Over the edge

Jagged peaks, crevasse-laden glaciers and dizzying heights are not for the faint of heart. Neither are the selections in Cecil Kuhne’s new compilation of essays.

In Near Death in the Mountains: True Stories of Disaster and Survival, the most harrowing moments from 13 different climbing expeditions are gathered into an anthology as chilling as a night spent bivouacked at high altitude. Reading the book is far less dangerous, of course.

Kuhne is the editor of three previous anthologies of adventurous travel, and in this collection, he has proven his ability to select from among the best of mountaineering literature. Included are classic selections from books such as Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider; as well as Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, which told of a first-ever expedition to summit an 8,000-meter peak and became the most widely read mountaineering memoir of all time.

More modern selections include an excerpt from Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, a book that became a feature-length film dramatizing the author’s climbing accident in the Peruvian Andes. When Simpson shattered his leg, his partner chose to cut the rope that held them together in order to escape, and this story has become one of the most courageous tales of survival ever told.

A portion of Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes—an account of a Uruguayan rugby team’s airplane crash in the Andes and a heroic rescue effort—is also included, along with essays from Joe Tasker’s Savage Arena and Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life.

Despite different mountain locations and varying circumstances contributing to each story’s life-threatening crux, the essays begin to sound strikingly similar after a while. Most involve nasty storms, near-starvation, the onset of cold-weather injuries and broken bones that complicate retreat.

Given the organizing principle of the book, the onset of difficulty is no surprise. For this reason, readers may take more from the original books, as a developing plot and its resolution makes a more satisfying story than the isolated moments of crisis selected here. Reading repeated tales of mountaineering ventures gone awry might also start to feel depressingly morbid. Although all of these writers live to tell their tales, several of them sustain permanent injuries or witness the death of their companions.

And they don’t seem to skimp on the grisly details. Maurice Herzog, for instance, recounts how he watches in horror as strips of flesh begin to peel from his badly frostbitten hands. And Joe Simpson recalls how he “felt bones splitting” before he stared down at the “grotesque distortion in [his] right knee, twisting the leg into a strange zigzag.”

Some of the essays do manage to capture themes beyond the death and despair that permeate this collection. The courage it takes many of these writers to conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles is inspiring, and the ambition that spurs them towards their goals is admirable.

In his account of a soloing a new route up France’s Aiguille du Dru, Walter Bonatti likens his trials to a spiritual quest. When faced with dying alone on the route, he says that he stirred himself from despair by thinking: “I had spontaneously chosen the Dru to reconcile myself with my entire life and soul. I could not just sit there and wait for death.” What follows is his repeated effort to continue upwards, and he succeeds.

In the preface, Kuhne writes that the essays in this collection explain obsession in a way that “the rest of us can relate to but never fully comprehend.” While these stories do little to demystify the motivations of mountaineers, they do create the sense that a great gulf exists between those who simply read mountaineering literature and those who are out there really doing the suffering.