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K2 climbers horror story gets proper telling in 'No Way Down'

| Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's like a horror movie. You meet a group of likable people bent on a noble quest. But then a sinister force starts picking them off. As the news spreads among the survivors, some brave souls risk their lives in rescue attempts. But in the end, 11 die.

This is no horror movie. It's the fascinating tour de force of a book, "No Way Down: Life and Death on K2," the story of how a lethal disaster unfolded among climbers in 2008 on the second-highest mountain in the world.

Following a huge cast of characters from the United States, Norway, Italy, South Korea and elsewhere, Graham Bowley reconstructs the triumph and terror that climbers encountered on the mountain. Almost all the deaths struck on the way down. The mountain did its worst, with avalanches, extreme cold, oxygen deprivation and treacherous slopes where exhausted climbers were one misstep away from death.

Some of the scenes Bowley paints could, in fact, fit in a horror movie: the young woman who calls in vain for her husband, who has just been swept away by falling ice. The climbers who catch fleeting glimpses of others hurtling to their deaths. The leader of an Italian expedition who escapes an avalanche, only to see that the tumbling snow included the boot of an Irish friend -- and a single, blue human eye.

Yet, there are cheerier moments, describing the elation of reaching the top and the camaraderie of climbers from different nations as they cooperated in their quest. Readers get a glimpse of an outsized human endeavor that most will never know.

Bowley wove his tale together after hundreds of interviews with dozens of people, and the result is a triumph of storytelling. A Norwegian climber, after strolling for three hours with Bowley, turned to him and said, "We think you are the one to tell our story."

The reader can only agree.

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