Jennifer Jordan

In the literature of mountaineering, there are few stories greater than the 1953 U.S. attempt on K2, when the late Seattle climber Pete Schoening saved six rope-mates with “the belay.” Crucially, his heroism came while they were attempting to save and lower an ill member of their team. The prior U.S. expedition, in 1939, is less well remembered and considerably less admirable, as Jennifer Jordan relates in The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 (Norton, $26.95). Her protagonist, Dudley Wolfe, was a World War I ambulance driver and contemporary of Hemingway, the sort of rich international sportsman Hemingway might’ve met in Zermatt or St. Moritz. Capable enough to climb Mount Blanc, though in his 40s, Wolfe was enlisted to try K2—and help fund the attempt—by German-born expedition leader Fritz Wiessner, a rigid and somewhat controversial figure in alpine history. Dartmouth kids and a couple more rich sponsors filled out the party, which, fatally, never cohered into a team. In 1953, the team came before the peak. In 1939, without radios or oxygen, the team split apart, with Wiessner intent on the summit and Wolfe left alone in a tent in the Death Zone. Jordan, who actually found Wolfe’s remains in 2002, doesn’t need many pages to tell his sad story (based mainly on period accounts, plus some unwelcome novelistic passages). But seven decades later, the lesson is still timely: Choose your teammates wisely, or they may choose to leave you behind. BRIAN MILLER

Mon., Aug. 16, 7 p.m., 2010

 
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