Interview with Nick Heil, award winning author of Dark Summit: Part 1

Nick Heil, award winning author of Dark SummitNick Heil, award winning author of Dark Summit

DS: Dark Summit, the book written by you narrates the true story of the Everest 2006 season. What made you want to write about what had transpired?

NH: After I wrote the original magazine piece for Men’s Journal in Aug 2006, I felt there was a bigger story to be told. I hadn’t heard much about Everest’s north side, or the individual (Russell Brice) and outfitter (Himex) that seemed to be at the center of the controversy. I was also interested in telling the deeper stories of the climbers involved, specifically David Sharp, Lincoln Hall, Thomas Weber, and the others involved. I felt as though much of the mainstream media that had hooked into the story was either getting it wrong, incomplete, or both, since it was feeding off of internet reports that were impassioned but not necessarily reliable.

DS: Best sellers in mountain literature often focus on controversies and dramatic events. The Discovery channel TV crew also attempted the same in the Everest 2006 season. Unnecessary or necessary media motivations, you’d think from a mountaineer’s and a journalist’s perspective? You’ve worn both hats.

NH: I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we all love the drama and adventure that are part of our experiences in mountain environments. Media tends to exploit this, since it’s a way to move books and magazines, or draw in a large tv audience. As a journalist who tries to take his work seriously, and who enjoys and respects mountains, I’m always keenly interested in the forces that shapes the various narratives about those adventures. I respect those who try to do this work with honesty and integrity, but all too often I think commercial interests and, in this age of internet voyeurism, righteousness and opinion muddy the waters.

DS: The 1996 season spawned tons of Everest content. Comparatively, K2’s chaotic summer in 1986 only resulted in Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy. Puzzling fixation; a larger than life mythology which surrounds Everest? What factors have contributed to this imagery?

NH: Everest’s iconic status as THE tallest peak in the world has always held it in favor when it comes to the public imagination. There’s been a long history of media attention given to the mountain, tracking back to the British expeds of the 1920s. I don’t think the general public knows enough to distinguish between K2 and Everest–in short, they’re both big peaks where people get killed–even if K2 is a more dangerous and difficult mountain by orders of magnitude. It didn’t hurt either that the 1996 tragedy involved a highly skilled and bestselling author (Krakauer) who already had a large following.

DS: How easy or difficult is it for an author to remain objective when capturing and detailing a “controversial” canvas?

NH: Complete objectivity is impossible under any circumstances. I consider non-fiction storytelling to adhere to slightly different rules, which I’ve described in the past as carefully considered subjective reality. What I mean by this is that any serious writer is obligated to perform as much due diligence as possible when it comes to reporting and research, and that they must then synthesize and present that information in a way that best represents the facts of the situation. For example, when it came to the most controversial aspects in Dark Summit, like who encountered David Sharp, the British climber who died, at what time, and under what circumstances, I spoke with as many people as I could who were able to corroborate specific details: what kind of shape was he in? what was said? etc. I still can’t be 100 percent sure that my account of that scene is entirely accurate compared with what actually transpired. But what I am 100 percent sure of is, that is the best possible account based on the information provided by the dozen or so people who were actually involved.

DS: To most first timers and dreamers, Mount Everest and its ilk will continue to represent all that’s good in mankind ~ determination, teamwork, fellowship, endurance, courage, hope ~. 1996 and Everest 2006 seem to question this very foundation. Your thoughts.

NH: I think there is still a lot of those virtuous qualities among the crowd on Everest, but it’s been distorted by media events like 1996 and 2006. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going and climbing the thing, if that’s what they dream of. But go climb other mountains too. I think our most valuable experiences, the ones that really instill character and good values, don’t occur in such public arenas like Everest has become. All the money and sponsorship and, more recently, media activity, has skewed things a bit. It’s not evil, but it’s not entirely pure either. I think climbing Everest is an accomplishment to be proud of, but if you’re only after it as a trophy to put on your mantel then I think you’ve missed the point.

DS: Have we reached a point of no return or is there still hope?

NH: There’s hope.

DS: Have technological advancements in mountaineering eaten away its soul and spirit? (As climbers have become lighter, faster, stronger, no goal seems to be beyond reach. So teamwork be damned, personal ambition and success are hallowed turf to tread on.)

NH: Technology is a tool, no more no less. The question we have to ask, I think, is whether a given technology is getting us closer to the more meaningful and timeless experiences that are of genuine lasting value. I’m no luddite, but when hardware, software, and other gadgetry begin to compromise our deep connection to the natural world, and, for that matter, each other, then I think we should take another look at it.

DS: “Managing ambitions” on a summit attempt can’t be easy esp. when faced with an eclectic group with varied backgrounds and aspirations. Does this demand different skill sets and leadership traits in commercial operators?

NH: What I want to see, among the commercial operators, is a commitment to safety and a full understanding of the risks of a guide-client relationship. I came away from my reporting on the book feeling that Brice and Himex exemplify this. Problem is, it’s expensive and a lot of hard work and high stress. The cut-rate shops who exploit the dreamers with deep pockets are the ones having problems, but I want to see a time when everyone is accountable, climbers and commercial outfitters. I think on the whole it’s getting better, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement over there.

DS: Should the 8000ers be restricted only to the professionals from the fraternity? A possible solution to avoid 1996 or 2006?

NH: I don’t want to see those kinds of restrictions put in place. Who would manage it? What I want is for those who aspire to climb on big peaks to appreciate that this kind of thing is a process, not just a goal.

(continues in Part 2)

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