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Getting High 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & decade ago, Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air raised compelling questions about the deadly over-commercialization of the Mount Everest industry: expensive expeditions aimed at helping relatively inexperienced mountaineers say that they've been to the top of the world. Everest stole 15 lives back in 1996; in a classic case of right guy/right place/wrong time, Krakauer was there to report on several of those deaths. Confessional, controversial, environmentally minded and philosophical, Into Thin Air is one of those masterful nonfiction books that has crossover appeal even for those who don't much care about mountain climbing. & r & & r & WEB-ONLY FEATURE: Interview Out-takes with Nick Heil.





And now Nick Heil has written its sequel. The 2006 season on Everest was the second-deadliest ever: Eleven climbers died, and Heil -- on assignment for Outside magazine, just as Krakauer had been 10 years before -- made it up to 23,000-foot level on Everest to do the reporting that would lead to Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season (to be published this week by Henry Holt).





"In '96, the deaths were the result of a storm, " Heil notes. "In 2006, the weather was great -- astonishingly good. To my mind, this wasn't man versus nature -- this was man versus man. This was operator error.





"So the question of who was at fault -- questions full of moral ambiguity -- swirl around. Frankly -- and not to take anything away from Krakauer -- but this was just a richer situation, richer and more nuanced, about the human condition. "





Heil checks off the ways in which Dark Summit is a successor to Krakauer's work: "It's 10 years after. We're on the other [north] side of the mountain -- in China, which has great interest, obviously, for lots of people right now. And it's with an entirely new set of characters. "





In May 2006, Brice acted as guide to some motley mountaineers, including a double amputee and an accident-prone motorcycle rider with several pounds of metal in his head and legs. But let Heil continue the list: "an asthmatic triathlete from Denmark who was trying to climb without oxygen, and a 65-year-old Frenchman who, I am not kidding, a month before had had his cancerous kidney removed, and had asked the doctors to remove it through his stomach, not his back -- so that when he was climbing, his backpack wouldn't rub on the stitches. "





A fairly determined bunch, then. Heavily invested in the expedition, too: Even when paying Brice about $40,000 each, they were getting a bargain. The going rate for a full-service expedition on the other (south) side of Everest is $65,000.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite his self-description as "not really a hardcore mountaineer, " Heil is well qualified to challenge Krakauer for the title of King of the Scary Mountain Tales. After high school in Virginia, college in Pennsylvania and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana, he worked for a half-dozen years in the '90s teaching English at Whitworth and writing and editing here at The Inlander.





It was around then that he turned to face the mountains. "I got my introduction to climbing while in Spokane and the Inland Northwest, " he says. "I still credit the Spokane Mountaineers -- they were responsible for my getting the best introduction possible to the sport. I was in their mountain safety school back in '95, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been climbing in that way. We went up and climbed the Canadian Rockies, Rainier, Mount Baker, the Cascades. And of course I went rock climbing at Minnehaha. "





To prove it, he even has a dog named Minnie.





In 2005-06, Outside magazine twice sent Heil to the Himalayas to do stories. So how did the Santa Fe, N.M., resident prepare? "I live at 7,000 feet, so that's a good start toward decent acclimatization, " he says. "We have access to 12,000-foot peaks here, and I do a bit of backcountry skiing -- there's a lot of climbing while doing that, and that's a great way to condition for the mountains. "





That "bit of backcountry skiing " included the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse: 40 miles of nighttime backcountry skiing by flashlight from Crested Butte, Colorado, to Aspen. "Finished middle of the pack, " Heil says. "Took us 13 hours. That gives you an idea. "





What's difficult for the uninitiated to get an idea about, though, are the effects of high altitude. Heil had already climbed an 18,000-foot Himalayan mountain called Cholatse, just 12 miles from Everest. But even that experience, along with all his training, didn't prepare him for the 23,000-foot elevation of Everest's North Col camp (which is still a vertical mile beneath the summit): 40-below temperatures. Bent over double, gasping for air. Sunshine so bright that he had to wear shades inside his tent. Clumps of hair falling out.





"It was astonishing to me how slowly I moved, " he says. "I'm in reasonably good shape, but I couldn't take more than five steps at a time. It's a strange experience: Everything's OK, but you just can't power your muscles. "





"It [climbing Everest] is every bit as dangerous and scary as it is made out to be. You know, hardcore climbers sniff at it. And there are lots of amateurs swarming up there with a lot of oxygen. But it's not just idiots who are dying up there. "





Nick Heil's Dark Summit will be published by Henry Holt on April 29. Heil will read from his book on Tuesday, May 20, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore. Visit outside.away.com or call 838-0206.





INTERVIEW OUT-TAKES w/ Nick Heil (4/19/2008)





Dark Summit centers on the commercial climbing operation on Everest run by Russell Brice, an aggressive New Zealander with a controversial reputation among mountaineers. Heil weaves a rounded portrait of Brice: belligerent and vindictive, but also in full control of the best operation on Everest's slopes; guiltless in the death of a British climber, David Sharp, who was fading fast at very high elevation and beyond help in any case, but also quick to suppress reports of the murder of a Buddhist nun by the Chinese army -- all because Brice's Himalayan operations depend on the fragile relations he has with the Chinese government. Yet as Heil notes, Brice is also a legendary climber with phenomenal stamina.





