Book Review: K2: Life and Death, No Way Down and Above the Clouds

So recently I've become weirdly obsessed with high altitude mountaineering. I am not a mountaineer. I have only climbed as high as Munros and some Swiss couloirs in Grindelwald, and I have only ever been as high as ~3,480 metres (11,482ft) at JungfrauJoch in the Swiss alps (the station sits at 3,471 but we hiked above this for a time). However, I have become completely captivated by the mindset and the dedication of those who climb in the ice and snow and rock that lies above 8000m. Consequently I have read several books on the subject in quick succession and wanted to do a review of them.

Ed Viesturs (and David Roberts): K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain.

K2 is one of the Karakoram peaks; is 8,611 m tall and was (probably, maybe) originally known as Chogori (this however just means 'big mountain', so may instead have been a befuddled answer to a question. K2 is also not visible from surrounding living areas, so may not have been named at all). However K2 (a geological survey number) has become an aptly sharp and clinical name for a very dangerous mountain. K2 is the second highest 8,000m plus peak, but is notoriously difficult to climb due to its overhanging ice seracs, its very technical rock climbing above 8,000m and very exposed upper slopes. It consequently has a far higher death rate than Everest or some other 8,000-ers.

This book is more a review of multiple expeditions to K2, and an analysis of these, than a personal account of climbing. Viesturs can be rather critical of others, but this is partially due to his sensible and risk-averse climbing style, which arguably is how he has been so successful without suffering much injury himself. He can come across a little 'teacherly' or parental at points, but I really enjoyed this book. I found the commentary on loyalty and forming good teams, on risk and ambition, and on the price of playing about at 8,000 m very interesting. This book is also very honest, which apparently some of his other works (for example No Shortcuts to the Top) lose a little. He is very dedicated in his approach to mountaineering, and very precise, and this is obvious in his commentary on other attempts. Probably a great evocative book for someone intending to actually climb the thing or to climb other serious peaks, as it gives some real insight into what makes a good climber who will survive the attempt (never mind just summitting), and to where others have gone wrong. He also gives a great account of times he feels he took unacceptable risk, so Viesturs is willing to self-analyse.

Graham Bowley: No Way Down: Life and Death on K2.

Image from the Tripleblaze book review of No Way Down:

God, titleists really are obsessed with the life and death angle. This book is about the 2008 K2 disaster. Its the book I'd least recommend from the list. Its just not at the same caliber, but is interesting nonetheless and a good read for people who know very little about the sport. Its written by journalist who does not climb, and you can tell. The writing is very dramatic but when the book turns to analysis of climbing and risk, its just not very deep. As the writer is not a climber, in some cases he rather misses the point, and you can tell that he lacks the conviction in what makes something like this worthwhile and important. He also makes some huge assumptions on the thoughts, feelings, and trustworthiness of certain mountaineers, including some who perished. This is a quality in dramatic writing, but seems unacceptable given how far he is from really understanding the soul of the matter.

Anatoli Boukreev: Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer.

I would recommend this book most of all. If you read only one, read this. It is a biography composed of personal diary entries and muses about several famous peaks; about training and sacrifice; about the culture of USSR mountaineering; and about Boukreev's relationship with the mountains. This book at points is almost spiritual, for him the mountains are everything, training is everything. There are some incredible quotes in it about the value of training, and about the mountains as a spiritual home. He reminds of the quote about Killian Journet "I truly believe if he did not have the mountains he would die" (I cannot for the life of me find the source, let me know if you know). To read this book for me was to fall in love with mountains, and with Boukreev, and his humility and courage. It was interesting too from a psychological perspective, looking at the whole worldview created by his upbringing.

Like Viesturs, Boukreev is a cautious mountaineer, albeit in a slightly different way. Viesturs seems to arise from his precise safety concerns and interest in doing things right, Boukreevs from his immense experience and connection with his body and environment. Boukreev has also written on times where he felt he gave too much, and risked too much.

Why am I so interested in this stuff? Because this literature is an amazing mix of athleticism and Psychology. These individuals train exceptionally hard, to be in amazing shape, to somehow survive an atmosphere where you are literally dying by the second. High altitude hypoxia (lack of oxygen) does incredible things to a mind. Many reviews I saw online find these accounts irritating because no-one is a completely reliable narrator and reports of the same events can be wildly conflicting, but that's part of what I find so very interesting. This world is definitely a world people do not understand- all accounts are surrounded by commenters calling such mountaineers selfish, or misunderstanding how difficult it is to help someone else at that altitude, or misunderstanding just how impossible it is to walk a few hundred metres at the top of the world. I want to understand.


If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

What are your opinions of high altitude mountaineering?


  1. Great reviews! Always on the lookout for some new book recommendations!!

    1. If youre interested in what is, admittedly, a niche subject; Id recommend you start with Boukreev- theres stuff in that definitely applicable to running!

      Thanks for commenting :-)