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Beautiful Failure


Dear Editor,

I am now ready to tell my firsthand encounter of being left alone to die this last May on Everest. It is a true story with no details embellished. I am willing to sell my story and photos to the party willing to pay the most for a story about human greed and the fight for survival.

Rock and Ice received this e-mail in September and it provided the grist for many jokes. I'm willing to sell my story about greed to the highest bidder. Classic irony, and pitiful and sad.

It's old news that high-altitude mountaineering has its share of crooks and self-indulgent bastards intent on capitalizing on misfortune and suffering. Books like High Crimes and Dark Summit lay out the offenses against common decency ad infinitum. Some mountaineers bum-rush tragedy like hyenas feeding on a half-dead gazelle. As evinced by the above letter, there's money to be made out of sweat, blood and death. The only way you could wring more value out of a pile of bodies on a high peak would be to re-animate them, strip them naked and get them to have sex. Today's culture thrives on the lowest common denominator, and new-school mountaineering ethics are malleable enough to allow climbers to abandon people and even ignore murder [see Secret Passage, No. 180] if it means tagging the summit and scoring a book deal.

The history of mountaineering is replete with examples of climbers deserting partners to gain the summit or save their own skins. Yet there are numerous shining instances of the opposite, where men have banded together in dire straits and sacrificed their own safety and success to follow a higher ethical imperative, what used to be called the Brotherhood of the Rope.

Two weeks after the ironic e-mail pinged up, Dr. Charles Houston died [see Passages, p. 24]. Houston, part of a group of brilliant and tough mountaineers who opened many gnarly peaks in Alaska, Canada and the Himalaya before they were even mapped, is considered one of the best American mountaineers, but his 1953 expedition to K2 is his legacy.

The facts are well known: After 10 days tent-bound in a storm at 25,500 feet, unable to light their stoves, eating jam mixed with snow in a futile effort to hydrate, Houston discovered blood clots in Art Gilkey's legs. With no debate, in spite of being poised to nab the first ascent of the most difficult mountain in the world, the seven men initiated a rescue effort that has inspired generations of climbers.

In the end, Gilkey died, and Houston, as the leader of the expedition, seemingly never forgave himself. A year later, and one day after K2 was summitted by an Italian team, Houston wandered into a hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire, 40 miles away from his home in Exeter, with no idea who he was. The stress of his failure had brought on an emotional collapse resulting in amnesia, and Houston would never climb another mountain.

Perhaps Jim Wickwire's letter to Houston was some consolation, and it is surely a lesson to today's aspiring climbers. Even better, I think, than having climbed K2 in 1978 would have been to have been with you 25 years before.

As Reinhold Messner said years later, Houston and his team were decent [and] strong and this is the inspiration for a lifetime.

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