Book review: No Way Down by Graham Bowley

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When a group of international climbers became trapped by a falling glacier at the top of K2 in the Himalayas in 2008, it turned into one of the most notorious tales of death and survival in mountaineering history.

Eleven people died in their assault on one of the world’s deadliest mountains and two were seriously injured.

So what drove them to conquer this elusive peak and what went wrong on that fateful August day?

With a journalist’s eye for human drama, Graham Bowley reveals their brutal struggle for survival and weaves a heart-wrenching tale of courage, folly and loss.

In an hour-by-hour account of events, No Way Down takes us from the base camp bravado to the horror of the ice shelf collapse and the desperate battle to descend the mountain with no lines and in total darkness.

From the young married couple whose rope gives way and sends one of them to their death, to the phone call from a Frenchman near the summit telling his family he will never make it home, this is fact that reads like terrifying fiction.

K2’s deadliness has always been part of its attraction to serious climbers. The mountaineer’s mountain, only 278 people have ever stood on its summit in contrast to the thousands who have made it to the top of Everest and, statistically, one climber in every four is destined to die on its slopes.

The irony of the K2 expedition was that 28 of the 30 climbers who set out successfully completed the dangerous ascent to the top and several poignant pictures in the book show them exhausted but exhilarated, pumping their fists into a clear blue sky.

It was as they began the journey down that disaster struck... even before the six-storey high arching ice mountain toppled, a Serbian climber briefly unclipped his rope and fell to his death prompting an experienced Sherpa to warn of ‘bad karma’.

When the half-mile long crevasse eventually cracked and broke above the famous Bottleneck gully, avalanches of glacial ice obliterated the landscape and severed guiding ropes that had been carefully laid by the climbers.

Several of the party died in that first devastating ice fall – most cannoning down the Bottleneck – and others were left to wander in the mountain’s high altitude ‘Death Zone’ looking for a way down.

From here on in, it was survival of the fittest.

Delays in reaching the summit, overcrowding and poor judgment have all been cited as contributing factors to the disaster.

In reality, the full truth of what happened at 28,000ft may never be known but one thing is certain - the horror of those events will not stop others from following in the footsteps of the dead.

Reading Bowley’s gripping and panoramic story, it’s sometimes difficult to believe he wasn’t with those mountaineers every step of the way as he brings to life both the euphoria and the devastation.

No Way Down is a worthy successor to the best-selling Into Thin Air and Touching the Void. Shocking, sad and yet strangely thrilling, this is a story that grips to the very last page.

(Penguin, paperback, £9.99)