Tuesday, November 24, 2009

looking a bit peaky

I thought the name of Michael Buerk's guest on Radio 4's The Choice rang a bell when it was trailed during the Today programme that preceded it this morning - the couple of minutes of the show I caught provided the necessary context: Cathy O'Dowd, mountaineer, adventurer and author.

I know the name because she features in Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's account of the events on Mount Everest in May 1996 when eight climbers died. The South African expedition that O'Dowd was a part of, led by O'Dowd's husband Ian Woodall (though they weren't married at the time), comes in for some fairly heavy criticism in the book. Krakauer seems to have taken an instant dislike to Woodall in particular - Krakauer's friend Andy de Klerk was one of the original members of Woodall's expedition, but resigned in protest at Woodall's leadership before the Everest attempt, and Krakauer's expedition leader (and one of the eventual list of fatalities) Rob Hall seems to have been of a similar opinion. Krakauer's original Outside magazine article (which mentions O'Dowd and Woodall) can be found here, and a preview of the book can be found here.

I thoroughly recommend reading Into Thin Air, but of course there's more than one side to every story. O'Dowd seemed perfectly sane, humane and reasonable during the interview, which focused on her unsuccessful attempt to save Fran Arsentiev's life on a later ascent of Everest in 1998. Her notes on the 1996 expedition can be found on her website here and here. Yet another view of the events is provided by Anatoli Boukreev's book The Climb, which addresses some of the criticisms of his actions in 1996 made in Krakauer's book. If you're not all Everest disaster-ed out after that, try Beck Weathers' Left For Dead for yet another account of the same events.

It's inevitable that different people have wildly differing recollections of the same events when those events take place in the so-called "death zone" above 8000 metres, where rational thought is as difficult as summoning the energy to move. Much as I love mountains, once you get to a point beyond which you can get up by parking the car, putting your boots on and walking, i.e. the point where ice-axes, crampons and rope start to be required, I lose interest quite rapidly. Also the "death zone" thing is a bit troubling: death = bad in my book.

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