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Lost & Found: David Gates on Galen Rowell

David Gates takes on In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, Galen Rowell’s account of the 1975 K2 disaster,in this Lost and Found from Tin House’s second issue.

Since I’ve never climbed a mountain and never hankered to, it’s weird that I obsessively read and reread mountaineering books. I’d guess what I’m hankering for is the sublime, in the antique literary sense of the term: terrifying majesty, majestic terror. The summit ridge of Everest in whiteout conditions, the Second Step looming hopelessly high above already-exhausted climbers, that psychedelically scary moment when they suddenly see no more mountain above them and understand that they’re at the highest place in the world. But—and here’s the weird thing within the weird thing—my favorite of these books, writer and photographer Galen Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, only tells about the second-highest place in the world. Pakistan’s K2, less than two rope lengths lower than Everest, is a shapelier mountain—it looks like nature copied it from the label of a soda bottle—and a tougher climb. Everest, of course, has the single best mountaineering story—Mallory and Irvine—but there’s a handful of K2 stories almost as creepy-deepy, and Rowell tells ‘em the way I like to hear ‘em. “Wolfe and Pasang dangled from the rope…Only two hundred feet farther down, great ice cliffs dropped off 6,500 feet toward the Godwin-Austen glacier…The fall was only an overture for the entirely unanticipated tragedy to come.”

Rowell devotes most of the book, though, to his firsthand account of the luckless, rancorous 1975 American K2 expedition led by Jim Whittaker, whose lead climbers had to turn back while still more than a vertical mile from the summit. After bad weather and strikes by the hundreds of local porters they’d hired—with eighteen other expeditions in the Karakoram Himalaya that spring, it was a seller’s market for labor—the defeated team came home to zany allegations that they’d been the Trojan horse for some high-altitude CIA operation. But even before they reached the mountain, the climbers had begun to hate each other and split up into factions; amazingly, they were willing to keep the commitment they’d made to hand Rowell their diaries. “Wick is sitting on the fence, I think,” wrote one team member of a colleague, “wanting to stay in good with Jim…I hope it’s a picket fence and he gets one up the ass.” Another wrote that Whittaker’s twin brother, Lou, also on the expedition, “should end up with an ice ax in the back of his head or a bullet between his eyes.” Sublimity and soap opera: just the combination for the nightstand.

This isn’t the book Rowell, an ambitious climber and heart-on-sleeve romantic, had wanted to end up writing. No wonder it works so well: his conflicted feelings are all over it, from the grandiloquent title those near-psychotic diary entries, from illustrious past expeditions to the 1975 fiasco, from his calendar-ready color photos of soaring mountain peaks to his black-and-white shot of an excrement-strew field many days’ march from the nearest PortoSan. “A three-day porter strike,” he writes, “meant eighteen hundred turds.” This from the guy who early in the book tells us that he came to Karakoram hoping to find “the land of my dreams”—a cliché that would shame a “real” writer, but that tells more about him than he could’ve revealed after eight hours of Flaubertian agonies. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods is utterly transparent: even its crude suspense-building devices (“only an overture for the unanticipated tragedy to come”), which Rowell must have learned from his own reading in mountaineering books, are perfectly straightforward in their manipulativeness. To read it is to be there with Rowell and his unhappy colleagues in the icy landscape they’re loving and defiling—and safe at home at the same time, warm and guilt-free, thousands of miles and a quarter of a century away.

David Gates is the author of Preston Falls, The Wonders of the Invisible World, and Jernigan, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  He teaches at Bennington College and The New School.

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Comments: 9

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