Death in High Places - By Jo Bannister

THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW about mountains is that they don’t care. They’re not out to get you, nor have they any interest in keeping you alive. They are supremely indifferent to the presence of tiny humans among their crags and pinnacles. Every time you go to the mountains, you have to remember that they don’t care whether you come back.

People who spend a lot of time at sea say that sometimes—not always, not reliably, but sometimes—the sea seems to enjoy having you there. Provides for your comfort, tries to keep you safe. No one feels that way about mountains. They’re cold. And not just those jutting their heads into the region of perennial snows known as the Death Zone. There are desert mountains whose red rocks become too hot to touch under the unblinking sun, but at the heart of them even they are cold.

On the bright side, they’re not actually trying to kill you. But their very nature is hugely inimical to human survival. They don’t have to do anything to get you killed. Just being a mountain is often enough.

Which is precisely why young men climb. They embrace the challenge. They want to test themselves, test their manhood, in one of the few environments where the Health & Safety Inspectorate doesn’t get a look-in. The first time they approach a real killer mountain they’re like any other virgin, innocent, unprepared. Whatever they may tell their friends, they may be afraid every minute they’re up there. But even fear can be addictive. If you genuinely think you’re going to die, and then you don’t, the flood of euphoria is better than anything you can buy on a Friday night from men in hoodies. That’s what keeps you going back. You tell people you’re hooked on climbing. Actually, you’re hooked on coming back down.

The second thing you need to know about mountains is that a significant proportion of those who get to the top—who stand in triumph on the highest point of their chosen peak while their companions take bad photographs with chilled hands clumsy in big gloves—never see base camp again.

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Consider these two. They’re in their early twenties, as fit and strong as it’s possible for human beings to be. They have all the right gear. One of them, the taller, has brand-new high-tech clothing and kit in this year’s fashion color, which happens to be lime green. The other is wearing last year’s outfit and carrying a combination of sound old gear and newer stuff bought secondhand from climbers who care what color’s in fashion. None of it matches. All of it is good quality and well maintained.

People who saw them setting out, days ago and many miles away across the trackless foothills, assumed that he was the guide and the taller man in the Day-Glo green was the client. In fact they were mistaken about that. They’re both amateurs, in the truest sense of the word, young men who’ve crossed first an ocean and then a continent to reach their chosen mountain, to pit themselves against an untried peak in one of the few parts of the world where you can still find such a thing—Alaska. The only reason for the difference in their appearance is that one has more money than the other.

Right now they’re running on anticipation. Their bodies are tired—they’ve carried their kit a long way over broken terrain, and they’ll carry it a good deal farther before they can finally start the climb proper—but their minds are buzzing with excitement. An expedition like this doesn’t come together in a bar on a Saturday night. They’ve been planning it for two years. They’ve done plenty of climbs together in that time, at home in Britain, in the European Alps, in the High Atlas of North Africa. But Alaska has always been the goal, and almost since they started their research this mountain has been the one they wanted. Mostly because there’s no record of its having been climbed before. It’s not as high as Mount McKinley. It’s probably not the hardest climb in the state. But it’s a chance to set their boots on slopes that may never have felt them before, and the romance of that captivates them. They’ll deny it to their dying day, but all climbers are romantics.

They’ve seen pictures. Aerial photographs of the summit, and pictures taken by earlier expeditions of the approaches and also the main obstacle to success, an exposed ridge two-thirds of the