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Book Review: One Mountain Thousand Summits


Pemba Gyalje and Gerard McDonnell on the summit of K2 (8611m), Karakoram, Pakistan [Photo] Gerard McDonnell

The book is organized into three parts. The first offers a play-by-play of the events unfolding on the mountain and an introduction to the characters—both on the mountain and off. It also lays out a wealth of information that gives the reader a basic knowledge of everything from K2's climbing history to the use of satellite phones in modern mountaineering to the signs, symptoms and treatment for hypoxia.

Part Two examines the role of sherpas and high-altitude porters in the climbing world, centering the majority of his analysis on the dynamics of the 2008 K2 expeditions. Wilkinson gives voice to the experiences of sherpas Chhiring Dorje and Pemba Gyalje, whose experiences were overwhelmingly ignored by mainstream media, but who played important roles in the outcome of the events that August.

The discussions featured in Part Three center around Gerard McDonnell, an Irish climber and member of the Dutch Norit Expedition who died on K2. Little is known about McDonnell's experience during the disaster and much of this section is devoted to research and speculation regarding his fate. In the end, Wilkinson reluctantly draws his own conclusions about the climber, using photos and the testimonies of other climbers to piece together McDonnell's final hours.

The organization of One Mountain Thousand Summits allows for a discussion of the events on K2 themselves, pertinent history, expedition politics and climbing ethics. It also allows ample room for Wilkinson to tackle issues that previous investigators of the tragedy failed to discuss, such as the courageous actions of Dorje and Gyalje and the mystery of Gerard McDonnell's fate.

While some readers may be familiar with the events, those less savvy will be frustrated by the shifting narrative. Wilkinson changes his focus continually, jumping from topic to topic. In Chapter Two alone, he details the challenges of high-altitude mountaineering, sets a chaotic scene as the avalanche of ice sweeps down the Bottleneck, describes the angst of family members waiting for news at their homes all over the world and examines the use and history of satellite phones in the alpine realm, with little transition in between. While each snippet contributes to the broader story, the choppy account can be confusing—and a tease. Often I would read one of these fascinating segments and lust for more details that never came.

However, these abrupt changes do not spoil Wilkinson's meticulous research, obvious devotion to accuracy and unbridled creativity. The gritty oeuvre is not only intensely captivating, but also the most comprehensive and introspective account of the disastrous events that took place on K2 two summers ago.

Learn more about the 2008 tragedies on K2 in the Alpinist NewsWires; August 1, August 4, August 5, August 7 and August 18, 2008.
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