- Nov 27, 2023
Book Review: “The Next Everest” by Jim Davidson
Those of you who are familiar with my writing about space know that I spend a lot of time on exploration and the risks that accompany it. “The Next Everest: Surviving the Mountain’s Deadliest Day and Finding the Resilience to Climb Again”, by Jim Davidson provides a gripping insight into what it is like to prepare for an ascent of Everest.
This engaging book is about what one has to do to survive when everything suddenly goes very wrong. Moreover, this book is about bouncing back from tragedy to exceed one’s capabilities to do the impossible – while risks continue to surround you every step of the way.
Davidson arrived in Nepal ready to attain a life’s dream only to have an earthquake shatter that dream and those of all around him while others nearby paid the ultimate price, Yet he made I back to Nepal and to the top of Everest a year later. This book is about how he did that.
One of my frustrations has always been that NASA and the space community often perceive and respond to risk in a way that is oddly different to the way that people engaged in risky endeavors – often involving explorations of a different sort. This experience with very personal risk assessments led me to propose and then co-chair a NASA event called “Risk and Exploration” in 2004. This event led me and others to many subsequent adventures.
Among our speakers and attendees where a number of mountaineers including Ed Viesturs (whom Scott and I met at Everest) and David Roberts. My co-chair was astronaut John Grunsfeld who is a mountaineer. While I have done some mountaineering I spent most of my time rock climbing, with a preference for very tall steep things. In 2009, while John orbited overhead fixing Hubble, I was living at Everest Base Camp for a month providing outreach support and working on a Discovery Channel show while another friend and mountaineer, astronaut Scott Parazynski, climbed Everest. My trip resulted in great part from that NASA Risk and Exploration event years before.
Although I was safe at Base Camp, while Scott took all the risks, this was an illusion. Scott failed on his first attempt in 2008 but made it to the summit in 2009. Before he did that we were both eyewitnesses to two of the largest avalanches seen at Everest for many years. My video footage of one of these avalanches has been featured in many TV specials and one feature film. It was that immense. Scott got caught in one of them and I went through half an hour of uncertainty about his status to deal with. But we always felt safe at Base Camp since nothing ever happened there. How wrong we were.
As was the case with shuttle accidents, decades of climbing seasons had convinced outfitters that the rocky terrain on the west side of the Khumbu glacier beneath the mountains Purmori and Lintgren was safe since avalanches never ever reached Base Camp. That was the explanation we all heard.
In 2015 Jim Davidson was half way up Everest when an enormous earthquake shook all of Nepal. Mountaineers were stranded on the mountain but more or less safe. But far below at Base Camp an avalanche from a unsuspected direction killed people. A large expanse of snow and ice hanging between Pumori and Lintgren let loose and swept through Base Camp with the force of a tsunami killing dozens. Six years earlier Scott and slept in our tents in a location that was in the midst of where people died in 2015. But it was always safe there so nothing could happen right? Sound familiar space people?
Davidson and his compatriots had to endure a harrowing helicopter ride down Everest to a scene that resembled a war time attack. In all 19 people were killed and 61 were injured. This came just a year after a terrible avalanche in 2014 where 16 sherpas were killed on the Khumbu Icefall during a horrendous avalanche. I was sadly reminded of each of these events since my footage of the 2009 avalanches had become – up until that point – the only video of the largest avalanche ever witnessed on Everest. Now there was footage that was far worse.
That’s the thing about climbing Everest. You only seem to hear about the bad stuff. That is not surprising since there is a lot of it. And it often eclipses the sheer immensity of accomplishing the climb. I was part of a TV production team so I got to see every aspect of the climb – minus the actual climb itself. I heard all of the radio traffic, counseled dejected climbers who had just retreated from their life long ambition to bag Everest, helped carry a stretcher with a dead sherpa boy to the helicopter pad, and later watched an avalanche sweep down the mountain that killed a sherpa guide whose tent was mere paces from nine. I got very sick and still suffer kidney issues to this day as a result. Yet my experience was mild by comparison to Jim Davidson’s.
Davidson used the exact same outfitter that Scott and I used which made this book all the more poignant since names were mentioned of people I spent a month with at Everest. We were all in good hands. While I have never written much about that (I should) Davidson manages to capture the life essence of so many people – not just dirty, cold visiting climbers, but the various people who assisted him in attaining his dream.
But all the risky escapades, bad food, and tales of awe an wonder aside, there is the one thing that powers and enables these feats – or causes them to fail: that internal thing that motivates you to surpass your limits, respect and utilize our fear, and temper all of this with the austere majesty of the place where this drama is acted out. There is also your life support system back home – the family who has put up with your obsessions for decades and knows that it will not be satiated until that once certain summit is attained. Every climber who climbs may seem to be carrying their body upward – alone. But in reality they take a choir of friends and family along with them in their heads.
Davidson goes into incredible detail of both of his Everest ascents. Strange things about climbs and adventures: if the circumstances are right the sheer audacity of what you are doing can inexorably weld the most intricate details of a climb into your mind.
I can recall my ascent of the insane pinnacle of Petit Grepon 30 years ago like it was yesterday. I can recall my trek up and down through the Solokhumbu region in Nepal almost step by step 12 years later with almost cinematographic clarity. Davidson has the same powers of recollection and is vastly better than I in describing them as brings you along almost every step, grunt, stumble, and leap as he traverses the dreaded Khumbu Icefall and up the Western Cwn to the summit of Everest.
Not everyone gets to climb Everest – or even wants to. But we all have things real and imagined that we need to conquer at one point or another. This is a book about how all of the needed factors can be weaved into a tapestry of success. It can apply to a space mission. Or, in this case, to stand in the Jet Stream atop Everest, Chomalungma, Goddess Mother of the World.
Thanks for the trip back to Everest, Jim.