My interest in high mountain climbing from an armchair perspective goes back in earnest to Jon Krakauer's controversial "Into Thin Air", chronicling the disastrous events of May 1996 when two guided expeditions to the summit of Everest came a cropper in a twilight blizzard as they were coming late off the summit. Eight climbers died that day, the controversy over guided high mountain expeditions spilled over into popular culture, and dozens of books were launched. I learned as I explored the literary aftermath of that event that big mountain climbing is a contentious business.
But as I delved deeper into 'alpine' literature I discovered the dissension, finger-pointing, and little mistakes that lead to disaster go right along with the amazing tales of courage and derring-do at the end of a rope at 8000 meters. I've read probably a dozen or more books on the subject over the years and there are plenty more out there, going back to the early 20th century tales of such icons of the "sport" as Mallory, Irvine, and the Duke of Abruzzi. The two best writers I've read are Krakauer and Ed Viesturs.
Krakauer is a gifted writer who happens to have climbed, Viesturs is a modern climbing icon turned effective writer. He made it back safely from all 14 eight thousand meter peaks, yet has also watched climbers, including friends and climbing partners, die in the many and various ways it can happen in that otherworldly environment above 25,000 feet. He professes a philosophy backed up with his own boots on the ground that it is better to safely fail at a summit attempt than to risk dying by making rash decisions at the golden moment when a summit seems in reach but things can easily go sideways for a hundred different reasons.
Viesturs summitted K2 in 1992 during a season in which numerous climbers died trying, and this book is a look back at that expedition, as well as the earlier famed Italian and American expeditions that resulted in the early attempts at the summit. Just getting to K2 is an amazing ordeal. But the climbing, avalanche and altitude dangers once you reach base camp are grinding. Big mountain climbers can tolerate pain and terror and cold and boredom at a level that you or I cannot process. Viesturs writes in a fluid and compelling way about the psychological dynamics of climbing and climbers as much as he does about routes and pitches and itineraries which are often the meat of books like these. His comparison of his experiences in 1992 with those of the pioneers in the Karakoram from generations before give an expansive view of the differences and similarities in men who climbed in flannel and hob nail boots and those who used Gore-Tex and called home on satellite phones.
As an aside, Viesturs writes predominantly about men in this book, although he climbed with women on K2 and helped rescue the tragic and erotic Chantal Mauduit from high on the mountain before his own summit.
Controversy in 8000 meter climbing has existed from the beginning, and these people are such freakish athletes that they live long lives when they aren't killed climbing. So the grudges and recriminations endure. Viesters manages this minefield with an even hand and generous spirit. This is a good read whether you are fascinated by climbing or just curious. I hope to get to meet Viesturs some day. He has retained his humanity at the high levels of a community that often strips it away.