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Book Review of: K2

Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain

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Review of K2, by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

K2, in case you don't know, is one of the 14 mountains that is 8,000 meters or higher. Only Mount Everest is higher than K2. But while Everest receives some monsoon warmth, K2 does not (it's quite a bit north of Everest). This, among other things, makes K2 more challenging to climb than Mount Everest.

>In fact, K2 has a far higher ratio of dead climbers to summitters than Everest does. The submarine K19 was called "The Widowmaker." This mountain could easily go by the same name. Mountaineering in general is a dangerous undertaking, and being able to do it safely is no small feat.

You don't take a quickie intro course and then call yourself a solid climber. You might crab crawl up a simple demo route at a shopping center or party, but that's not climbing. Just becoming competent with a dozen or so basic technical moves and techniques requires many hours of practice over many climbs. Once you get these basics down, you can work on being a real climber. Mountaineering, especially on those 8,000ers, is a tough and dangerous climbing specialty.

Incidentally, Ed is one of only 16 people who have climbed all 14 of the "8,000ers." He is one of the greatest mountaineers of all time. Though he doesn't go into detail about his remarkable feats, you can find those details in other accounts. The man is a legend.

If you look at the number of books on K2, the list is becoming crowded (kind of like Everest, these days). It seems nearly every title contains the word "Savage," so we can sigh with relief that this book doesn't use that word. This book makes a significant and unique contribution to the literature.

What struck me most in reading this book is Ed's clear ability to see reality. That ability has played a major role in his successful climbing career. He's got a certain humility that the best athletes have, and he never puts his ego above common sense.

My first climbing partner, Paul Hartman, has said something that is good for any good athlete to incorporate into his or her worldview. Paul says, "I know I'm good. I don't have to prove it to anybody." Paul absolutely will not take risks to meet some egotistical objective or to compete with another person. And neither will Ed. Insecurity is dangerous.

Something else that stood out in this book is the way Ed and David interwove the stories of seven expeditions on K2. Chinese film-makers differ from American film-makers in this regard, though Quentin Tarantino is an example of an American film-maker who has made extensive use of the interweaving technique. This makes for a more engaging experience, though some people prefer a straight chronological narrative.

The writing style was crisp and direct, rather than being bloated with unnecessary verbiage. On the verbiage that was used, this is very clearly a climber talking. Climbing routes are "attacked" and "solved," and eventually the mountain is "defeated." Words that are used in a general sense take on specific meanings in the climbing world. I don't know if this "climbing talk" would be an issue for most people or not.

So, what's between the covers of this book? It consists of seven chapters and an epilogue.

Chapter One, The Motivator, gets its name from a huge ice pinnacle (a serac) that was a feature noted by the 1938 expedition and others that followed. In 2008, it collapsed with tragic results for those in its way. Chapter Two, The Decision, introduces us to Ed's philosophy on when to turn back rather than summit--and why. In this chapter, Ed looks at how various people on other expeditions made that decision and what the results were. Each of the other chapters takes a theme like this and builds up to it, using accounts from 7 expeditions in the process.

The epilogue is Ed's summary of what's happened on K2 thus far and some thoughts on what may come next. He also talks about the changes he's made in his climbing career as he's moved out of the prime age for extreme climbing adventures. In this chapter, his character and wisdom come through. I think this is perhaps the best part of the book for me.

About the reviewer:

My own climbing experience consists of about a decade of mostly indoor climbing gym work, bouldering and top-roping on a variety of routes. I'm not considered a serious climber, because I don't spend a lot of time doing it. But I have taken classes and am a competent climber who can handle routes up to mid-level difficulty without "muscling" or "death gripping" my way along the routes. The star climbers at my climbing gym don't look down on us far less-talented climbers, but instead encourage us. This is a bit of that "brotherhood of the rope" Ed talks about.

I'm a long way from Ed's level in climbing, but we are both serious athletes. I cannot help but have serious respect for Ed as an athlete and as a man. He has a balanced, mature, intelligent approach to his sport and to life in general.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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