Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald
I really loved Bernadette McDonald's Winter 8000: it's a compelling read, certain to quickly become a classic of mountaineering literature. The insight into what Revol calls ‘the great Himalayan solitude’ is really fascinating, and I found myself captivated by these incredible tales of heroism and tragedy, friendships and rivalries played out over an immense scale. I'm already looking forward to a re-read!
It is a struggle to imagine isolation more complete than that experienced on the 8,000ers in winter. It’s difficult to understand what could compel someone to willingly and repeatedly venture into the deep suffering of climbing in winter, to take on so high a risk with such a slim chance of success. Winter 8000 highlights the sheer difficulty of these ascents, and the single-mindedness and drive of those who choose to go despite – or perhaps because of – the risk.
McDonald threads together the stories of those pulled towards these places – towards the cold, the loneliness, the harshness – into a visceral narrative. The history of these mountains in winter is a vast one, and a difficult one to tell sensitively I think, with its mix of joyful triumphs and shocking tragedy. McDonald navigates through it with skill and compassion, celebrating the heroics and incredible feats of human strength.
Perhaps unusually for a book of this scope, each chapter stands alone as utterly gripping (and occasionally harrowing). It perfectly captures the obsession and the sacrifice needed to climb in these conditions, and the cruelty of winter so high up – the huge amount of luck needed for any successful ascent.
On every expedition, the thinnest of lines hovers between survival and tragedy. McDonald’s real skill is in how human she makes these stories: not robotic heroes, but men and women who pay the very real cost of climbing in such unforgivable conditions, and families left with an emptiness after tragic accidents. Mountaineering books often paint the occasional death as an unavoidable consequence of pushing your limits in the mountains, but here each death is counted and felt individually.
There’s a fascinating thread running through these accounts as technology develops over the years: the tension between the relief of being able to access regular and reliable forecasts versus the pressure of constant access to social media. The technical discussions of what officially counts as a winter ascent are a refreshing pull back from the rawness of each ascent, and I enjoyed the glimpses into how each expedition team is pulled together behind the scenes, with a quick discussion of the negotiations and complex logistics required to set each one up.
(I was provided with a free copy by Vertebrate Publishing in exchange for an honest review.)
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Predominantly climbing/outdoors literature, mountaineering history and nature writing.