On K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, a cairn stands in memory of those who drew their last breaths amid some of the grandest views on earth.
Atop the rocks, memorial plaques – metal plates once used for meals, with names engraved upon them – clank in the wind. As time goes by, their number grows and grows.
Another memorial can be found far below the surface of the earth in Mexico. A tombstone with a name written in soot from a carbide lamp, it commemorates a young man who hoped to endure the “extreme verticality” of one of the world’s deepest caves.
Why would anyone follow in the footsteps of these souls? And what do they find along the way?
Two new books try to find the answers, one in the gripping tale of heroism and tragedy on a mountain in the Himalayas and the other in the ongoing efforts of men and women to descend into the deepest corners of the earth.
Blind Descent, the more eye-opening of the two books, takes readers into miles-deep “supercaves” below Mexico and the republic of Georgia, so dark that they’re the “luminal equivalent of absolute zero,” without a ray of natural light.
The caves are cold and damp, too, but hardly the silent and airless tombs you might imagine. They’re full of fast-moving winds, ear-pounding noise, poisonous snakes, and falling rocks, all permeated by what author and outdoors journalist James M. Tabor describes as a “uniquely alive smell.”
Unless you’re a dedicated reader of National Geographic, you may have never heard of these explorers who are on a “quest to discover the deepest place on earth,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. And no wonder: The caves aren’t glamorous or TV-ready and neither are the dirty and gritty explorers. “We prefer our heroes clean and beautiful,” Tabor contends, and these people don’t quite fit.
Even so, “extreme cave exploration is just as exciting, difficult and deadly” as space exploration and mountaineering, Tabor writes. Especially when two men and their teams fight for fame by going deeper than ever before – sleeping on tiny ledges, diving through underground lakes, and eating between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day of “freeze-dried glop” and other nondelicacies.
More than 28,000 feet above sea level on K2, many of the risks are the same as those deep below the surface: darkness, dehydration, frayed ropes, and frayed nerves. They all appear in No Way Down, the tragic story of climbers who fell victim to miscalculations and misfortune during a deadly few days just two years ago.
While Mt. Everest is much more famous, many mountaineers consider K2 to be a much harder and more prestigious climb, although some worry that too many amateurs are trying to reach the summit.
The climbers in 2008 came equipped with satellite phones, GPS gizmos, and oxygen supplies. But even technology couldn’t protect them from what author and New York Times reporter Graham Bowley describes as “fatal flaws and staggering errors.” They ended up having to rely on their wits, their sure-footedness and each other to survive.
Both books share similar weaknesses. Readers may find themselves adrift amid promontories, carabiners, and, in the caves, complicated scuba equipment. Photographs help, but there are no diagrams and glossaries to provide a better sense of the hazards in the paths of the explorers and the tools they use to fight back.
More important, both authors must rely on witnesses because they weren’t on K2 in 2008 or in the supercaves during the expeditions. The books lack the drive of the first-person narrative that turned “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s epic tale of disaster on Mt. Everest, into a classic for the ages.
Even so, the most fascinating climbers and cavers still manage to come alive on the page.
In “Blind Descent,” the main caver is an American man in his 50s, a grizzled, no-nonsense engineer whose passion for underground exploration isn’t dampened by the need to hustle expedition money from corporate sponsors. He’s a curmudgeon who alienates journalists, divides teammates, and attracts younger women, including some of his best climbers.
On K2, the large cast of characters includes an Irishman carrying the hopes of his country on his young shoulders, an aging but agile Frenchman, and a striking young couple from Norway full of energy and ambition.
With the pace of an avalanche, the book moves swiftly toward the moments when the climbers find their place in history: among the rescuers, the rescued, or the names on those tin plaques.
“No Way Down” and “Blind Descent” won’t settle the eternal debate about whether explorers like these are courageous or foolhardy danger junkies. (“Both” still seems to be the best answer.)
Even so, these books are more than exotic travelogues or simple tales of adventure and disaster. Ultimately, they each tell a story of glory found and prices paid, of the heights and depths we reach when we ignore limits.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.