17 NOVEMBER 2001, Page 56

Disagreement at the highest level

Nick Seddon

THE CLIMB by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt Macmillan, £16.99, pp. 372, ISBN 0333907159 Although the summit is 8,848m above sea-level, the conquest of Mount Everest is now almost commonplace, largely thanks to the commercial expeditions which have made it a trophy for the cabinet of the affluent. But in May 1996 23 mountaineers on three such business trips were to discover that when nature shows her vicious side there's not enough room for crowds on the roof of the world, however rich you are. They all ascended by the south-east ridge which for the most part is a straightforward snow plod. The only bit that requires technical experience is a short, rocky section called the Hillary Step. It was here, just below the top, that ferocious weather tore apart a human traffic jam in a season that registered the highest body-count in Everest history.

Amidst the controversy that followed, Jon Krakauer, a client of 'Adventure Consultants' which had promised '100 per cent success' for the small matter of £65,000, wrote Into Thin Air. It became a bestseller. An otherwise masterly exposition of events and characters, it made the mistake of presenting Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian guide with Scott Fischer's 'Mountain Madness', as a villain. He was in fact a hero. He took on the storm alone and endured the roar of what was described as '100 freight trams passing over your head'. The climberwriter Galen Rowell later called it 'one of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history', and Boukreev was awarded the American Alpine Club's highest honour, the David A. Sowles Memorial Award. Still indigant, however, Boukreev, with coauthor DeWalt, wrote his own version, The Climb.

The prose style of this book does not compare well with the compelling elegance of Into Thin Air. Sections of Boukreev's honest account are apparently confirmed by DeWalt's commentary, although it can occasionally be confusing to establish who is saying what, and the transcriptions of the survivors' discussions afterwards form a disorientating patchwork of voices. There are also curious inconsistencies. The ambitious Scott Fischer, for instance, had bragged, 'We've got the Big E wired,' before he died in the storm. Yet an aberrant footnote states that for him the summit wasn't everything'.

The most engaging debate in the book concerns the exact role of the guides. Boukreev was a player in a game he had increasingly come to question. He was unhappy about inexperienced clients' expectations because his primary responsibility was not to pamper but to lead. He recalls asking, 'What is going to happen when there is nobody to hold their hands?' In the 'refrigerated pandemonium' of the South Col the answer became poignantly clear. At the same time, Boukreev's precept that 'it is not so necessary that a guide chat good, but that he can climb good' was vindicated when he single-handedly saved three 'Gucci guys' from certain death.

The closing sections of The Climb take an extended look at the intriguing Krakauer-Boukreev debate, which is essentially treated as a confrontation between 'opinion' and 'fact'. Krakauer's 'opinion' that Boukreev acted irresponsibly is simply undermined by the 'facts'. His clothing and equipment minimised the margin for error, his actions were authorised by Fischer, and the combination of courage and experience led to success against horrendous odds. The main problem here is that because the genesis of The Climb lies in self-justification, the hammering home of such convictions sometimes makes for tiresome reading.

It's easy to attribute blame, and Krakauer was quick to point a frost-bitten finger at Boukreev. But perhaps the sad dest thing is that Anatoli Boukreev, who never thought of the summit of a mountain as an achievement worth the sacrifice of a life', had his own career finally eradicated, not by Krakauer's words but by Himalayan snow, when he went back into thin air on Christmas Day 1997, His luck ran out in an avalanche on Annapurna. Fortunately for future expeditions, DeWalt is still around to carry on the dialogue.