Interview with Nick Heil, award winning author of Dark Summit: Part 2

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

(continues from Part 1)

DS: Is it possible to learn to trust your inner instincts on the 8000ers? (Russel Brice defaulted at the start of the 2006 season and so did Ed Viesturs while climbing K2 in 1992).

NH: It’s certainly possible, and valuable, to trust them, although, obviously, they won’t always be right. Instinct helps guard against the heuristic trap, that is, making decisions based on objective criteria (e.g. weather, wind, temp, etc.) when your gut is saying something’s not right. I think the best climbers and guides learn to balance the two. It doesn’t eliminate risk, but it doesn’t allow risk to prevent obtaining your objective.

DS: Did you ever feel the need to listen to your inner voice while on the highest trek in the world to the North Col?

NH: Hmmmmm. Truth is, I’m listening to my inner voice all the time, and my North Col climb was no exception. This was the highest I’d gone by more than 5K feet so I had no idea how my body was going to react. But I took things slow, was very dilligent about hydration and rest, and made it without any serious problems.

DS: How was it to climb to the North Col at 23000 feet? Describe it for our readers, including what you saw up there, your first thoughts and emotions amongst others.

NH: Trekking up to the North Col is a rewarding experience, especially if you’re intrigued by high-altitude adventure but lack technical climbing experience. The last leg, from Advanced Base Camp, at about 21K to the col is pretty sporting. You ascend a steep, crevasse-riddled headwall with the help of fixed lines and jumars, which are mechanical clamps that slide up the rope and will arrest a fall should you slip. The altitude really bites up here, so it’s slow going. My hands and feet began tingling halfway up, which a few folks who know more about high-altitude physiology than I do told me was likely the effects of the Diamox I was using. It took about 4 hours to reach the col, which is a narrow saddle at the bottom of the North Ridge that links up with Changste, next to Everest. The views are pretty tremendous, as you might expect. You can see far out across the Tibetan Plateau to the north, with the east Rongbuk glacier snaking below. The summit of Everest seems close from here, though it’s still a vertical mile above. I spent about an hour on the col, and felt like total crap the whole time! I would not want to spend the night there as I could feel myself deteriorating. I began to fall into a kind of stupor (even though I ate a snickers bar and an apple) and Brice finally had to yell at me and head back down to ABC, where I felt much much better.

DS: What makes the West ridge more demanding than the Northeast or even the more popular Southeast ridge of Everest?

NH: I provide a bit of description of the West Ridge in Dark Summit, and got a glimpse of it while on the north side in 2007. It’s steep and technical and therein lies the difficulty. You just cant move very quickly and at that altitude you MUST move quickly, or relatively slow. The one image that I think I first came across in Tom Hornbein’s classic The West Ridge, is how the rock up there is like loose, sloping roof tiles. I can’t imagine more difficult terrain than that, with the mind-numbing exposure and lethal altitude.

DS: Dark Summit mentions the “Pinnacles” on the Northeast ridge as being extremely difficult to cross. From your research and understanding, why do you think this is so?

NH: Like the West Ridge, the Pinnacles are a cluster of rock towers at about 27,500 feet that you either have to go up and over or traverse around. Either way, it’s daunting and dangerous. Brice was the first to successfully do this, and it took him and Harry Taylor two days to cross them. The pinnacles claimed the lives of Boardman and Tasker so you know they were formidable. You can see them clearly from ABC on the north side and they do indeed look terrifying, like shark’s teeth, as I describe them in the story.

DS: On all the 3 routes,which sections should climbers be wary of and why? Eg. On the Southeast route, it’s the Khumbu Icefall and perhaps the Hillary Step

NH: Well, yes. The icefall has claimed many lives. It’s been said it’s the deadliest part of the mountain but I did the math and as of 2006 more people have died on the North East Ridge. That’s because it’s nearly a horizontal mile above 28K, so just spending that much time at that altitude is dangerous. The Second Step is the crux, and a good handful of people have died there. Either from falls or illness, like Thomas Weber in Dark Summit. I think the entire West Ridge is dangerous, but it hardly ever gets climbed and I can’t imagine any commercial expeditions would ever try it.

DS: From Dark Summit. we know what Edward Whymper said about climbing after summitting the Matterhorn in 1865, we know what Francis Younghusband and George Mallory had to say about climbing Everest. What does Nick Heil say about the 8000ers and on man’s relentless motivation to climb?

NH: Climb on! Seriously though, I think mountaineering, particularly on the big peaks, has always, and will continue to, serve as a powerful source of inspiration for many people. It’s a wonderfully simply and direct metaphor, toiling upward in the face of danger and risk, to obtain a goal. It may seem pointless, but I really do think that climbing big challenging mountains will stand as a great human achievement. Hemingway understood. He said there were only three real sports: bull fighting, motor car racing, and mountaineering.

DS: Where has Nick Heil moved onto from Dark Summit?

NH: I’ve been looking into a story about K2, which is just beginning to see Everest-style commercial activity. Stay tuned for more on that topic. I climbed Kilimanjaro last fall on assignment for a magazine here in the states. It was my first trip to Africa and it was truly epic and amazing. It’s a great, great mountain. Tough because it’s big (19,341 ft) but accessible to almost any fit hiker. I would highly recommend it. Climb the Lemosho Route. It’s less crowded and more sporting than the more popular routes.

DS: Finally, a few words for your readers in India, on why they should read Dark Summit and the importance and significance of summitting Mount Everest (if any).

NH: You know, some of the research I most enjoyed was all the material dealing with Everest’s early history, during the Raj, when the Brits were just so determined to bag the summit. Everest is practically a history lesson in itself. I would hope that readers in India, like elsewhere, will appreciate this. But also, I hope that it speaks to people of any nationality on a deeply personal and human level. The story, ultimately, is about ambition and morality, about why we do what we do. Everest just happens to be a grand and dramatic stage on which to tell the story. Go see this part of the world. It’s truly one of life’s most extraordinary experiences.


Video Link: Nick Heil on Dark Summit and Everest’s Deadliest Season

Nick Heil on Dark Summit and Everest’s Deadliest Season from Book Passage on

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