a Uruguayan soccer team’s remarkable survival of a plane crash in the Andes, captured the popular imagination and shot to the top of the bestseller heap. Not since then has real-life adventure been so hot.

Into Thin Air describes the ill-fated 1996 mountaineering season on Mount Everest, during which eight climbers from multiple expeditions died on the south side of the mountain. The Perfect Storm recreates a devastating North Atlantic storm in 1991 that drowned fishermen at sea and thwarted the heroic efforts of rescuers. In both accounts, men and women face brutal extremes of nature; in both, courage, luck, and death play a role in the outcomes.

And, because they skillfully transport readers out of their easy chairs and into hostile realms as foreign to most people as the moon, both books have received widespread popular acclaim. According to a spokesperson from Random House of Canada, the hardcover version of Into Thin Air has sold 40,000 copies in this country. W.W. Norton, Junger’s publisher, won’t release any sales figures for The Perfect Storm, but last year the books were one-two on The Globe and Mail’s paperback non-fiction bestseller list. As I write, they occupy fourth and third place respectively on the same list of The New York Times.

It’s no surprise, then, that Krakauer’s and Junger’s blockbusters have spawned a number of new titles about mountaineering and seafaring, as well as reprints of better-known classics of the genres. Notable recently rejuvenated works include Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna (1952), an account of a French climbing team’s first-ever ascent of an 8,000-metre peak, and Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, which recounts how Sir Ernest Shackleton and a crew of sailors struggled back to civilization after their wooden ship became trapped in Antarctic ice in 1915.

The spinoffs also come direct from the source. Around last Christmas, bookstores received Into Thin Air: The Illustrated Edition, a handsome coffee-table volume that incorporates some 250 black-and-white photographs not included in the original hardcover, original maps and illustrations, and a new postscript by Krakauer. Interestingly, the postscript is Krakauer’s detailed response to criticisms levelled against him in The Climb, an alternative telling of the same Everest disaster co-written by G. Weston DeWalt and Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climber who felt, not incorrectly, that he was unfavourably portrayed in Into Thin Air. Also weighing in on the Everest tragedy is Joe Simpson, whose Dark Shadows Falling explores some of the ethical questions debated in the wake of Into Thin Air. Does the “commercialization” of historic peaks like Everest – which permits relatively inexperienced but wealthy climber-clients to pay $65,000 for the privilege of being guided to the summit – undermine traditional mountaineering ethics? Does it endanger lives? Simpson, one of the sport’s most articulate practitioner-writers, thinks so.

From a technical point of view, apart from the treacherous Khumbu Icefall at the start of the traditional South Col route, the climb up 29,028-ft. Everest isn’t outrageously difficult. But on the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, there is no easy way up. Its brutal, fickle weather and steep, avalanche-prone slopes have chalked up an appalling loss of life since the first attempts on the summit in the 1930s, and many mountaineers regard it as an even bigger challenge than Everest.

Some of the best writing about both mountains can be found in High: Stories of Survival from Everest and K2. Here, editor Clint Willis assembles 16 excerpts from books about the Himalayan giants, and he’s chosen well. Many of the world’s foremost contemporary climber-writers – Chris Bonington, Alan Burgess, Jon Krakauer, Rick Ridgeway, David Roberts, Galen Rowell – are represented. So are a handful of early greats, like the Italian climber and K2 pioneer, Walter Bonatti, and Everest trailblazer F.S. Smythe. I enjoyed pieces by lesser lights like Matt Dickinson, a film cameraman with scant climbing background, who describes how he spent a chilly night in a tent high on Everest as another climber lay dying in a tent only a few metres away. Canadian climber Jim Haberl recounts his summit day on K2 in 1993 and the horrifying spectacle of watching his climbing partner hurtle to his death. And there’s a fabulous gross-out anecdote from Brummie Stokes, a British army major who climbed Everest in 1976 and suffered severe frostbite. In the High excerpt, Stokes is back in Britain after the expedition, swilling pints at a pub, when a fellow partier asks to see his soon-to-be-amputated toes. “The next thing I knew, a sharp pain was shooting up through my ankle and I looked down to see her fainting at my feet,” writes Stokes. “She had tweaked my big toe hard and it had crumbled away in her fingers. Now it was lying forlornly on the carpet – although not for long. The dog saw to that.”

