Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide and Everest's Deadliest Day
University of New Mexico Press (2020, 214 pp.)
To climb Mount Everest - at 29,029 feet, the tallest peak in the world - one prepares for every misery known to humankind such as oxygen deprivation, gastrointestinal malfunction, organ shutdown, extreme temperatures, plunging through crevasses and suffocation and skull crush by avalanche - but earthquake is not one of them.
Until the spring of 2015.
"Is this normal?" one of the 2015 RMI Expedition members wondered as the earth began to shake "like jello" where they were sheltered at Camp One, in Everest's shadow at 19,689 feet, on April 25.
The 10-man expedition's leader, Taos' own veteran mountain guide Dave Hahn, knew it was not normal, having summited the singularly treacherous peak 15 times by then, in every other kind of severe condition since his first success in 1994.
The last major earthquake in Nepal had been in 1934, the author, Taos teacher Jennifer Hull, informs in this exciting, exhausting narrative. At a magnitude of 8.0, the epicenter 6 miles south of Everest, the earthquake killed over 16,000 people.
In fact, the Himalayan Mountains were formed by the collision of two massive tectonic plates, the Indo-Australian and the Asian, over the last 50 million years, "as India slowly squeezed up from below and forced up the lip of Asia, like a piecrust rising off the plate," writes Hull. The friction continues to thrust the mountains higher by a rate of 1.77 inches every year. And the "pent-up seismic pressure would eventually, inevitably, need to be released," Hull foreshadows.
While no one in RMI's 2015 expedition - consisting of six seasoned clients, two base camp trekkers, two guides, one Sherpa sirdar (leader) and one base camp manager - had considered an earthquake hindering their ascent, they were all keenly apprehensive of the deadly avalanches the so-called Khumbu Icefall corridor was prone to - and indeed had resulted in the death of 16 climbers the spring before.
So what is the appeal of this misery, exactly? For the Native Sherpas, the mountain they know as Chomolungma, "Mother Goddess of the Earth," was to be revered as the dwelling of the gods, while Westerners regarded her as a goal to be conquered. "Because it's there," British trekker George Mallory famously responded to the question of why he wanted to climb Everest. He and climbing partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine disappeared during their historic attempt to reach the summit in June 1924.
For Hahn, it was a job, his life's work. In a wild moment of irony, 75 years after Mallory's death, in 1999, Hahn was one of those leading a search team that found the intact body of Mallory on Everest's North Face at 27,000 feet, where he and Irvine had apparently fallen to their deaths.
Hence, Hahn's legendary career as a search-and-rescue guide, and one much trusted throughout his long career having scaled the vast reaches of Alaska's Denali, Antarctica's Vinson Massif, Africa's Kilimanjaro, South America's Aconcagua and Nepal's Cho Oyu, among others. He holds the record of any non-Nepali for the most Everest summits.
Hull's work develops chronologically, as the RMI team moves through what promised to be an eight-week slog, from arrival in Kathmandu to four successive base camps before the perilous pitch to the top. She switches points of view and shares individual blog entries, so that the reader gets a sense of the different personalities of the mostly middle-aged, well-off American male clients (CEOs, a venture capitalist) who funded the "upward of $70,000" group climb. Moreover, the trekkers mingle at the various base camps and cross trails with numerous international climbing groups, as helicopter tours circle maddeningly overhead, in what has become a massively vainglorious tourist industry that Nepal is taking pains to control, especially in terms of waste left by the climbers and exploitation of the Sherpas.
Throughout this dogged work, Hull's portrait of Hahn is most compelling - there is a quiet humility about this steadfast guide through the extremes of human endurance. He is patient - for example, in his requisite interview upon arrival in Kathmandu with the ferociously exact Elizabeth Hawley, at 92 the doyenne of Everest record-keeping - and he is strenuously prepared, unassuming and, most important, calm in the moment of catastrophe.
Hull first met Hahn when he visited her Taos Middle School classroom in 2000; subsequently, she became the one to tell his earthquake story rather than himself - because, he told her, he would rather be climbing.