In May 2006, Brice acted as guide to some motley mountaineers, including a double amputee and an accident-prone motorcycle rider with several pounds of metal in his head and legs. But let Heil continue the list: "an asthmatic triathlete from Denmark who was trying to climb without oxygen, and a 65-year-old Frenchman who, I am not kidding, a month before had had his cancerous kidney removed, and had asked the doctors to remove it through his stomach, not his back -- so that when he was climbing, his backpack wouldn't rub on the stitches. "





A fairly determined bunch, then. Heavily invested in the expedition, too: Even when paying Brice about $40,000 each, they were getting a bargain. The going rate for a full-service expedition on the other (south) side of Everest is $65,000.





Heil says that publicity for the book has recently "gone from zero to 60. "





"With magazine pieces, it goes out into the void and there's never much of a chance to have a dialogue about it and exchange ideas.. The difference is that with a book, you actually get to talk about it. Though people have had nice things to say about my stories. "





on Russell Brice:





"I do absolve Brice of wrongdoing in the David Sharp incident. But I sort of raised an eyebrow over the shooting of the Chinese nun.





"He's been treated generously by me in the book. Brice can be abrasive and rude, but I have a lot of respect for the operation he runs, and in maintaining his permits year in and year out [with the Chinese government].





Both for the story and the book, I worked hard to get access to Brice, and I have spent more time with him than any other journalist. So this is a report from inside the operation.





"A lot of judgments on the '06 season are coming from people who have been slighted by Brice in the past, or who hold a grudge against him.





"He can be belligerent and vindictive. He really has not been very willing to cooperate with the press, as a kind of defensiveness.





"I think a lot of the time that people read about themselves, they find it hard to hear the candid opinions of other people. I ultimately like Brice and come down on the favorable side of him. But it's a warts-and-all portrait, and some people don't like to see their own warts. "





on Brice's physical condition:





"He's in great shape. He's such a seasoned climber. In my book, there's a great deal of history about Brice's personal climbing history. He has summated Everest twice, on a lot of the significant routes when he was younger. He has paraglided off the sixth-highest mountain in the world. He has run balloons over Everest - this was back in '91, I believe - the first time hot-air balloons were flown over Everest, which is a considerable logistical challenge.





"The thing about Brice is, most people only know him as the accused in the David Sharp thing. And if you saw the Discovery Channel documentary, Beyond the Limit, you only see him as a domineering commercial operator. But he's a very serious climber. Brice simply does what he does better than anyone else. He's so steeped in a lifelong capacity, on the big peaks. And I don't think that should be undervalued. That's incredibly important. "





on Lincoln Hall:





"There should have been 12 deaths that season [2006]. Lincoln Hall defies all the historically accepted parameters ... nobody without food or water or oxygen or a tent has ever survived overnight on that ridge. And for him to survive, it just shows how lucky and skilled he was. "





on the two main routes up Mount Everest:





"The Southwest and Northeast ridges are the two main routes. Coming from Nepal, it's fairly steep, but you get into the summit and out of the really dangerous altitude really fast. On the Northeast Ridge, which is almost like a balcony, but it's almost a mile long. So it's a very shallow ridge at a low angle, but you're at extreme altitude much longer.





"People who haven't been to altitude can't fully appreciate how dangerous it can be. "





on the dangers of mountaineering:





Heil himself has "had some close shaves in the mountains: almost hit by falling rocks on Mount Baker, hypothermia on Mount Rainier, caught in an avalanche here in New Mexico (only partially buried and dug myself out). Plus countless falls, tumbles and out-of-control slides. "





Because he has climbed our regional hill, Mount Rainier, and made it most of the way up Everest, I was hoping to get from Heil a sense of just how difficult climbing the highest of the Himalayas is. So I prompted him with an analogy: If summiting Rainier were like running a 10K, then conquering Everest would be like ... running an ultramarathon?





"More like running several ultramarathons back to back, " came his reply. "Climbing Everest is several orders of magnitude more difficult than climbing Rainier. "





on his first trip to the Himalayas:





"In 2005, Outside sent me to the Himalayas to do a story on this ophthalmologist who was curing cataract blindness. I was over there with a bunch of North Face athletes. In Nepal -- people don't realize, but in developing countries, cataracts are serious. Here, it's an outpatient procedure. "





on writing a book:





"I really never thought I would write an Everest book. You know, most writers are cynical about Everest. "





In 2007, Heil made it to the North Col at 23,000 feet on Everest, still a vertical mile beneath the summit.





'From high camp to the summit, on summit day, it's nine hours roundtrip at the fastest, and sometimes 20 hours. One of the guys on my expedition was this Japanese man. He's 71, and he's the oldest person ever to summit at Everest. Took him, like, 20 hours. "





on whether he'd go back:





"I have no plans to go back. I'm intrigued, but it's not like I have $40,000 lying around to spend on climbing Everest -- and even if I did, I can think of a lot of things I'd rather do with that kind of money.





"Honestly, I have a lot of respect for those who do it. But it's not really the pinnacle of mountaineering that a lot of people think. Really, it's a grind. It's just a big, long slog. The emphasis isn't necessarily on the climbing.





"I like climbs where I'm not as nervous about the altitude - and that are more technical. Everest is more about a climber just putting his head down and just forging on, you know? "





on Jon Krakauer:





"I'm a huge Krakauer fan. I've heard through the journalistic grapevine that he's working on a book about Pat Tillman, the pro football player who got killed in Iraq. "

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