Another book riding the coattails of the Into Thin Air phenomenon is the reissued K2: Dreams and Reality. Author Jim Haberl, a mountain guide based in Squamish, British Columbia, summited K2 in 1993 and originally self-published K2 (under the Tantalus Publishing imprint) a year later. It’s a straightforward account that succeeds mostly as a primer to what happens on a typical Himalayan expedition. The trials of planning, travelling to Pakistan, recruiting porters, and marching to base camp are all duly recorded, as is the climbing team’s gradual progress up the mountain. Unfortunately, Haberl offers little introspection or personal revelation, elements that tend to distinguish the best climbing accounts from their more prosaic cousins. As a result, the book doesn’t leave as lasting an impression as others (such as Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy) on the same subject. Haberl is a fine photographer though, and his photos in K2 really communicate the glorious forbidding majesty of these mountains.

The sea is probably the only place where people can find adventure that equals or surpasses what can be found in the mountains. This fact hasn’t been lost on the crew at Thunder’s Mouth Press, who, to cater to the same crowd that gobbled up The Perfect Storm, have served up Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea. Its 16 selections of fiction and non-fiction should more than satisfy devotees of the genre.

Some writers in Rough Water, like the sea novelist Patrick O’Brian, the legendary British single-handed sailor Robin Knox-Johnson, and R.H. Dana Jr., will be familiar to fans of sailing literature. Dana was a sailor on trade vessels in the 1830s, and in an excerpt from his autobiographical classic, Two Years Before the Mast, we read about his reactions to the tyrannical, sadistic captain of a brig on which Dana was a crew member. In another chapter we meet another horrible, though fictional, helmsman: the infamous Captain Queeg, the villain in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. The requisite Titanic piece comes from Lawrence Beesley’s The Loss of the S.S. Titanic. In another chapter by Frank Mulville (from In Granma’s Wake), you can feel the author’s heartbreak as he watches his boat smash to pieces – not at sea, but in a storm in a supposedly safe harbour.

Another seafaring adventure well worth reading is Godforsaken Sea, by Derek Lundy, a carefully reported chronicle of the 1996 Vendee Globe ocean race. The Vendee Globe is the ultimate sailing challenge: solo sailors pilot multi-million-dollar, 60-foot boats from France deep into the South Atlantic, circle Antarctica, then return to their starting point. They sail non-stop for three to four months and cover 12,000 miles. During the race’s crux, the dreaded Southern Ocean, they contend with hurricane-force winds, waves as high as six-storey buildings, potential collisions with icebergs, knockdowns and capsizes, sleep deprivation, loneliness, fear, broken masts, and malfunctioning equipment. In 1996, the competitors were 14 men and two women, all professional sailors from France, Britain, Australia, and Canada. (The Canadian, Gerry Roufs, disappeared without a trace in the Southern Ocean.) Lundy, an amateur sailor himself, is clearly in awe of their skill and courage, and his vivid descriptions of the unbelievable rigours they face during the race makes it easy to understand why.

One thing I liked about Godforsaken Sea is that Lundy is careful to explain to landlubbers what halyards, sheets, shrouds, transoms, and all those other boat parts are. I loved these quickie lessons. Knowing language peculiar to a sport brings you closer to that sport. Similarly, Lundy opens up the world of big-time ocean racing through occasional forays into its history, the theory and practice of sailboat design, weather forecasting, and even a discussion of the genetic makeup of thrillseekers. Some people, it seems, only feel they’re alive when they’re staring death in the face.

The latter point is pertinent to the real-life adventure phenomenon in publishing. As long as those people are around – and they always will be – the rest of us will want to read about them.